INTERVIEW: ROHAN DENNIS
BMC’s Rohan Dennis wants to transform himself from trackie and time trial specialist to grand tour winner. He’s also been working on smoothing off some of the rougher edges of a lively temperament. He tells Procycling how the changes are going
BMC’s Australian rider is attempting to transform himself into a grand tour contender. We ask how it’s going
Aman who posts on Twitter that there’s “nothing better than starting your day with some Malcolminthe
Middle” doesn’t really fit the profile of someone who’s thought to be a bit prickly.
“I do try to have some fun on social media,” Rohan Dennis grins when Procycling reminds him of some of his previous posts online. “And I do get told that maybe it’s not very professional, but I get most ‘likes’ when I put stupid posts up of, for example, me being an absolute dickhead in my bibshorts, pulling a stupid face… And I do run it by the team, and ask, ‘Will it be a problem if I post this?’ And they’re, like, ‘Err, you can if you really want to…’ and I say, ‘Alriiiight! I do!’ and so I post it.”
As for MalcolmintheMiddle, the American sitcom about a boy genius: “It’s a funny show and easy to watch. I love it. In July 2014 I watched every single episode - straight. I think it’s eight seasons. It was while I was going through my mid-year transfer stuff between Garmin and BMC, and the funniest part was that the theme song at the start goes, ‘You’re not the boss of me now…’ Every time I heard that first bar, I’d laugh. It’s what made me happy.”
So when Procycling gingerly suggests that Dennis has been described as “prickly”, we’re really not sure how he’s going to react. I n August 2016, when he was in the form of his life, Dennis’s handlebars broke at the Rio Olympics time trial, forcing him to change bikes, and likely costing him a silver medal. He ended up fifth.
In September 2017, again in the form of his life, Dennis crashed on the wet roads at the Bergen World Championships time trial, breaking his rear derailleur and forcing him to make a bike change. He finished the race eighth.
“It’s hard to smile in those situations,” Dennis admits, “but I had to – not because I wanted to, but because it was the best thing for me to do. You can’t dwell on it. But I’m still annoyed about Rio. It’ll never go away unless I win in Tokyo [2020 Olympic Games]. People say, ‘Don’t worry, Rohan – you’ll be even better in Tokyo.’ But who says I won’t get sick or injured, or even get picked? Maybe I won’t get to another Olympics. Maybe I won’t even be riding in two years. Who knows what’ll happen tomorrow?
“Anything can happen at any point, and it is frustrating; it is annoying. It’s always been at the big events that something out of our control - or something in our control that we didn’t look over two or three times, didn’t double - or triple-check, just went boom at the worst possible time.”
Having turned professional with Garmin in 2013, Dennis continued what had been winning ways on the track onto the road. The two-time team pursuit world champion and TP silver medallist at the 2012 London Olympics took a stage win and the overall title at the Tour of Alberta, as well as winning the young rider’s jersey at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Dennis started his first grand tour that year too: he was plunged into the madness of France in July as a 23-year-old, before being pulled out after the first week, albeit a day earlier than planned, having been given a taste of le Tour.
The 2014 season went even better: he took a stage win and second place overall at the Amgen Tour of California, behind Bradley Wiggins, and a silver medal in the time trial at the Commonwealth Games. In the middle of it all came his highly publicised mid-season transfer from Garmin to BMC, when he followed his friend, fellow Aussie and former Garmin DS Allan Peiper, to the new team.
Dennis then rode the Vuelta a España with BMC, which saw him finish 84th, before winning the world championships TTT with them, and taking fifth in the individual event.
Dennis has been with BMC ever since, ticking off another four grand tour starts and taking big wins at the 2015 Tour Down Under and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Most significant of all was his victory on the opening stage of the Tour in 2015, which yielded a high profile day in the yellow jersey. He then followed it with stage wins at the Eneco Tour, the Tour of California and the Tour of Britain in 2016.
Then, ahead of the 2017 season, he announced that he’d given himself a ‘four-year plan’ to try to be competitive at grand tours.
"The theme song at the start goes, ' You're not the boss of me now...' Every time I heard that irst bar, I'd laugh. It's what made me happy"
Most riders could end their careers happy with having achieved a fraction of what Dennis has won. And yet you get the impression that his career may have only just begun: that his focus on the grand tours is about to be all-consuming.
“Last year’s Giro didn’t go well, obviously because of my crash, and subsequent concussion, so, physically, it was best to leave,” Dennis, now 27, says of leaving the race after four days. “So then we said I would go to the Vuelta for Worlds preparation, as there was only a week in between them.
“Usually the Vuelta isn’t too… Well, it’s hard, but usually there are guys there preparing for the Worlds. But this year everyone raced 100 per cent every day, like it was the Tour. We made the decision that it would be best to leave after the TT on stage 16. But I actually got sick on the rest day the day before, so I was, like, ‘Well, something is telling me I ought to go home and just recover.’
“Last season didn’t go well for me at the Giro, and the way it was raced meant I didn’t finish the Vuelta, either. I could have finished, but it would have been detrimental to my Worlds, and just to finish isn’t really a massive accomplishment. ‘Wow - you’ve finished a grand tour.’ That isn’t the actual goal for me.” P art of Dennis’s ongoing metamorphosis into a grand tour contender has been to slim down to improve his climbing, while still being capable of performing against the clock. At the 2017 Australian national championships, where he won the TT for the second consecutive year, he claimed that he’d lost weight but retained the same power. This year, he defended his title again.
“It’s been a pretty slow process trying to find out where the limit is,” Dennis says. “I’ve actually done even less intensity than I did last year before the Nationals.
"I've been around the mark in week- long races. Now it's about applying that over three weeks, which is a massive challenge"
People said I looked a lot skinnier again this year compared to last year, but my weight’s the same, so I’m not sure what’s going on there. I might just have more muscle, but I seem to actually look smaller, so maybe I have less fat.”
He says that his ability and experience against the clock, coupled with his past as a track rider make him suited to the modern-day approach of ‘hitting the numbers’.
“You know the numbers you can hold and if you can do what you know you can do, and they’re better than anyone else, then you know that you should win. And that just suits guys who have a more structured approach,” he says. “On the track we’d get pulled out of the TP squad between qualifying and the final if we altered the pace over a lap. Without having a power meter and no readings other than ‘feeling’, we’d get pulled from the team for dropping the pace by .1 [of a second]. It was very exact. Even if you went too fast – just .1 or .2 faster – you could also be pulled from the team because what you were doing was detrimental to everyone else.”
And recreating that exacting discipline on the road has proven to work, too – as long as you’ve got the right riders, Dennis says. But what about panache, Rohan? Don’t you need pana…
“Panache was in the 1990s,” he shoots back, “and there were other things going on in the ’90s as well, weren’t there? When you are attacking 20 or 30 times on a climb, and you don’t feel like it’s hurting you, there’s a reason for that. If you want to have that excitement that you did in the ’90s, then I’m sure there are YouTube videos!”
Instead, Dennis has successfully been applying his track-developed approach to the road in week-long stage races, and it’s a case of ‘watch this space’ in the longer events.
“A lot more can go wrong,” he admits. “The third week of a tour is completely different to the first or second week. In one-week stage races a lot of guys can do well: they can suffer for a week and it’s a little more compressed - a high intensity sort of thing. In a grand tour it is more about getting your head round the fact that the job is not done after one week. I haven’t got my head around that yet. It is something that we still have to work on,” he continues. “Yep - I’ve been up around the mark in plenty of week-long races; now it’s just a matter of applying that over three weeks, which is a massive challenge. So that’s probably why we’re sort of looking at it and going, ‘Okay, let’s try to get through 10-14 days and then whatever happens in that last week or week-and-a-half – let’s use that as a learning experience.’
“If it keeps going well, day by day, just take it: Day. By. Day,” he says, punching out the last three words in a slow mantra. “If I blow up, then we look at what we did wrong. Where do we go from here? What do we need to change?”
His use of ‘we’, rather than ‘I’, reveals the level of help he has around him at BMC. And that includes a sports psychologist. “I’ve had one now for... Well, I’ve had many,” he smiles. “But usually for other reasons…
Wri ter: E l l is Bacon Por t rai t Photography: Chr is Auld
Runner-up Dennis sprays champagne on 2014 Tour of California winner Bradley Wiggins