George Bennett installed himself as one of the favorites to win this year’s Sibiu Tour on Saturday, as he finished third in a challenging opening stage that finished at the Păltiniș ski resort.

The Kiwi climber broke clear alongside eventual stage winner Andreas Leknessund (UXM) and Florian Lipowitz (RBH) around halfway up the 8.2-kilometer final climb.

This trio finished 58 seconds clear to position themselves as the potential winners of the four-day Romanian race, with a 3.2-kilometer individual time trial in Sibiu on Sunday evening and Monday’s summit finish at Bâlea Lac offering two further opportunities for Bennett to stake his claim.

Volta a Catalunya stage winner Nick Schultz and Matthew Riccitello – in his first race since an impressive performance at the Tour de Suisse – finished in the lead chase group, placing fifth and 10th respectively.

Stage 1 saw a strong all-round IPT performance on the team’s first appearance at Sibiu since 2022. Guy Sagiv contributed plenty to keep the day’s breakaway group in check, before Riley Pickrell and Chris Froome set a blistering pace on the approach to the final climb.

“The boys rode well – Guy did a really good job controlling the breakaway, and things were straightforward until the final climb,” said Bennett. “I’m disappointed with the sprint, but those boys are pretty fast!

“It’s the first stage, so let’s see what happens from there. This is the kind of race where it’s one-off efforts and one-off climbs, which suits these big powerful guys, as opposed to Grand Tour-style mountain stages, which are more my kind of thing. I’ll try to get through tomorrow, not lose too much time in the time trial, and see how the next mountain stage plays out.”

Photos: Focus Photos Agency