There are always multiple stories that emerge from a stage race and the MERCO Credit Union Cycling Classic was no exception. One obvious one was the BISSELL domination. Another one was the smart racing of John Bennett of the California Giant Berry Farms/Specialized team.
Only on his second year of racing of the road, the 20-year old not only used his strength on the bike but his brains to finish fifth overall and win the U25 classification.
Bennett was not thinking about the white jersey coming in the race. “I’ve come a long way from last year and coming into this season I didn’t really know where I was fitness wise so I hadn’t really set any goals for myself coming into the races. I did a couple of races earlier on, I did very well, I won a couple of road races and I’ve been racing collegiate but all more local stuff, and it’s not as hard as the bigger races so I didn’t know where I was heading into Merco. I knew on paper but paper doesn’t come over to racing and so I was really pleased with how I did and how I was able to ride Merco.”
As a high-school freshman, Bennett joined the NorCal High School Mountain Bike League where he did quite well.
“I raced freshmen my first year, JV my second and Varsity my last two years in high school and I won each category overall each year. I got faster, it’s a really good environment for beginning the sport because it gives you the category where you can excel and then when you do well in one category, you’re able to move up to the next, and the jump in between each category is very minimal. It gives you to progress at your own speed.”
Interestingly Bennett no longer really races mountain bikes, doing only 3 mountain bike races in his 80-race schedule last year. “I just train on my mountain bike. It’s good because I don’t enjoy mountain bike racing but I really enjoy mountain bike riding and training and it’s the opposite for road, I don’t really enjoy road riding but I enjoy road racing.”
You see he enjoys the tactics of road racing. “Road racing is a lot more tactical and you have to think about what you do, and it’s more social and from my point of view it’s not nearly as hard I guess,” he laughed, “as mountain bike racing for me. Mountain bike racing is really just brutal, it’s two and half hour time trial, not really tactical, just go hard and when your legs hurt, you go harder if you can.”
Tactics bring us back to MERCO.
4 vs 1. Those were the odds that Bennett faced at the end of the first stage. He knew that BISSELL was going to stack the move and position was key.
“I’d set myself up in a good spot when we hit the climb and because I assumed that the move that would stick would go over the top of the climb because that was really the decisive part of the race for most people. So I set myself up in the top spots for the climb and then that’s where the move went and I just followed wheels over the top, and found myself with the entire BISSELL team and a couple of other guys.” Bennett chuckled.
Three laps into the 82-mile Merced Immigration District Road Race, Bennett found himself outnumbered in the break.
“Obviously BISSELL was in control and so I knew that there weren’t going to be happy with just towing us around because it was just three of us and the entire team effectively. I was pretty much waiting for people to head up the road, I followed wheels for a little while, and made a smaller selection of myself, a Kelly Benefit rider and I think there four other BISSELL guys at the time, maybe five.”
After following the right wheels, Bennett made the next selection but was still outnumbered with only one non-BISSELL rider, Julian Kyer (Kelly Benefit Strategies-Optum) to even out the odds.
“5 vs 2, 5 vs 1, are not very fair odds but BISSELL is still not going to be happy towing me around just because it’s the nature of racing. So they sent a couple of guys up the road and I tried a couple of moves and when I covered them, they just sat up and launched someone else, they wanted to keep their guys solo.” Bennett explained.
Finally, two BISSELL riders went up the road.
“Julian, and I took turns pulling and keeping them in sight until we hit the climb and once we hit the climb, I was able to bridge up to the two BISSELL riders which was awesome, it put me in a good spot. But once I caught them, they just sat up for Paul and Ben to catch back up and it was still a four vs one.” Bennett laughed.
But the thrashing was over. Bennett was in the final break of 5 and took fourth behind the BISSELL sweep. At the same time, he took the lead in the U25 classification.
The next day brought the 12-mile time trial, only the fourth time that Bennett has been on his TT bike and he’s still working on his position. “I found a really aero position that I was happy with but as far as my leg extension wasn’t the greatest, the limiting factor for me on the TT ended being my shinsplints, they were really bothering me with this position I found on my bike but my position was faster that I think it wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t and so it was limited by a muscle group that I haven’t really been developing I guess.”
Bennett finished 15th on the stage but more importantly still led the U25 classification with a comfortable lead on Kyer.
For the last two stages, Bennett used his brains and stayed safely behind the BISSELL train with at least one teammate with him. “I can sprint decently but I can’t outsprint the sprinters and so there was really no point in me trying to get away when BISSELL wasn’t going to let more than one or two people get off the front and they were keeping the tempo high enough that nothing that got off the front was going to stay away so I was happy just sitting behind them.” he said about his strategy in the criterium, the third stage.
And he marked both Kyer and BISSELL’s Paddy Bevin on the final stage, the 120-mile Almond Blossom Road Race. “I was pretty much marking Julian and keeping an eye on number 4 on BISSELL because he was the next guy in the U25 and BISSELL had the fire-power to send him off the front if they wanted to, but they never tried to do that so I was happy again just sitting behind the BISSELL train.”
Future. “For me this year is just finding out where I’m at.”
He says climbing is his strength. “I climb really well, I think that’s my niche I guess and then when I get to the top of the climb, I can outsprint the climbers.” he laughed.
Bennett is also changing his own expectations for this year after his two wins at the Pine Flat and Snelling road races prior to his results at MERCO.
“I think that I’m going to try to get some results at the NRC level next. If I can do that, I can be over in Europe with the National Team which would be really cool and see where it goes.”
He thinks he can do well in a “selective race”. “Something where the climbs where you’re relatively able to draft well still, either hard enough that it weeds out the pure sprinters. I haven’t done any races with long enough sustained climbs to know how I stack up I guess.”
While he’s still figuring out where he stacks up in the field, one thing is sure; from now on, Bennett will be marked in the peloton and he’s ready for it. “I think I’m up for the challenge. I have a strong team supporting me, it will be good.”
In his second year studying Business Administration at CalPoly in San Luis Obispo, Bennett would love to be racing in Europe five years from now. “That’s where my head is at now, see how far I can take this. I’m sure there’s never going to be a better time in my life to give this a go than there is now.”
One of his favorite races is the Giro d’Italia. “I think the coolest race to me is the Giro, I think that’s a really exciting and just beautiful race. That’s my favorite race to watch, I would love to be in the Giro I guess.”
Will Bennett make it to the Giro? Only time will tell but we haven’t heard the last of him. Good luck John!