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Hour record holder Dennis almost quit cycling last year

Dennis tells VeloNews a crash during the Australian national championships early last year left him physically and mentally bruised

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Just hours after 24-year-old Australian Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) stood atop the podium to claim the general classification title at the Santos Tour Down Under (TDU) in Adelaide, Australia last month, his former Garmin-Sharp teammate Nathan Haas told VeloNews Dennis had contemplated walking away from the sport while on a phone call with the fellow Aussie just a year earlier while both still rode for Garmin.

According to Haas, who now rides for the merged Cannondale-Garmin team and was a heavy pre-race favorite at this year’s TDU after finishing fifth in 2014, the conversation took place a day or so after Dennis crashed out of the Australian road nationals in the men’s elite individual time trial after he was swept off the bike by a sudden crosswind. The crash left Dennis both physically and mentally bruised and battered.

“Rohan Dennis came [to the TDU] last year as last year’s team leader and had a huge preparation for nationals and had a crash and screwed up the start of his season, and soon after we talked on the phone and he told me that he thought he wanted to quit cycling,” admitted Haas, who himself was left bloody and bruised after a crash-marred stage 4 bunch sprint in Australia, thus ending his bid for a second straight top-five GC finish this year.

When asked to reaffirm his comment, Haas was quick to respond.

“That’s what he said on the phone, man,” re-asserted Haas “It was knee-jerk reaction to how bad it was. The point I’m trying to make is one year you start shit at a race and the next year you win it.”

VeloNews reached out to Dennis, the new hour record holder, for confirmation on Thursday while the UCI’s No. 1 ranked rider in the world (as of January 25) was in Paris at the track cycling worlds supporting his girlfriend Melissa Hoskins and her Australian track pursuit teammates Annette Edmonson, Amy Cure, and Ashlee Ankudinoff as they obliterated the 4,000-meter team pursuit world record (13.683) and won the gold medal.

“Yeah, it is true,” said Dennis, who is two weeks removed from breaking the hour record (52.491km) previously set by Austria’s Matthias Brändle (51.852) in October and three weeks after fellow Aussie Jack Bobridge disappointingly fell 500 meters short of the mark (51.3km).

“It was after my crash at nationals last year,” he continued. “I did everything right, I didn’t deviate from my program — either on or off the bike. I never went out, and I was in an altitude tent for eight weeks, 10 to 14 hours a day.”

The strict regime and intense training were purposely geared to deliver Dennis in top form for the nationals and the TDU, before allowing the previous year’s Tour of Alberta winner and the Critérium du Dauphiné’s best young rider a reprieve prior to the classics.

“Everything came crashing down essentially when I went down on the bike,” Dennis said. “It was almost like all that emotion and all that effort, and then everything in a split second was all over.

“It was pretty tough for me.”

“I was lucky that I got a call from Haasy,” Dennis recalled. “I told him I didn’t know if I want to ride anymore and that if this is what cycling is all about — you do everything right and you get knocked in the return — I’m over it.

“Obviously, that’s not how I feel now, but it was a very emotional time and I got caught up in the heat of the moment.”

Known for his self-confessed “short fuse,” Dennis told VeloNews he’s worked hard on his temper over the last two years.

“I’m learning how to walk away from things,” he said. “I’ve just learned to use my energy on the bike and not waste it before I saddle up.

“Now I take a bit more of a back step, a deep breath and count to 10, and if that doesn’t work I count to 100.”

Dennis also credits his better behavior on natural progression.

“I think it comes from maturity and perhaps a bit of success,” he said. “With both age and success comes responsibility. Some people are born with a fire in their belly and are still really successful, and others let their emotions get the best of them and that can cause damage.

“I want to channel that fire now and learn how to use it to my advantage.”

He also recalls a humorous, yet insightful conversation with his now retired team leader, 2009 world champion, and 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans.

“Cadel told me I have a lot of potential,” said Dennis, recounting a conversation they had after the TDU.

“I sorta said, ‘What are you talking about? You shoulda 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.’”

Being good is exactly what the South Australian has done since mid-March last year when he snapped out of what he claimed was the “lowest point of his sporting career” after a week and a half off the bike. What followed was an amazing run of stockpiling results on his palmarès, starting with a stage win and second place overall behind Bradley Wiggins (Sky) at the Amgen Tour of California in May. He then claimed silver in the individual time trial at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in July, before ditching Garmin with an offer on the table for the American-registered BMC Racing team.

“Garmin didn’t drop me,” claimed Dennis. “Basically they wanted to sign me for another two years. It was just a choice made by myself to move on, and you can’t say it was a bad move.

“But I’m actually really thankful that they let me do it mid-year, as it made the transition to the start of this year with a new team a lot easier.”

Just after the mid-season switch to BMC, Dennis played a pivotal role in the squad, winning the team time trial at the world championships in Ponferrada, Spain. Dennis also placed fifth in the individual time trial, but he says the decision to transfer was not taken lightly.

“I think it was a risky move for me,” he admitted. “Not in the sense of whether or not I knew if the BMC was good — because I knew that — but rather for my own image.

“I got a lot of positive feedback from it, but obviously there was always going to be some negativity about moving teams mid-year and people questioning why.

“We had to sort of move away from that and look at all the positives and it was a great move results-wise, and I mean no disrespect to Garmin as I did get results with them … it was just time for a fresh start, really.”

With a clean slate, Dennis has made the most of his new opportunity and has gone on a tear, climbing to the top of the rankings after a stellar January that included an individual time trial silver medal at the Australian road nationals, followed by a stage win and overall victory at the TDU over compatriots Richie Porte (Sky) and Evans.

With the hour record firmly in place — for now — Dennis is proud of his accomplishments so far this year. He is far from complacent, however.

“Technically, yes, I could stop the season now and be happy, but I don’t think Andy Rihs or Jim Ochowicz would be very happy,” said Dennis jokingly of his new team’s owner and general manager.

“But I feel if you want to be successful at anything you can never be 100 percent satisfied. It’s sort of a sad reality that if you want to be truly successful in this sport, you can’t actually become content until you retire.”

Looking back on his success over the last year since he nearly called it quits on his career, Dennis admits he clearly made the right choice.

“Hindsight is 20/20 I guess,” he said. “I think about it now, and if I did walk away and someone told me I was going to accomplish what I have in the past 12 months, I would obviously be hugely disappointed in what I’d done.

“Deep down I probably knew I still had it in me. It took me a little bit of time to reset the brain and let the body catch up as well.”

Paris-Nice is up next for the fully rejuvenated Dennis, then perhaps Gent-Wevelgem to gain some experience with the one-day classics, followed by the Tour de Romandie, Tour de Suisse, and possibly even the Tour de France.

“I’ve obviously got my eyes on the Tour,” Dennis said. “The team has spoken to me about the opportunity of starting if I have the form, which is the question for anyone really that goes to the Tour.

“But if all goes well, there’s no reason why I wouldn’t be picked. I feel I could be useful in the team time trial on stage 9 and able to help out Tejay [van Garderen] because he is still the team’s No. 1 GC rider.

“Just to be there and actually complete the whole thing this year would be a huge goal for me,” he concluded. “And another reason to be happy that I didn’t quit last year.”

Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews.