A win brings some happiness on a weekend of sadness for Australians. A record average speed and the realisation of a dream has given us a good sporting headline at a time of soul searching.
Rohan’s dreams becomes reality
– By Rob Arnold
After the heartbreak of the news from Adelaide only a couple of days ago, South Australian Rohan Dennis offered a little bit of hope for Australians who are trying to come to terms with something that’s impossible to comprehend. A victory in a bike race and a day in a famous coloured shirt won’t solve any problems but a little bit of cheer was needed in his home town.
Football is the biggest sports news item in Adelaide, that’s how it’s always been and how it is always likely to be. But the South Australian capital has become a haven for cycling and cyclists. It’ll never quite be like Utrecht, a place where two wheels, a frame, pedals and a chain are a part of life for almost every resident, but the effect of bike racing in far away Adelaide is tangible even if it is for that one wonderful week in January each year.
The Crows didn’t play this weekend. Sport was secondary at a time of mourning. The tragedy of Phil Walsh was surely on the minds of everyone and it was a time for soul searching rather than cheering, sadness not celebration.
One day things may seem normal again but it’s logical that some of life’s usual routines are put on hold when news like that about Phil Walsh surfaces. Shock and dismay strikes and it’s hard to replace with who’s-going-to-win sentiment.
Football and cycling may be great things, they may ignite passion and allow us to forget about the everyday worries that bog us down, but for all the good that sport has to offer we also recognise that it’s not everything.
Still, as the sun set in Adelaide it came up in Utrecht and a flash of inspiration would strike.
Rohan Dennis has become known in cycling circles because of a series of big accomplishments but yesterday he took it to a new level. Fifteen minutes of fame? No, 14:56 is all it took for him to become the leader of the Tour de France. Everyone else took longer than 15 minutes! A record average speed reminds us of what an achievement this win was, one for the ages and it happened at a time when some sense of joy was required.
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The contrast of moods between Adelaide and Utrecht was as stark as the weather. Cold and hot, sad and joyous, lost and found…
Football will never be replaced by cycling but there’s a coming together of the two sports that is more obvious every year.
The Crows midfield coach Ryan O’Keefe simply can’t get enough of cycling. He rides for therapy, he rides for fitness, he rides for fun… and then he gets paid to help young men become better football players. His colleague also discovered the act of riding.
Walsh was said to ride too “because life’s too short to spend in a car”.
And this weekend, instead of watching football, fans of the Crows, the people of Adelaide, and many around Australia opted to consider the most important things in life: family and friends.
Elsewhere an event was unfolding. The gathering for the Grand Départ of the Tour de France was the headline act in Holland.
Summer had come to Utrecht in a dramatic way. The King was in town and so too hundreds of thousands of passionate sports fans – some who understand the nuances of cycling, some who are coming to terms with the many idiosyncracies of bike racing, some who just wanted to be part of the carnival atmosphere.
It’s impossible to ignore cycling in Utrecht. Bikes are littered everywhere around this beautiful canal city which doubled in population for a day on 4 July 2015 and the reason was a race. Usually riding here is just about transport, but for a day Utrecht was transformed into a racing circuit.
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At breakfast on the morning of stage one of the 2015 Tour de France I read reports about what had happened at a family home near the beach in Adelaide and wept. I’d never met Phil Walsh but the news of his death had a similar effect on me that it’s had on everyone. It’s impossible to escape that sadness.
The mood was a sombre one for me but a few hours later at the Jaarsbeursplein, with the help of the hordes of enthusiastic people milling around in anticipation of a race against the clock, it would improve. It was possible to switch back into the mindset of a cycling journalist and start taking in all that was unfolding.
This is the 19th successive time that I’ve seen the opening stage of the Tour de France. It’s a routine but it’s impossible to become complacent. This is a phenomenal contest and the sheer logistics of closing down a city and turning the streets into a stadium for a day astounds me. I know it happens but the scale of it is immense and the results of the preparation that goes into a few hours of sport must be seen to be believed. No matter how complicated the staging of an AFL match may be, a 13.8km time trial through the streets of a city like Utrecht is another level of organisation.
Amidst all the kafuffle, was one man who had set himself a mission as soon as he learned the opening stage of the Tour’s 102nd edition would be a time trial.
Rohan Dennis from Adelaide had a plan: win the yellow jersey!
To even consider a task like this you need bravado. It’s no small undertaking and, against the best riders in the world, nothing could be left to chance. No distractions, complete focus, a big heart, a touch of luck… and maybe, just maybe dreams will come true.
Dennis is no stranger to success. He’s achieved a great deal in his few years as a professional athlete. He is naturally gifted and has found his calling; he can race a bike well, very well. And that’s what he planned to do on Saturday but, like every Australian, he’d have heard the news of Walsh and wondered how it could be that someone could be so angry that they could do… oh, the mind switches off. It’s best not to draw those mental images. It’s too upsetting, too real, too tragic.
In his younger riding days, Dennis had many strengths that were recognised by coaches and nurtured by those who understood that, with the right guidance, he could achieve big things. But brewing deep down was an anger he found difficult to manage. He would have some issues but his determination allowed him to seek support, work on his problems and find a way to be happy rather than angry.
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He was discovered in a talent identification program at his school, taken out of the pool – for his first sporting love was swimming – and put on a bike. The rest, they say, is history. He joined the South Australian Institute of Sport and raced to success on the track as a junior.
We met on the day he won the 3,000m junior pursuit title at the Australian track championships on a hot day in February 2008 in Sydney’s western suburbs. Back then his skin was free of ink and only a whisper of a blonde teenage beard could be seen although, I dare say, he’d never once shaved. He was just a boy but it was obvious that he was going to grow into a fine professional cyclist. It only took me three minutes and 18 seconds to realise that I was watching a star of the future. His pedalling action was close to perfect and, at the age of 17, his position on the bike was stunning. It’s only improved since but what I witnessed was enough to prompt me to talk to anyone who was willing to listen: “Sign this rider, he’s got the goods!”
They’d nod and say, “We’ve heard it all before.” But Allan Peiper listened.
The old fox from Victoria became a pro cyclist the old-school way but he’s now in charge of a new generation of bike riders. It was Peiper who contacted the AIS and asked for his power files in 2009. It was Peiper who spoke with Jonathan Vaughters and eventually convinced Slipstream to recruit a young man who had a reputation of a bit of a mongrel. It was Peiper who, after moving jobs from one team to another, was prepared to take a gamble and find a way to arrange a mid-season transfer when things turned sour at Garmin-Sharp. It was Peiper who introduced Dennis to Andy Rihs and his BMC team. It was Peiper who began taming the shrew.
It was Peiper, with a host of others including Neil Henderson and the cast of support staff at BMC Racing, who took Dennis from being a potential star and turned him into a Tour de France leader.
Peiper’s title is ‘High Performance Manager’ but he is much more than that. He’s a coach, a confidante, a man committed to trying to turn good people into better ones.
On the day of Dennis’ triumph in Utrecht, Peiper was on a mountain in Austria at a training camp with others from the BMC team. He too couldn’t ignore the news about Phil Walsh. And although the cycling coach was far away from his riding star, he could at least experience the joy of seeing a victory that had been a long time in planning become a reality. Allan could take the phone call hours after Rohan had stepped down from the podium and hear the gratitude. He could relish the fact that a young man’s dreams had become a reality.
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There are many people who enjoyed seeing what Rohan Dennis did on the streets of Utrecht. The ambiance in the Dutch city was phenomenal to experience. The stadium was stretched out for 13.8km and the tunnel of cheers reminded me of how wonderful it is that sport can bring people together.
Meanwhile, tears continue to fall in Adelaide and the feeling of loss remains… but for a tad under 15 minutes, a rider gave people something to cheer about.
When it came time to shake Rohan’s hand and offer an appraisal for what he’d done, I could only find one word: “Thanks.”
– By Rob Arnold