Rohan Dennis | Time To Clock On
Rohan Dennis is in Innsbruck, Austria, the Friday before the World Championships kick off, and its a big week for the Australian who’s riding three events in the next ten days, beginning with the Team Time Trial, where he’ll be a crucial piece for the BMC Racing Team.
“I got here on Wednesday, our first training session all together was yesterday, doing Team Time Trial stuff… Today was recovery, and tomorrow’s a full recon of the course. It’s all closed as well, and we get motorbikes in front and behind. It’ll be good to see the course.”
Dennis’ BMC Racing Team are one of the favourites for the event, having won three World Tour level races in the discipline this year, including one at the Tour de France. They’re bringing a strong team to Austria, but it’s a course that demands versatility, with a 4.6 kilometre climb coming in the second half of the event. Climbs like that are a novelty in Team Time Trial.
“I think it’s going to be the hardest Team Time Trial any team’s done in the past six years. We tested out the climb yesterday and it’s going to be an absolute… it’s gonna hurt, let’s just say that.”
The TTT is huge objective for the BMC squad; the team’s owner and benefactor Andy Rihs passed away in May, the team appeared destined to shut up shop, before a lifeline was found via a merger with the Pro-Continental CCC Sprandi Polkowice team. The organisation will feel markedly different next year so it’s almost like the team’s ending, while the World Championship Team Time Trial event’s also ending this year, with this one in Austria set to be the last.
“They want to end on a high, obviously winning the last one as well would be a nice feeling. They’re not on BMC bikes either [next year when the team merges with CCC] so they want to finish on a high for BMC as a company, and for Andy Rihs really. He’s not with us, but out of respect for him, to do everything we can until the season’s done. This was one of his favourite events, and we’ve always put a lot of time and effort into them.”
“To be honest, whenever I get to a Time Trial, I don’t really look at myself as a favourite…”
The TTT event’s just the week’s entree for Dennis though, who’s amongst the favourites for Wednesday’s Individual Time Trial, and been his focus in the last fortnight since he left the Vuelta a Espana having won the two Individual Time Trials there. In his own words, he “couldn't have planned it better”.
The Vuelta provided the perfect lead-in to this race. Since finishing 16th at May’s Giro d’Italia, he’d spent an extended period out of racing, and completed only eight race days between late July’s RideLondon classic and when he lined up in Malaga to start the Vuelta.
“I think it was 8 weeks between races [after the Giro], which is a lot. I liked it, but I suffered a bit in the few races before the Vuelta. RideLondon, I was happy to be back, but I suffered a bit. Poland, I was good, but it was a weird feeling - my legs were hurting, but I could do something.”
The Vuelta isn’t always the tried and true path to ITT worlds; the last man to win the Rainbow Jersey in that event after racing the Vuelta was Tony Martin in 2014. If you need the race days, it’s perfect, but being such a demanding race, it requires a bit of discipline.
“It’s about being smart and pulling the ripcord when really it’s like ‘What am I gonna benefit from this’. So I need to help a teammate anymore? No? Then there’s no point me being here… So you’re getting that volume in your legs. and that racing in your legs, and every now and then you do stick around until close to the final… But it’s about working up to that, and not putting yourself to the sword every day.”
Along with the two stage wins, he spent a day in the Red Jersey, and it was a continuation of a hugely successful year; of the eight ITTs he’s contested this year, he’s won six. 2018 is the year that’s seen Dennis elevate himself into the elite category of Time Trialists, and the ultimate prize, a Rainbow Jersey, is on offer on Wednesday, if he can reach the same standards he’s set this year.
Favouritism isn’t a tag that Dennis wears comfortably though. “To be honest, whenever I get to a Time Trial, I don’t really look at myself as a favourite. I’m always looking at the competitors and going ‘Well he could beat me today’. it kind of stops me from getting too complacent when I think of it like that. It’s not me forcing myself to be like that, its a legitimate worry
“It keeps me a little bit more relaxed, but also makes me more nervous about what the other guys are doing, and how can I beat them. It does stress me a little bit, but in the end, 99% of the time, when it comes to the race I do what I can do and it’s all good. I don’t think about anybody else when I’m doing the time trial, I’m thinking about what I can do, and how I can do it best. It stresses me before, but it frees me during the race.”
That mindset is one Dennis takes into every race, despite two clear victories in the two Time Trials at the Vuelta, it didn’t feel like plan sailing beforehand as he analysed every course and his competitors.
“In the prologue at the Vuelta, you had Kwiatkowski, who was absolutely flying. It’s a power course, but there’s an uphill part which suits him, and a technical part which he’ll be good in, and they’re quite crucial parts. It’s like, how can I beat him, and what's the best tactic against him. I’ll plan it out like that.”
The field on Wednesday contains many of the key rivals that Dennis has been facing all year long. “Tom [Dumoulin]’s there, Kiriyenka seems to like these longer ones as well. Nobody’s seen Tony Martin for a while, he had a crash at the Tour de France but how’s he recovered from that? Campenaerts, you can’t count him out. There’s still plenty of guys who do push me, and not getting complacent about being the most successful in a year is the main key to staying there.”
Dennis’ main rival is set to be Tom Dumoulin and the course is suited well to the pair of them. Dumoulin is the defending World Champion, but Dennis has won two of the three times they’ve faced each other this year. At 53km, the length of the course suits both the riders, while much like the Team Time Trial, there’s a long climb in the second half of the race. That suits Dennis and Dumoulin, both being reasonable climbers; especially so for time trial specialists, who are often lumbering powerhouses that aren’t suited to inclines. That climb comes after nearly 40 kilometres of flat roads in a valley, where the riders need to keep something in the tank.
“It’s gonna be about being fast, but not blowing yourself to bits… or even just being the best at being aero and holding power, consistent power. You don’t want to be too erratic, or too up-and-down, cause that blows your legs up. That’s the key in the valley, so then switching from being on the redline, to above it for 12 minutes. Switching that power on is not always easy, and you really have to be.. it can just happen or it can’t. Sometimes it can be really easy, but then others it doesn’t happen, and you just don’t have that punch. It’s about being patient, but then hitting it on the climb.”
“There are guys similar to me that have won the biggest race on the cycling calendar, and it shows that it is possible…”
Dennis is the rider closest to Dumoulin’s crown as the best TT rider in the world, but the two have their eyes on another path; transitioning into GC riders. That’s something Dumoulin has shown success in already, having won last year’s Giro d’Italia, and finishing second both there, and at the Tour de France this year. Dennis finished 16th at this year’s Giro, his first proper attempt at GC in a Grand Tour. Without lighting up the race, he was consistent in those three weeks and showed that he has the capability to gain results in those races in the future.
Those ambitions are behind Dennis’ move to the Bahrain-Merida squad at season’s end. Since a mid-season transfer from Garmin-Sharp in 2014, he’s spent the past four and a half years with BMC. Questions over the BMC’s future beyond this year provided the opportunity to start fresh, and Bahrain provided the opportunity to chase new goals.
“I think for me it's nice to get a change, sometimes things get a bit stagnant, and you just need to keep things fresh. When the team was looking like it might fold, it made my decision fairly easy. It would have been nice to stay, but I need a fresh start and there’s nothing holding me back here.
"That’s the goal and the plan for them as well [to chase GC]. It was a bit of a prerequisite for me, I didn’t want to go to a team and them say “no, you’re not doing GC”… They’re not looking to throw that goal out the window.”
While three-week races were exclusively the domain of climbers in years past, there’s been a transition, led by Team Sky, in the style of riders that are winning Grand Tours. The durability and long sustained efforts that riders like Dennis can produce are key to winning modern Grand Tours; even as the number of TT kilometres lessen, the style of racing is favouring riders with that physiology. Teams are increasingly looking for riders like Dennis, that’s been communicated to him in the process behind joining his new squad.
“What Brent Copeland [the General Manager at Bahrain Merida] has said to me is that the best riders at the Tour de France have the same strengths as me; Tom, Froome and Geraint. They’re all the same style rider as me, and that’s where Grand Tours are slowly moving, and have been moving that way in the last five years… Wiggo; he lost a ton of weight. G - you would never have thought he’d win a Grand Tour if you looked at him on the track.
“People always said that G needs to push a smaller gear, well who’s laughing now? People have said that to me a lot in the past as well. It’s nice to see there are guys similar to me that have won the biggest race on the cycling calendar, and it shows that it is possible.”
It’s a move that’s set to be easier than the last time Dennis changed teams. A mid-season transfer to BMC was novel, and it was a leap into the unknown. A few friendly faces on the Bahrain-Merida squad, including two others going across from BMC, will smooth the jump. So will the presence of Dave Bailey, the current BMC Head Trainer and Sport Scientist who’s moving to Bahrain. But it still comes with many of the same uncertainties. It’s still a new environment with another settling-in period.
“It’s sort of the hard thing with changing teams; there’s the unknown if it’s going a perfect fit, a better fit, or if you’ve just taken a side step. I believe that it is a good step and a forward step.
“It may take a bit of time, just like it did when I swapped from Garmin to BMC, it didn’t click straight away. But once everybody understood how everybody works, and the ball got rolling, it was a snowball effect for me and it was perfect. I think moving forward, it’s gonna be beneficial in the future.”
All that is down the line though; there’s still this week’s World Champs to come. There’s not a better way to say goodbye to BMC Racing Team than winning the TTT Title.
“What I’ve done at BMC has helped me, and they’ve helped show me that I can do what I’ve done on the bike. Really, I’m grateful for that.”
While he’s at it, there’s no better way to say hello to Bahrain-Merida than winning the ITT title.
See you back at the social club,