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“People say I’m skinnier than in 2015,” says Rohan Dennis, “but I’m not. I don’t know why it looks that way. Maybe I’m just big-boned.”
Dennis is not talking about body-image, he’s answering a question about his weight.
It’s a topic that comes up often when you speak with riders with ambitions to race for general classification honors in a race like the Tour de France.
The reason I asked him the question, on the eve of the 2019 race, is because I wanted to know if there had been any significant physical changes to the time trial world champion since his stage winning TT in Utrecht four years ago, when he set a new record for the fastest average speed at a Tour de France stage. Back then, he explained his hopes for the future: he wanted to become a GC rider.
That status will surely come for the 29-year-old Dennis, but he says it won’t be during his first Tour with the Bahrain-Merida team. The leader, the GC guy, is the 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali. It’s an obvious choice and the Australian is happy that he’s not being asked to be the plan-B for the team should things go awry, as happened in the final kilometers of the Alpe d’Huez stage in last year’s Tour. Instead, as Dennis explains, his role will be to chase stage wins – obviously, in the stage 13 TT in Pau, but also in a road stage.
“I haven’t done the preparation for three weeks, so I’m not going to bite off more than I can chew at a Grand Tour, let alone the Tour de France when I haven’t done the preparation,” Dennis says.
While Dennis’s preparation may be lagging, his recent form has looked impressive. Dennis was second overall in the Tour de Suisse in June, only 19-seconds behind one of the genuine Tour favorites, Egan Bernal, the 22-year-old Colombian protégé from Team Ineos.
Weight is a key factor for GC riders and Dennis believes he can drop a few kilos, but he’s also wary about the sacrifices required to step up to the level required for a three-week race.
He is ambitious, there’s no question about that, but also pragmatic, and realistic.
“I’m more-or-less, the same weight – or maybe a kilo heavier – than 2015, which surprises me as well. I think it’s just maturity in general,” Dennis says. “I’m just stronger than what I was back in 2015, so I can handle that extra kilo. Obviously, that’s why I’m not really prepped for GC for three weeks – I’m just too heavy at the moment.”
The defending Tour champion, Geraint Thomas, has often explained that one of the hardest things about making the jump from pursuit specialists to a GC rider is managing his diet accordingly. The Welshman knows it’s necessary but he is also mindful not to allow sport to put him at risk of an eating disorder. The same applies to Dennis, another rider who came to the pro peloton via the 4,000m pursuit on the velodrome.
“I think it is necessary,” says Dennis about managing his diet. “If you’re going to win a Grand Tour it takes a lot of sacrifice and it puts you on the border-line of an eating disorder. I haven’t gone down that route this year. It wasn’t on the cards.
“I was originally here to work for Nibali for GC, depending on how the Giro went, and I didn’t want to put all my eggs into being a back-up. If I’m coming here and putting the effort in to starve myself, I want to have the opportunity for myself.”
Bahrain-Merida will do all it can for the Sicilian Tour winner again in 2019 and there’s reason to be optimistic. Nibali says he’s ready, and Dennis is happy to work for the rider who has won the Tour (2014), Vuelta a España (2010) and the Giro, twice (2013 and 2016).
For the sprints, the team has Sonny Cobrelli – a versatile puncheur who is in a similar league to the likes of Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and Michael Matthews; strong and proven on fast finishes, ideally with a bit of an incline at the end.
Meanwhile, Dennis will look for his own ambitions outside of the GC battle.
“No,” says Dennis, reiterating a point he’s getting tired of explaining, “there are no goals for me for GC at this race.
“I’m here for stages and, specifically, stage 13 and,” he adds, with his trademark cheeky grin, “hopefully I can try and pin-point a couple of road stages.
“I’m yet to win a road stage in a Grand Tour and that would be great, to come away with one of them is a big goal of mine this year.”
His performance in Switzerland last month gives him confidence and, despite not losing weight, he’s happy with how he’s raced up mountains in the lead-up to the Tour.
“Climbing-wise, I’m in the best shape I’ve been in before the Tour. Time trialling? We’ll soon find out.”
After several years of success with the BMC Racing team, Dennis is in a new environment and he enjoys a more relaxed approach, something Nibali and co provide at Bahrain-Merida.
“Compared to past years with Richie [Porte] and Tejay [van Garderen], I’d say it’s a little bit more relaxed,” he says, explaining the contrast with BMC Racing. “I think that’s just the way that Nibali likes to go about his job – not stressing about the little things. He tries to be, as he likes to say, ‘Tranquillo’ and it’s a little bit different to what I’m used to.”
After his TT victory, in Utrecht, when he took the yellow jersey in 2015, Dennis said that “in the future” he’d like to be racing GC. Can he envisage a timeline of when that will become a reality?
“I tried last year in the Giro and failed from stage 19 onwards,” says Dennis, quickly adding: “Well, I say ‘failed’ – but I cracked… pretty bad. At the Tour de France I have to really get the preparation right. I haven’t prepared properly for any more than a week to 10 days, as you saw in the Tour de Suisse; I was good for nine days.”
In the next three weeks, we’ll see what the benefits of being a little heavier than the typical modern GC rider is. In 2019, Rohan Dennis is part of a support cast, one who happens to have a rainbow-striped skinsuit in his suitcase.