Rohan Dennis: a rookie season…
In a season that began with a last-minute withdrawal from his hometown WorldTour race – before it began – because of viral meningitis, Rohan Dennis would go on to surpass even his ambitious expectations. The 23-year-old went to the London Olympics as a track rider but he is now a full-time road cycling professional. It took a while for him to find the right place to show off his abilities – and stunning pedalling action – but he has settled in to the environment offered by the Garmin-Sharp team. He recovered from the illness while fretting that he might have been forced to waste opportunity presented to him by Jonathan Vaughters and the Slipstream team and eventually started to rack up a few good results.
In June he led GC at the Critérium du Dauphiné and won the white jersey as best young rider in that race; he earned a place in Garmin-Sharp’s Tour de France line-up, crashed in stage one… and never really recovered. By stage nine, he was gone. DNF. A leg injury ended the 100th edition for him but he wasn’t finished with yet. In the first week of September he won a stage of the inaugural Tour of Alberta, took the leader’s jersey off Peter Sagan and raced onward to Calgary to be crowned champion of the Canadian race.
On 25 September, he’ll line up in the green and gold and contest the world championships as an elite rider for the first time. Dennis and Richie Porte will be the Australian representatives in the time trial on the Wednesday of the worlds and both will back up for the road race on the Sunday.
At last year’s world championships, Dennis was second in the TT during his final season as an under-23 rider, 44 seconds behind Russia’s Anton Vorobyev, and seven seconds ahead of this year’s winner, compatriot Damien Howson (who won the gold medal in Florence yesterday).
Rohan Dennis is an Olympic silver medallist (from the team pursuit in 2012) and a formidable rider on the velodrome but Dennis insists track racing is a thing of the past for him. Now it’s onward to find out what else he can achieve in a career that has only just begun.
RIDE caught up with Rohan Dennis a few days after his return from Canada to his European base in Girona, Spain. More from the discussion will be published in the next issue of RIDE (#62, due out in December) but as we close in on his elite TT debut at the worlds, here is a quick Q&A offering some insight into one of Australia’s most promising young professional cyclists…
– Interview by Rob Arnold
Rohan Dennis: the time has come…
RIDE: Well done in Alberta. Did it just seem like hotel room, road, podium for you? Or did you get to see some of the countryside as well?
Rohan Dennis: “It was basically like any other American race. It was just: stay one road. And, if you did change roads, it was to turn onto another big road that was no smaller than two lanes with a big shoulder on each side. It was a typical American sort of race but hopefully they’ll put some hills in it next year.
“There was one day, stage four when it was really wet and it was supposed to go into the mountains – but the roads were destroyed from the season earlier in the year… so they cancelled that and put us over a couple of rollers. We still got a fair bit of climbing in but obviously it’s nothing like doing a mountain.
“In the stage I won, there were 18 guys in the front group after 70-80km, and then that was the selection: that was the bunch I had to beat to win. It did split after 10km because of crosswinds and then it came back together a little bit and then it split again – and that’s when we attacked again. Actually, the last split was six of us and that was about 30km to go.”
RIDE: What about you – how are you managing this season? You’ve had some success but also a few setbacks… you’ve definitely made a name for yourself in 2013.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs. Since the end of October last year, it was pretty rough for about five or six months. I broke my collarbone in my first week back on the bike (after the break following the Olympics). Then, obviously, when I got sick at the Tour Down Under that shook me around for a while as well. The actual virus was around, giving me a bit of stick, for about a week. The whole of the Tour Down Under, I was either in bed or on the couch not doing very much and feeling sorry for myself. Then I got to Europe and I was thinking, ‘Okay, this is all over…’ but my body was pretty tired and I couldn’t really train properly.
“I had really low intensity efforts and I was struggling to even do them. I was constantly getting little colds and little nagging sickness every now and then – leading into a race or straight after a race.
“My body was almost telling me to stop. It needed to rest but obviously you can’t just say, ‘I’m not going to race the first six months of my pro career because I was sick in January.’ That doesn’t really go down too well so I thought I’d just try and get through it.
“Around the Tour de Romandie I could start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Then [the Tour of] California came around and I had a couple of rough days there at the start and I was thinking, ‘God, how can I actually perform? I’ve got good form but I just can’t actually do anything…’ but I think I was just putting too much pressure on myself so I started thinking that I’d just do everything I can for the team and things really started to turn around then.
“I was feeling really strong on the bike and then, in the time trial, I went alright and then came the Dauphiné and the rest is sort of history.”
RIDE: Doing what you did in the Critérium du Dauphiné this June is something that can make a bike rider: a few days in the lead of a race like that is a big deal for a neo-pro. Did you come out of that feeling different?
“It gave me a lot of confidence. It was a reassurance to myself that it’s not too far away: things are going to come good. It made me believe that these guys are sort of beatable.
“Obviously the time trial went really well and that last day was another big confidence boost for myself. There were times when I was ready to pull out; I was in a bad, bad way with the cold. It got to the point where I literally couldn’t do up my rain jacket because my thumbs wouldn’t move. When you’ve got something that’s so simple to do and you can’t do it, you almost start to break down. You’re just like, ‘What? I can’t even zip my jersey up! What is wrong with me!?’ But the team was really good, Jack [Bauer] actually gave me his gloves – I asked him if he could go back and get my gloves and he goes, ‘Just take mine.’
“I was like, ‘Oh, now I feel bad… I can’t pull out now.’
“I was thinking I couldn’t pull out anyway but there were definitely things going through my head: ‘I just want to get out of this place …’ and then, on the last climb I started to feel really confident in myself. I knew that there was only 10km to go in the race and I pushed myself through, looked at the results in the end and I think there was only 25 seconds to Froome. [It was 36 seconds.]
“From the day I lost the yellow jersey [stage five], I lost 59 seconds and on the last day less than a minute but it put things in perspective and allowed me to think that, within a couple of years, it is possible to be able to compete against these guys and possibly – possibly – be right alongside them up a climb and challenging them. Obviously that’s a long way away but…”
RIDE: You started your first Tour de France feeling confident coming off the Dauphiné but when did it all fall to pieces for you?
“That first day I had a crash with about 15km to go, with Ryder [Hesjedal] and I worked pretty hard to get him back and, at the time, I wasn’t thinking of the consequences of what I was doing or what I’d done.
“My back was pretty buckled, the chiropractor fixed that… I didn’t take any skin off so I was thinking, ‘Oh, I got out of it really well…’ and then on the morning of the team time trial I got on the bike and I was like, ‘Oh, my calf muscle isn’t really good. It feels really tight.’ So I was stretching a lot and I was not tight and I didn’t know what it was. ‘Oh well, harden up! Ride through it. She’ll be right.’
“Being in that time trial position it put a little bit more strain on it and the next day, for the last 100km I just couldn’t pedal with my left leg. There was about four days of doing that – riding with one leg from about the halfway mark of every stage. So by that ‘A3’ day [Ax-3-Domaines] when Froome decided to make everyone look a little bit silly, that was the breaking point for my leg.
“My right leg started to get a little bit sore as well and my knee started to get a little bit buckled, so I said, ‘Look, I’m out. I can’t make my right leg do all of this work and the possibly get an injury on my right leg as well – it’s not smart.’ And that was that. It’s a bit of a shame but that’s life.”
RIDE: What about you and your moods – you say you get ‘fired up’, how does it work with you? Can you feel that you’re losing your temper?
“Yeah, I can feel when something starts to annoy me. I’ve been managing it a little bit better these days than that how I used to. It’s more about being aware of it; aware that it’s happening, and just noticing that things are getting a little bit out of hand, and knowing when to step away from a situation, or just tell someone, ‘Look, you’re really starting to annoy me.’
“Obviously I’ll never be perfect and not crack it again – it’s always something that I’ll have to work on in the long term if I want to stay in the sport. I don’t need to go nuts some day and lose my contract or anything just because of something silly. Usually it’s something pretty small but I’ll build it up over a period of time and it ends up being completely nothing at all but it gets me really annoyed.
“The teachers used to tell me and my parents that I used to bottle all my anger up and whenever someone annoyed me, I wouldn’t say anything – I’d just let it go and store it, and store it, and store it. And it just got to a point where it was about to topple over and something as small as someone calling me a ‘little idiot’ or – as they do in primary school – calling me a ‘loser’ like little kids do… and then it would just be like, ‘Ah, all right – here we go!’
“And it was at that point when you just couldn’t really handle it.
“Obviously when you’re a kid, you’ve got no idea of what’s going on and the best way to explain it would be to reference that Anger Management movie with Adam Sandler. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but he just takes it all the time and doesn’t ever speak up and he’s always really polite to everyone and one day he just sort of cracks.
“It was a little bit like that for me at times and I had to learn how to manage that.
“Going to high school it was brought to my attention that it wasn’t acceptable. And that it had to stop.”
RIDE: The Olympics in London was your first taste of competing at that level – was it all that it was cracked up to be for you? Did it feel like all the effort was worth it?
“It was a little bit weird actually. People paint the Olympics to be such big thing, and it is… but they paint it a little bit too big. The picture when you’re a kid is that there is nothing like it! It is the biggest thing in the world. And you get to the village thinking that the buildings are going to be marble and gold. Then you walk in and it’s just apartment blocks.
“Then you think, ‘Okay, the room is going to be really good.’ And you get in there and there’s two single beds and no room to move. ‘Okay. Alright. Sweet. So… yeah, the food hall,’ you tell yourself, ‘it’s going to be really good!’ Then you realise it’s just a buffet – just a really, really big buffet.
“It’s sort of weird because you’re expecting so much from the organisation that the work they’ve done and the effort they’ve put in is huge but you still expect more. And it’s almost a bit of a let-down.
“You are sort of expecting the meals to be hand-made, specifically for you and for everything to be perfect but it’s far from it. The Olympics is far from being a perfect world. And this was something I had to get my head around straight away and tell myself, ‘Oh well, it’s another race and it’s no different to a world championships…’ I was riding against the same guys we race against all year round and although there were bigger rewards at the end but, at the same time, it was no different to any other race in my eyes.”
RIDE: What would you like to happen in the next little while? You’ve had some wins, you’ve had some moments in leader’s jerseys, you’ve had all sorts of experiences. You’ve raced head-to-head with the Tour de France champion, you’ve beaten Peter Sagan in Alberta… these are great things for your confidence. How do you see things happening next?
“Uhm, the TT at the worlds this year – short term – is obviously a big goal of mine. I’ve shown that I can be around the mark with guys like Chris Froome and Richie Porte and so on but I think Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara and Bradley Wiggins are there – along with Taylor Phinney, who we cannot ignore – and those guys are most advanced in the time trial and if I get top 10 in the time trial at the worlds, I’ll be very happy. If I get top five, I’ll be over the moon. That’s something I’d like to do but after that there’s time to get back to Australia and evaluate: go over what’s happened in these 12 months since I actually did quit the track and start concentrating on the road.
“I’ll have a look at where I need to go and what path I need to go down to get the most out of my career. That could be in being a stage race rider, or it could be a time to concentrate on my time trialling for a while and rebuild that strength before I move on to something else. But I’m not 100 per cent sure yet what road I want to go down.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold
* * * * *
RIDE Media publishes both the Official Tour de France Guide (Australian Edition) as well as RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
RIDE Cycling Review is now available in a digital format via Zinio.