“2012, then 14, 16 and 17, and now 2019… It will be my fifth time”, George Bennett (Team Jumbo-Visma) recounts ahead of the 2019 Amgen Tour of California. The 2017 overall winner of America’s biggest cycling race is ready to claim back his Californian title after observing the young Egan Bernal (Team Sky) rise to glory last year. And he’s coming “with a strong team and with ambitions” for the UCI World Tour 7-stage race, rolling this year from Sacramento to Pasadena (12-18 May).
Born to cycling in New Zealand before moving to Europe as a teenager and growing as a professional athlete with American teams, Bennet is a 28-year-old accomplished globetrotter always keen to head for California. “It’s one of the nicest races of the year”, he explains ahead of the only American World Tour stage-race. “It used to be more relaxed than the European races but the intensity has gone up with the race going World Tour. It’s a great event in a beautiful place.”
The Kiwi rider feels “very at ease in California. There’s something between New-Zealand and the USA, we’re very alike, except for the occasional political beefs”, he laughs. “If we say California, the first thing I think of is the ocean. And also the music. I like some Led Zeppelin, Tupac… Yeah, all those vibes that came from California.”
George Bennett enjoyed this special relationship since his first pedal strokes in California. “I remember it as the highlight of my season in 2012”, he says. “We came with the defending champion, and we were an American team (RadioShack) so it was a very important event for us.” The then 22-year-old climber made it to Los Angeles in the top-50, almost half an hour behind the overall winner Robert Gesink, and discovered the struggles induced by the Mt Baldy on the way to the city of dreams.
Five years later, the iconic ‘bald’ climb was featured again on the race. And a fully grown Bennett had moved from the gruppetto to the front positions, finishing third at the summit on his way to the overall victory. “It’s the moment when I really established myself as a contender for stage-races”, Bennett recalls. “It was very challenging and with surprises. I wanted to win on Mt Baldy but I came out third. And then the next day I took the yellow jersey in the time trial, which I didn’t expect at all.”
“I’d like to win again”, he explains now. “Without a time-trial this year, it might be harder for me but we’ll look for opportunities to create differences.” Mt Baldy is expected to play a major part this year and the Kiwi star knows it very well: “It’s a brutal climb. You have a strong bunch at the bottom and then it gets really steep and it splits all over the road. It can get very hot too. In 2017 we were three fighting for the win, with Rafal Majka and Andrew Talansky. You have to go first in the last curve to win it.”