George Bennett is back at the site of his breakthrough victory in world cycling – but a repeat performance is going to require an even greater display.
Bennett has returned to the Tour of California, where he claimed his first and so far only World Tour overall victory in 2017. After spending last year at the Giro d'Italia, where he claimed eighth overall – the best ever Grand Tour finish by a New Zealand rider – he is back for another shot at glory in California, starting tomorrow.
This time, he'll be up against some elite competition. While a large chunk of the world's best riders are currently racing at the Giro, Bennett will still have to deal with the likes of German all-rounder Max Schachmann, Australian climber Richie Porte, former Tour de France runner-up Rigoberto Uran, and 20-year-old climbing sensation Tadej Pogacar.
While Bennett still has his eyes on a second victory, he knows he'll need to be near his best.
"It's a super good field, so it'd be a bit self-limiting if I said it was a failure if I didn't win. A podium would be a nice result, though I can't say I'd be super happy. There's just so many good guys, you could have the best race of your life and someone better could show up," he told Radio Sport.
His biggest rival could well be Pogacar, already the winner of the Volta ao Algarve this year. While Uran has a good team, including rising star Sergio Higuita, it is his first race back after breaking his collarbone. Porte is out of form and hasn't raced since March, and although Schachmann could take a bunch of stage wins in reduced sprints, he will probably lose time on the penultimate stage to Mount Baldy.
With no time trials in the race, it isn't a bad course for Bennett, who pinpoints the Mount Baldy climb - 7.6 kilometres at an average gradient of 8.8 per cent - as where the race will be won.
However, he'll need to do it without teammate Sepp Kuss, who was shifted from the Californian tour to the Giro, to support the race favourite, Primoz Roglic. Kuss, who utterly dominated the Tour of Utah last year, was set to be Bennett's support in the mountains, and his absence is 'a big loss' for the Kiwi.
"He was a big asset to me, as an altitude specialist and a really good climber. It means I have to change tactics a little bit. He was needed in Italy, and I won't complain about that, but it has left a little bit of a hole in terms of climbing in our team."
Bennett will also need to avoid any repeat of his last race, at the Tour of the Basque Country. For just the second time in the last two years, he finished a stage race outside of the top 12, slumping to 22nd – something he puts down to a one-off blunder.
"Get a rain jacket – that was the main takeaway. I was riding pretty well there but we had a big mix-up with the clothing. It was too cold and we just couldn't get enough kit on and couldn't keep warm enough. When you're shivering for four or five hours, that's the end of your race. There's no margin for error and you pay the price.
"When you have a light schedule early in the year like me, you really want to take your chances and make the most of these races, so when something stupid goes wrong that's not directly related to your legs or your form, it is super frustrating."
With confidence that such a mistake won't happen again, Bennett is now excited to try and add a second World Tour victory to his palmares.
"It was such a special experience [in 2017], and it's something completely different to try and come back and replicate that. So far everything's tracking well though, and I've got high hopes."