Cycling: Kiwi George Bennett captures hearts as brave Giro d'Italia bid slips away

Evan as his dream of Giro d'Italia glory slips away, Kiwi cyclist George Bennett continues to win fans on the snow-laden slopes of the Dolomites.

Earlier this week, Bennett and Jumbo Visma teammate Edoardo Affini were part of a breakaway that built an eight-minute lead on the peloton, and eventually propelled Italian Lorenzo Fortunato up the steep Monte Zoncolan to an unexpected stage victory.

Affini proved a willing ally, driving himself to exhaustion to keep the bunch clear and aid the Kiwi's cause, but eventually he could not sustain the effort and fell away on the lower slopes of the final climb.

Bennett lasted a little longer, before his challenge ended a few kilometres from the finish, eventually finishing seventh, two minutes behind Fortunato.

Describing the mountain as merely 'steep' is a gross disservice. In cycling, gradients of 8-9 percent are considered steep - the final stages of Zoncolan reach 23 percent.  

Some riders were reduced to near walking pace, weaving backwards and forwards across the road, as they approached the finish of their 205km journey.

After crossing the line, Bennett pedalled back towards his team bus, parked 4km down the road, but encountered Affini - totally spent - crawling very slowly towards the summit.

In a gesture that has resonated around the cycling community, the Kiwi turned around and escorted his mate up the mountain, paying tribute to a sacrifice that ultimately did not pay dividends.

"Shout out to the big dog @eduardo_affini for carry the breakaway all day yesterday," Bennett posts on Instagram. "Gutted not to pull it off in the end, there just wasn't much left in the legs after that start.

"I will have nightmares of 200km full steam into a headwind for the rest of my life."

Experienced cycling photographer Jered Gruber captured the iconic moment and posted on social media.

"My real highlight of today was watching @georgenbennett descend back to the bus after the finish - only to come back into view moments later," says Gruber.

"He turned around and started riding back up the Zoncolan with his teammate @edoardo_affini. I don't know what was said, but anyone who turns around and rides back up that thing for even one second to share some words with a teammate is a hero in my book."

With five stages remaining in the three-week tour, Bennett - riding in the NZ road race champion's jersey - sits 14th, 18 minutes behind Colombian race leader Egan Bernal and eight minutes outside the top 10.

Bennett placed eighth in the 2018 Giro - the best finish by an NZ rider in a Grand Tour.