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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the November 2013 issue of Velo magazine. After Rohan Dennis’ (BMC) win at the 2015 Tour Down Under, a look back at the young Australian’s first major victory, taken in 2013 at the Tour of Alberta.
Rohan Dennis has always been open to possibilities.
It wasn’t, however, until a week of racing in Canada that he began to believe that these possibilities might become realities. Looking out from the podium as overall winner of the 2013 Tour of Alberta, the 23-year-old Garmin-Sharp rider from Australia began to imagine a very different future for himself as a professional bike racer.
Dennis is a two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist in the team pursuit. He’s been an outstanding time trialist, finishing second (twice), third, fifth, and ninth in TTs at major races in 2013, and was 12th at the 2013 world championship in Florence. Add to this raw power his natural climbing prowess and you have a rare breed indeed. It’s the sort of alchemy that led Bradley Wiggins to a Tour de France win, and a path that Garmin boss Jonathan Vaughters sees his young prodigy following [Dennis is now on the BMC Racing team -Ed.].
“What Rohan resembles more than anything else is Brad,” Vaughters said. “He’s incredibly powerful, and he’s sort of like Brad early in his career. You look at how Brad was a fast team pursuit rider, just like Rohan, and he could climb well on occasion in his early years, which is what we’ve seen from Rohan.”
While comparisons to Sir Bradley might be a bit premature, comparisons to riders within his own generation seem inevitable, and hardly less impressive. Dennis hasn’t had the early success of teammate Andrew Talansky, 24, whose 2013 season included a second-place finish at Paris-Nice and 10th in his first Tour. Nor has he gone the way of Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), who has worn the white jersey in Paris and won both the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge in 2013. Dennis evokes a different, but equally powerful, kind of regard.
“He’s got an engine that people would die for, you know?” said David Millar, the Garmin road captain who helped shepherd Dennis n Alberta. “And it’s still pretty raw.”
Raw, yes, but impossible to ignore. He fired his first shot across the bow in 2013’s Critérium du Dauphiné by taking second place in the time trial, behind Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and ahead of Chris Froome (Sky), and held yellow for a day before finishing eighth overall, in white, as the best young rider. He made it emphatic in Alberta, wresting the leader’s jersey from Peter Sagan (Cannondale) with an outstanding stage victory, the first of his career, on stage 3 into Drumheller.
If you put that together, you have a time trialist, a track rider, and now a stage-race winner.
“This guy has got it,” Vaughters said.
Dennis said he came to the 2013 Tour of Alberta hoping for an evening prologue victory on the streets of Edmonton, or at the least, a finish in the top three. He finished second that day, 13 seconds behind Sagan in 7.3 kilometers.
“I thought, ‘Well, it’s the Sagan show from here on,’” Dennis said. “And he proved it the next day and the next.”
Sagan powered through the uphill finish in Camrose to win stage 1, flicking an imaginary cigar to the crowd as he crossed the line. He didn’t win stage 2 — that went to stagiaire Sylvan Dillier (BMC), who beat Sergei Tvetcov (Jelly Belly-Kenda) from a two-man breakaway — but Sagan made the field sprint look easy when he cleared the field by two full seconds.
“We were kind of almost resigned — as bad as it sounds — to settling for the podium because of the way Sagan is,” Millar said. “But we had no idea we were going to have an echelon day like we did, which just changed the whole situation.”
The winds blew hard across the Alberta prairie on stage 3, fracturing the peloton and leaving Sagan hanging off the back, unable to bridge back. A breakaway of 18 found Dennis without teammates, battling with four riders from BMC and Robert Gesink (Belkin). The group was whittled to six when Gesink powered up the second of two short, steep climbs with 25 kilometers to go; Dennis went hard on his wheel. That set up a sprint finish in Drumheller that saw Dennis go early and beat Brent Bookwalter (BMC) and Damiano Caruso (Cannondale) to win the stage and take yellow.
“When he finished second in the prologue, automatically that showed how strong he was. But the day he won? He did that all on his own,” Millar said. “He was literally the strongest guy in the race.”
And, Vaughters added, “the smartest.” “That breakaway in Alberta was a good test for him,” Vaughters said. “He had four BMC riders and he was by himself. He managed that situation and still won the stage. There aren’t so many neo-pros that wouldn’t have cracked under the attacks and pressure and being alone, without teammates. He was able to manage that situation very carefully.”
Given a lead of 18 seconds over Bookwalter and 30 over Caruso, Dennis turned to his stable of veteran teammates, among them Millar, Ryder Hesjedal, Christian Vande Velde, and David Zabriskie. They’d been his cheering section all week and, in the final two stages, they kept him from harm, ensuring his top spot on the podium in Calgary.
“They’re really motivating and really do help out with keeping me positive, helping me think it is possible to win — probably more than what I think I can do some days,” Dennis said. “It’s good to have that support from guys who have come in fourth in the Tour de France or won the Giro or won stages in the Tour. It does really help you feel better about yourself, especially as a neo-pro. They look at the possibilities. I’m half doubting myself sometimes.”
Plucked from the waters
Dennis’ sports career began, like many in Australia, in the water. Growing up near Adelaide, he was a competitive youth swimmer with an aversion to chlorine.
“It just sort of seeps into your pores, and into your hair,” he said. “I didn’t have a haircut for a year and a half because it just died. It stayed the same length. I’m like, ‘This isn’t healthy.’”
At 15, Dennis was discovered by the South Australian Institute of Sport, whose Talent Search program visits schools to look for the next generation of Olympic-quality athletes, gauging students on a variety of skills.
“And then they put you into a sport where they physically think your body is made for that sport, and mine was cycling, so I took it up to help my swimming,” Dennis said. “And about four or five months in, I’d done better in my cycling than I ever had in nine years of swimming. And I was enjoying it a lot more as well. It’s a lot more of a social sport, not just looking at a black line then turning around at the end of the pool. You don’t get a whole lot of time to enjoy what you’re doing when you’re in a pool. So I decided to switch my focus to cycling and use my swimming for fitness for my cycling.”
That year he won his first title, the under-17 Australian road time trial. A year later he repeated and added a junior team pursuit championship on the track, and two years later he was on the winning team pursuit squad at the world junior track championships. By 2011, he’d won back-to-back team pursuit golds at the world championships, had recorded the second-fastest modern-era time in the 4-kilometer individual pursuit, and finished third overall in the individual pursuit World Cup standings.
On the road, Dennis joined Jack Bobridge, Leigh Howard, Michael Matthews, and others at Team AIS, the Australian Institute of Sport’s under-23 development squad, in 2009. After two years, he jumped to the Rabobank Continental squad, but he left after a season to rejoin the AIS development team. In the 2012 Tour Down Under, the breakout came. He attacked eventual winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) on the climbing stage up Old Willunga Hill, and finished fifth, earning both the best young rider and best climber jerseys. While flying the flag for his young Australian team, he flew his own.
“I know it’s a pain in the ass for the WorldTour guys that we were so aggressive, but we want to show off how good we are, and it’s a way for us to try and get our name out there,” Dennis said. “I thought, ‘That’s my goal, I’m going to try to get off the front and show what sort of rider I am.’ And that eventually [led] into a couple of results during that tour, and [Garmin] wanted to talk about a contract the next year. That’s where it all started.”
Like the rest of the world, Vaughters had seen Dennis’ numbers on the track. What he saw on the hills of Australia made offering a contract easy.
“That was real simple,” Vaughters said. “Here’s a guy who has shown he can ride a 4:18 individual pursuit and 3:59 team pursuit, and he wins the best climber by climbing the Tour Down Under with Valverde? He was every bit as good as the guys out there. It’s a rare combination that you can get a guy who can go that fast on the track that can also climb.”
The 2013 season began inauspiciously for Dennis with illness, injury, self-doubt, and no results to speak of.
“The start of the season was pretty rough for me,” he said. “I was battling sickness and thought, ‘Well, this is just pretty normal.’ I kept looking back on previous years and it seemed like every second year it was just an average year, with either my health or my fitness. I couldn’t get on top of things, so I thought this year was going to be one of those years.”
Dennis could still ride against the clock — second in the Australian time trial championship, 15th in a time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico, ninth in a time trial at the Tour de Romandie — but his climbing legs were missing in action. After a strong third-place finish in an uphill time trial in May’s Amgen Tour of California, though, Dennis received some encouragement in the form of an odd but prescient phone call. It was Vaughters, asking that he go to the Dauphiné to support Talansky’s bid for a win and maybe finish in the top 30 himself. The team CEO had seen something Dennis hadn’t.
“I thought he had been watching someone else racing. We hadn’t even gone up Mount Diablo yet and I’d been dropped on really big climbs and hilltop finishes and I thought, ‘He’s definitely got me mixed up with someone else,’” Dennis said. “I sort of said, ‘Yeah, thanks, I’ll do it,’ and then it all fell into place. He was right, really.”
His disappointment at losing the Dauphiné time trial to Martin was tempered by a day in yellow. And although he gave up the jersey to Froome, Dennis turned heads. While the Sky captain was powering past Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) to win on the brutal Valmorel climb, Dennis finished a respectable 14th, losing 59 seconds. He climbed well enough the rest of that week to finish eighth overall and wear white as the best young rider, earning him a slot on Garmin’s team for the Tour — what would have been his first. There he was to have ridden until the first rest day; he never started. Instead, he rested for later in the season, for smaller stage races in Utah, Colorado, and, specifically, Alberta, where he thought the challenging prologue course suited his style.
“He went there saying, ‘I want to win the prologue,’ and gets second, but he proved to be a much more intelligent and savvy road racer,” Vaughters said.
At a shade under six feet tall and between 155 and 160 pounds, Dennis is relatively stocky, without the lanky build of most grand tour riders like Wiggins or Froome.
“He’s still got that … I’d go as far as to say that puppy fat on him,” Millar said. “He still legitimately could lose some weight and keep his power, which automatically means he’s going to climb even better in the future.”
The weight loss wouldn’t be easy, and it wouldn’t happen overnight.
“If he ever wants to contest a grand tour, he’ll need to be a good five kilograms (11 pounds) — maybe even six or seven — lighter than he is now,” Vaughters said. “But I think that’s something he can accomplish with time. It’s a twoor three-year process.”
It’s a process that Dennis says he has to ponder. He has another year left on his contract with Garmin, time enough to choose from a new menu of possibilities.
“I need time to sit back, reflect, and look toward what path I should take,” he said before the last stage of Tour of Alberta. “I’ve been told I should just really concentrate on time trialing by some people, and try to become more of a Tony Martin. But I’ve also been told it’s possible to go down the Wiggins-Froome sort of route and go for the overall GC stuff.”
Time, of course, will tell.