Commentary: Dennis’s departure leaves more questions than answers
“Let’s say that I am disappointed about what happened with Rohan today because, actually, we expected a big effort from him tomorrow.”
This is how Gorazd Štangelj, the sports director from Bahrain-Merida, began his explanation of perhaps the most bizarre incident in the 2019 Tour de France.
Speaking to the biggest media scrum in Bagnères-de-Bigorre after stage 12, the Slovenian expressed confusion surrounding the biggest story of the day. With approximately 80 kilometers remaining in the stage, Dennis climbed off his bicycle and quit the race. It was strange timing, since Dennis was expected to contend for the victory in Friday’s individual time trial.
“It was his decision today to stop in the feed zone,” continued Štangelj.
“We tried to speak with him and tried to find a solution about what’s going on.”
Like the media that was issuing the questions, Štangelj also wanted to understand the situation involving a rider with a rare talent. But he had no real answer.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to talk.’ And just abandoned the race,” Štangelj explained.
Immediately following the stage, Dennis was seen leaving the race, escorted by his personal manager, Andrew McQuaid. Exactly where they went and why the world champion quit his fourth Tour de France remains something of a mystery.
The kerfuffle has left many involved in the Tour confused and searching for explanations for Dennis’s sudden abandonment. Was Dennis upset with the team’s equipment, or his worker bee-role with 2014 Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali? We just don’t know.
What we do know is that Nibali was not riding to win on Thursday, due to problems with his stomach. At the start of stage 12 in Toulouse, on a day when the profile and predicament of the race suggested that Nibali should have been a favorite for the win, Štangelj explained that, despite early hopes that the Sicilian would go on the attack, it wasn’t going to be possible.
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“Unfortunately, there is one important detail,” Štangelj said. “He woke up today with stomach problems so he will not go in the breakaway, for sure.”
On the first day of the 106th Tour’s visit to the Pyrenees, when two high mountain passes, the Col de Peyresourde and Horquette d’Ancizan, were a feature of the 209.5km stage, Nibali would normally have prospered. So the theory goes. But bad guts spoiled that plan.
Adding weight to the theory of an attack by Nibali is the reality that he has lost considerable time in the opening 11 stages, meaning he wouldn’t be nearly as heavily marked by those who are still in contention for the overall win in this year’s Tour.
When he’s in good condition, Nibali is an excellent climber and a rider renown for his descending ability. Instead of going for the stage win, Štangelj said the Italian, “will just try to survive the stage and try some other day.”
In the morning, it seemed as though it was largely going to be business as usual for Rohan Dennis and his team. While I was talking to Štangelj, the Dennis stepped onto the team bus and Štangelj went on to explain that he had big expectations for Dennis in stage 13, the only individual time trial on this year’s menu.
“He’s the world champion,” said Štangelj. “So, I think it’s expected from him to be up there and he will give 100 percent.”
Upon approaching Dennis and asking if he could spare “one minute for a few questions,” I was served a vicious stare and a reply that’s best left unpublished on this site. Needless to say, it was typical of the rider who, can sometimes be prickly with the media. Only days earlier, he was joking with me – as well as his teammates – in a hotel we shared in Colmar after stage five.
In Toulouse, by contrast, he was clearly stressed and didn’t want to talk.
We’ll never know how Dennis would have fared in Friday’s time trial.
Instead of riding conservatively and saving energy for the TT, as he had been instructed to do by Štangelj, Dennis simply quit the race without explanation.
Numerous attempts were made to contact McQuaid to find out the reason for the retirement, and the manager did not return any calls.
There was a conference involving Dennis and McQuaid taking place near the Bahrain-Merida team bus around an hour before the start of stage 12. This is common at the Tour, managers are often on site and in discussion with riders, particularly on the eve of an important rendezvous; and the TT in Pau has been a stage Dennis has said he was targeting at this year’s Tour. That was when Dennis so colorfully expressed that he wasn’t interested in talking to the press.
Instead of racing in his rainbow jersey, denoting his status as world champion, it’s likely that Dennis will be watching from his home in nearby Andorra, with wife Melissa Dennis – a former world champion on the track – and young child.
So, what are the roots behind Dennis’s abandonment? Alas, for cycling fans, we do not know. He simply vanished without trace after being driven away from the Tour by McQuaid.
Not even his team is certain what the situation is.
“He’s a special guy,” said Štangelj when asked if there had been any issues between the team and Dennis. “Let’s say all the champions are.
“He’s, let’s say, really 100 percent when he wants something and it’s not difficult to make everybody happy in every single moment.”
The race continues tomorrow but without Dennis and his rainbow jersey. Adding weight to the bizarre abandon are responses from the rider before the Tour when I asked him about the work being done by Bahrain-Merida and its new partner McLaren.
“We’ve done a lot of testing on helmets, skinsuits, shoe covers, a bit of position stuff but that was more about trying to replicate what I’ve had in previous years,” Dennis told me on the eve of the Tour. “At the moment, nothing has moved forward yet but there are plenty of plans in place for the rest of the season.”
Following up on this commentary, I spoke with the team mechanic, Filip Tisma, two days later, the day of the team time trial in Brussels. Tisma said that Dennis’s urging for top equipment was forcing everyone to perform at their collective best—a positive step for the entire team.
“We had custom handlebars made for Vincenzo and Rohan,” Tisma said about the new relationship with McLaren. They also changed tires and made a few amendments to equipment based on Dennis’ urging for the best possible equipment.
“He’s very equipment conscious,” Tisma continued. “So, he would push me and the rest of the team quite hard to get things exactly how he wants them which is a good thing for the team.
“He drives everything faster than how things usually happen in this kind of development.”
It’s an approach the mechanic appreciates even if Dennis’ upfront manner can be off-putting for others.
“It pushes everybody to do their best,” said Tisma. “He is one of those guys who would insist on getting things exactly the way he wants it.
“Once you tell him something is doable, he’s adamant: ‘You better f—ing do it!’” Tisma laughed as he told that story. Eleven days later, it’s doubtful that the mood in the Bahrain-Merida team is as light-hearted.