The Tour of California

With 10 kilometers to go, Sean Bennett is in a position most 22-year-old bike racers can only experience from a livestream on their smartphones. He has a 22-second gap on the peloton in a WorldTour Race. An aggressive move allowed him to bridge up to seasoned pro Tom Skujins on a long climb and now the two of them have to hold off the hard charging peloton. The riders behind, who’ve contested races like The Tour de France, try to close the gap, but the duo maintain a steady distance. As they crest the top of the climb, Tom takes the KoM sprint, but then they settle back in, working together. With 6km to go they’re still only 20-seconds in front of the field.

Sean Bennett grew up in Northern California and got into cycling through the area’s high school mountain bike league. Sean initially took up the sport because his two older brothers were involved, but the high school league helped Sean discover his own passion.

“They provided us with races and a great environment to really enjoy it, as well as to compete at a pretty high level,” Sean said. “That's where I first met Neilson [Powless, who is also racing professionally]. He's here too, so I think it really gives a good environment to produce good riders as well as keeping it fun.”

Cycling doesn’t have the same development tracks in America that sports like football or baseball do, so it can be hard for teenage athletes to discover the sport. High school programs like the NorCal League are a great first step, but there’s a huge gap between those local events and the big league races in Europe. That’s where development teams like Hagens Berman Axeon come in.

Hagens Berman Axeon is a U23 development team, which means only riders who are 23-years-old or younger are allowed to race with them. The focus of the team is to create a bridge for talents like Sean, so they can continue to gain experience and eventually move up to the next level.

But the Tour of California is the next level. It’s a WorldTour race, the highest designation in professional cycling and the same category as the Tour de France. So when Sean and Tom pass the 5 kilometers to go sign and there is still 10 second of precious space between them and the pack, there is no doubt that Sean belongs at this level. They climb again, standing up on the pedals to try and squeeze out whatever energy is left in their tired legs. A TV helicopter circles overhead, alternating between a bunch that contains World Champion Peter Sagan, and the underdogs, Tom and Sean.

“I don’t really think about it much, to be honest,” Sean told me when I asked him what it’s like to race with some of the biggest names in the sport. “I mean there are guys that I have a lot of respect for and there's a few that I think, ‘oh shit I'm racing with them,’ but I mean for the most part we're all here to race and any of us could win.”

No one ever got onto the top step of the podium without first believing that it was possible. If there’s one characteristic that defines Sean Bennett, it is his self-belief. A sense of confidence that has no doubt been inspired by the early lessons he benefited from in high school as well as the support structure Hagens Berman Axeon offers him today.

Bike racing is an individual sport practiced in teams. Only a single rider can win a bike race, but it’s almost impossible to do it alone. Sean was able to bridge up to Tom and make this late race move because he’d saved most of his energy. Sean’s was able to save up his energy until kilometer 185 because his teammate Ian Garrison had attacked at kilometer 1. Ian rode in the breakaway for over 110 kilometers, allowing Sean and his teammates to rest in the main group while other teams pushed the pace in an effort to reel in riders off the front.

Ian Garrison riding in the early breakaway. Photo by Casey B. Gibson.
Ian Garrison riding in the early breakaway. Photo by Casey B. Gibson.
Sean Bennett riding in the peloton. Photo by Casey B. Gibson.
Sean Bennett riding in the peloton. Photo by Casey B. Gibson.

Keeping It Local

I asked Ian what he thought the value of having top development teams based in the United States was, as opposed to having to relocate to Europe to race with one of the many teams based there.

“I think it's huge,” Ian said. “I mean, not only are we one of the top development teams, but we’re also one of the top professional teams. I think that combination lowers the pressure on us and allows us to ease into it and learn without having the pressure of having to get results and getting signed.”

Ian’s introduction to bike racing was similar to Sean’s. He picked up the bike in high school in Atlanta, Georgia.

“I just grew up riding bikes for fun,” he said. “I kind of knew about the sport. And then there was a velodrome in Atlanta and my friend's dad took me to a cyclocross race and it kind of just evolved from there.”

For Ian, the progression to pro racing came as naturally as riding the bike.

“I started racing more and it was like the one thing that I enjoyed more than anything else,” he said. “And that feeling kind of stuck with me. I've kind of thought, well, if I enjoy this more than anything else, why not think of it as a career?”

The stage finishes on the Laguna Seca race track in Monterrey, a 3.6 kilometer circuit with a nasty climb right before the final stretch. Sean and Tom enter the track less than 10 seconds before the peloton does. Sean is on the front, he is having the ride of his life, but how much longer can he hold on?

The two are working together, trying desperately to maintain their narrow lead. Then, as they crest the final punchy climb before the finish, Tom puts in one last dig and Sean loses touch with his wheel. Tom tucks as low as possible on the downhill of the track, just a moment of daylight between himself and the young American. When the course levels out, there is 500 meters to go. Sean gives it everything he has to try and close the gap. But Tom crosses the line first.

Tom Skujins wins stage 3 of the Tour of California. Photo by Davey Wilson.
Tom Skujins wins stage 3 of the Tour of California. Photo by Davey Wilson.
Sean Bennett as he crosses the line in second place. Photo by Davey Wilson.
Sean Bennett as he crosses the line in second place. Photo by Davey Wilson.

The main field sprints across the line just five seconds after Sean. The perfectly timed move has earned him a second place finish in the most prestigious race in America. It’s a huge result for a young rider. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of his teammates.

When I spoke with Sean after the race, it was clear he was a bit disappointed. Even though it’s a career best for him and an incredible performance for any rider, he is hungry for the top step. He wouldn’t have made it this far if he didn’t want to go all the way. But this is only Sean’s second Tour of California. He is 22 years old and he has already signed a contract to race with Hagens Berman Axeon again next year, so he’ll have many more opportunities to chase his dreams in California and beyond.

Sean Bennett and Ivo Oliveira, post-race. Photo by Davey Wilson.
Sean Bennett and Ivo Oliveira, post-race. Photo by Davey Wilson.

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