Building a Giro contender: The Rohan Dennis project
What does it take to transform one of the world’s best time trialists into a grand tour contender?
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During the 2013 Critérium du Dauphiné, 23-year-old Rohan Dennis rode quietly through the opening stages, racing shoulder-to-shoulder with Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, and other giants of the grand tours. On the race’s fourth stage, Dennis found himself thrust into the limelight. Blazing to a second-place finish in the time trial, the Australian donned the race leader’s yellow jersey.
The result marked a pivotal moment in Dennis’s career — he caught yellow jersey fever. Prior to 2013, Dennis was known more for his exploits in the velodrome than in the high mountains. At the Dauphiné, Dennis realized that his cycling career could go beyond individual time trials; he had the talent and the desire to compete with the world’s best stage racers. Perhaps someday, after thousands of hours of hard work, he could even step on a grand tour podium.
“I went into [the Dauphiné] thinking I wasn’t going that well,” Dennis says. “Then I thought, ‘Maybe there is more to this GC stuff for me.’”
To casual fans, Dennis’s vision may appear simple. In practical terms, it was akin to rerouting an aircraft carrier. By 23, Rohan Dennis’s career trajectory was set. He owned two world titles and an Olympic silver medal in the team pursuit, and an under-23 Australian national time trial title. There was little doubt that his career would include Olympic medals and perhaps grand tour stage wins — all in the race against the clock.
Win a grand tour? No chance.
Dennis eventually slipped to eighth in the Dauphiné GC. Yet the seed for grand tour greatness was planted in his mind. It was likewise established in Dennis’s American coach, Neal Henderson. They decided, when the time was right, to embark on an ambitious mission to transform Dennis into a grand tour contender.
This spring, Dennis and Henderson will put that plan to the test at the Giro d’Italia. Now 27, Dennis has endured nearly two years of specific training for grand tours. His transformation hasn’t been easy, or particularly fun. It required a complete overhaul of his training, buy-in from his BMC Racing team, psychological coaching, and hundreds of hours of hard work. Most importantly, Dennis had to change the very way his physiology worked, not to mention his body composition.
“Neal always said, ‘It will be simple, but not easy,’” Dennis says. “It’s all about trying to figure out how to get those climbing legs and not lose the TT. Nothing against Froome, but I am the better time trialist. But he’s pumping me for minutes on the climbs. As an all-rounder, he is better than me. That’s what I really have to work on.”
The crux of the plan was to alter Dennis’s physiology to withstand the rigors of a three-week race. The three-minute pursuit effort on the track utilizes a very specific energy system that relies on anaerobic power output. And it’s a single event — a rider need not worry about his legs week after week.
In a grand tour, by contrast, the best GC riders maintain high wattages (upwards of 4.5w/kg, or over 300 watts in a 150-pound rider) without taxing their anaerobic energy systems. To put that in context, an elite masters rider’s lactate threshold — the level he can maintain going all-out for an hour — might be as high as 4.5w/kg. Meanwhile, the elite GC rider is able to ride at that high aerobic rate, in theory, all day long, day after day for three weeks. When the pace accelerates — or when attacks occur on the final climb — these riders then utilize their top-end, anaerobic systems.
To build this fitness in Dennis, physiological attributes needed to be layered on top of one another. Intensity was layered over volume; finishing sprint was layered atop sustainable power; anaerobic capacity was layered over a foundation of aerobic endurance. At their peak, great grand tour riders have endurance, durability, and snap, not to mention mental fortitude and confidence.
For this story, Dennis and Henderson took VeloNews inside their training regime to help us better understand the rigors involved with transforming a time trialist into a grand tour rider. They provided us with snapshots of the workouts and physiological information that guided their path. And they also described Dennis’s various detours and breakdowns along the way.
Both Henderson and Dennis know the transition is incomplete. While they have high ambitions for this year’s Giro, both men believe that Dennis’s best grand tour years are yet to come.
IN TRUTH IT WAS not just the 2013 Dauphiné that convinced Dennis of his grand tour potential; other results pushed him in that direction. In 2014, he was second in the Tour of California to Bradley Wiggins, just two years after Wiggins had won the Tour de France.
“Wiggo is someone I wouldn’t have said was the person to show me how to do this, but he changed the game with Sky in 2012,” Dennis says.
Then, Dennis blazed through a stellar 2015, opening the season with an overall win at the Tour Down Under. A month and a half later he established a new UCI Hour Record, at 52.491 kilometers. He produced a new personal high-water mark that summer, taking the stage 1 individual time trial at the Tour de France, and winning stage 9 with his teammates in the team time trial. In August, he claimed overall victory at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Yet his true focus was still almost a year into the future: Rio 2016.
“100 percent, everything was for the TT in Rio in 2016,” Dennis says.
The Rio Olympics were marked by disaster. Midway through the individual time trial, Dennis’s left aero bar broke, and he was forced to make a bike change in the final 15 kilometers. The debacle cost him valuable time as he slipped down the leaderboard to fifth, 1:10 behind winner Fabian Cancellara and eight seconds behind bronze medalist Chris Froome.
The catastrophe pushed Dennis over the edge toward his grand tour goal. After the 2016 season, Dennis and Henderson discussed the grand tour plan. Henderson was fully behind the idea.
“He can climb and TT, and he has race savvy,” Henderson says. “In terms of what we see in training, he can switch it on and stay on for weeks and months. He has that ability to be patient in building things up, but also stay on task all the way through. Those are some of the things that psychologically, in addition to the physiological, if you don’t have them, it’s going to be tough.”
Henderson had known Dennis since 2008 when he saw the Australian at the junior world track championships. In 2012 they finalized an official coaching relationship during a layover at Los Angeles International airport. In the ensuing years, Dennis looked to his American coach for guidance.
“The big [influence] is Neal, and anyone who’s been around grand tour winners,” Dennis says. “If they’re willing to help me, I try to get as much information out of them as I can.”
So when Henderson told Dennis that he believed in his grand tour plan, the Australian was convinced.
DENNIS’S TRANSITION FROM TIME trialist to grand tour contender required a huge uptick in training volume and a complete overhaul of his high-intensity workouts.
In late 2014, Dennis averaged about 18 hours of training time per week. Many amateur cyclists ride more. His workouts often revolved around short, intense VO2max intervals, which he would complete three or four times per week. And this was a reduction from the five or six high-intensity sessions he completed during his velodrome days.
By contrast, in late 2017, Dennis averaged about 22 hours a week and rarely completed extreme VO2 work. He also altered the duration of his intervals. In 2014 his high-intensity rides often lasted two hours, while for a typical 2018 workout, Dennis rides for two hours at the same high intensity, and then completes four more hours at an endurance pace. His training rides can also include painful intervals at the beginning and the end, with long endurance stretches in between. These workouts mimic the ebb and flow of a typical stage.
“It’s hard. This pre-season, I’ve done more six-hour rides than I have done the past few years combined,” Dennis says. “Getting my head around just riding six to seven hours was the toughest part, and not just calling it quits after doing intense efforts.”
To the layman, the transition may seem simple. Yet Dennis had to dramatically shift his training while continuing to race his bicycle. In an ideal scenario, Dennis would stop racing for a year and simply train his aerobic endurance with a huge volume of long, steady rides at or near aerobic threshold. That was impossible. Dennis needed to perform for his BMC team or risk losing his contract and his opportunity for leadership. Dennis had to walk a fine line.
Luckily, BMC management publicly endorsed Dennis’s transition from time trials to grand tours.
“I think he can do anything he wants,” BMC boss Jim Ochowicz told Cyclingnews.com in 2017. “It’s too easy to say he could win the Tour de France but I think he’s an incredible athlete with a huge engine.”
Henderson faced his own challenge as a coach. He pushed Dennis at a very deliberate rate, methodically adding volume to the training plan. If he pushed too quickly, Dennis risked hitting an early plateau or injuring himself. If he pushed too gradually, Dennis might never garner any substantial results. Somewhere in between, Henderson found a happy medium, still leaving some results on the table while remaining focused on the larger goal of grand tour leadership.
“You get pluses and minuses — in that buildup, in the races, in other opportunities that are presented, to do certain things to maintain any trajectory at all as a professional,” Henderson says. “You have to have certain abilities that you’re expressing in races. But you still have to be building that underlying capacity to do more in the future, within that context. That’s the tricky part of it.”
CHRIS FROOME AND TOM DUMOULIN are both top time trialists who can climb among the best in the world. Neither was always that way; each man underwent a transition similar to the one Dennis has pursued.
These men represent the new model of grand tour contender. No longer is the petite climber the most dangerous man at the Tour de France. The ability of the top climbers is supremely high; consequently, the gaps have become much smaller. Now, the individual time trial is where the Tour is won or lost.
In time trials, absolute power and aerodynamics are most important. And more power is often a result of a stronger (and consequently heavier) rider.
To turn Dennis into a GC star, Henderson needed to strike another balance. He needed to maintain Dennis’s time trial prowess while strengthening his climbing ability. Luckily, Dennis has had some of his best TT performances at his lowest weights, around 69 or 70 kilograms. When he won the USA Pro Challenge in 2015, for example, he weighed 69 kilograms. Yet Dennis says that lighter isn’t always better for him.
“Cadel [Evans] told me that when he was younger, he was lighter and in better form when he didn’t win the Tour,” Dennis says. “He was heavier and not as good at putting up the numbers when he actually won it. Why? Because he stayed healthy and strong for three weeks and didn’t go into his reserves.”
Weight is equally crucial to climbing, of course. Dennis has spent hundreds of hours working on his climbing ability, and yet he is still several watts behind the world’s best. At the 2017 Tirreno-Adriatico, on the 18-kilometer climb to Terminillo, he lost 1:17 to Nairo Quintana and 36 seconds to Dumoulin. That result represented a step forward compared to previous performances. And he still has plenty more to go.
[pullquote attrib=”Rohan Dennis”]”It’s like a golf swing — I might have the perfect swing, but someone else is hitting the ball further than me. If it’s aero versus power, power will always win.”[/pullquote]
“My power is there,” Dennis says. “In those longer time trial efforts, there are not a lot of guys who can do what I can do in the time trial. I actually get more power out of the time trial bike than the road bike, which is the opposite of what normally happens.”
Consequently, Henderson changed Dennis’s road position, effectively mimicking his TT position on the road bike. This allows him to produce the same hip angle and hold his position for five-plus hours. After much testing, including the use of Leomo technology to get real-time biomechanical data, they made a simple switch. He moved to 175-millimeter length cranks, matching what he already had on the TT bike.
“It’s not all about being aero, is it? Froome doesn’t look super-aero on the road bike, does he?” Dennis says. “But he goes fast. It’s like a golf swing — I might have the perfect swing, but someone else is hitting the ball further than me. If it’s aero versus power, power will always win.”
In another effort to become a better climber, Dennis moved to Andorra, a country tucked between France and Spain in the Pyrenees, that offers very little flat terrain. It was a conscious decision to be able to do massive climbing training out the door.
In April 2017, Henderson joined Dennis in Andorra for a week of hard training prior to the Giro. The two replicated the brutal volume of climbing during the Giro’s final week. Each day Henderson scoured maps, looked at elevation profiles, and created routes to mimic what Dennis would soon face in the race.
Henderson drove behind Dennis during each ride, monitoring his hydration and nutrition. Six and half hours, 166.3 kilometers, 5,000 meters of climbing on day one. And then the next day. And the next day.
Dennis arrived at the Giro in top shape, albeit as a dark horse in the GC battle. His fight was not meant to be. Just nine kilometers before the finish line on stage 3, catastrophe struck. Dennis crashed, suffering severe road rash and a concussion. He took the start of stage 4 but eventually abandoned during the 181-kilometer race from Cefalu to Mount Etna.
The years of hard work vaporized in an instant. Dennis’s maiden Giro ended in disastrous fashion.
DENNIS’S PHYSICAL MATURITY HAS corresponded with a change in his attitude. Once known as one of the peloton’s prickliest riders, Dennis has softened in recent years. Yet Dennis is also prone to bad luck. In addition to his crash at last year’s Giro, he also slid out in the 2017 time trial world championships, ceding time to eventual winner Dumoulin.
In 2015, Dennis’s then team leader, Cadel Evans, warned him about his luck and attitude. “Cadel told me I have a lot of potential,” Dennis says, recounting a conversation they had after the TDU that year. “I sort of said, ‘What are you talking about? You should have said ‘I’m gonna be one of the best!’ He laughed and said, ‘You have a lot of potential, and as long as you don’t stuff up and do something stupid, you can be good.’”
Despite his bad luck, Dennis has remained optimistic. He looks to the example of Wiggins, who also suffered from several unlucky mishaps before he started winning.
“I try to keep that in the back of my mind and keep chipping away. I have to believe the good luck will come,” he says.
Likewise, Henderson sees the potential. He has also witnessed the psychological maturation over the past five years. What he now sees is a good pupil — one that is extremely driven and who pays great attention to detail.
“He’s into it. In the past he’s been harder on himself because he is so highly motivated,” Henderson says. “Sometimes I have to give him that perspective of, ‘Hey, whatever it was, a race or training session that didn’t go well, that’s a tree in the forest — it’s not a bad forest because you have a bad tree. We move forward.’”
[pullquote attrib=”Rohan Dennis”]”I would rather fail trying than not try and always be wondering.”[/pullquote]
The final shift in Dennis’s transition is perhaps the most important one. The move has forced Dennis to radically change his racing mentality. Previously, his goal was to simply finish a grand tour or to accrue miles in preparation for a time trial.
Now he must race to win. That means being alert every second of the race, every day.
“If I didn’t have the goal to challenge for GC, there would be no point in making the sacrifices that I have made, both mentally and physically,” Dennis says. “That is 100 percent the goal. It’s not all physical. More of it is mental.”
As Henderson says, it’s a giant puzzle, and expectation plays a massive, influential role in elevating (or knocking down) an athlete. Learning how to manage expectations, building the psychological strength to compete across three weeks, and constructively dealing with any issues that may arise in a race are all part of the armor a grand tour contender must craft in order to win.
“Everyone is a human. They’re not a frickin’ machine, no matter how much it may look like they are when somebody is ‘on,’” Henderson says. “Rohan has the right pieces. He has put together smaller puzzles, just not that massive puzzle.”
When will that happen? When pressed, and with much forehead furrowing, Henderson says Dennis will win a first grand tour at the 2020 Tour de France. That seems indicative of that “extremely driven” mentality.
Dennis agrees, despite the long road ahead.
“If I do not do this, and do not try, I will always have that what-if,” he says. “I don’t want to have to live with that. I would rather fail trying than not try and always be wondering.”
Andrew Hood contributed to this report.