SAN DIEGO (CT) — On paper, Rohan Dennis is the man to beat at the Amgen Tour of California.
The route features two pivotal GC stages, a summit finish on Gibraltar Road in Santa Barbara, on Stage 3, and a 20km time trial in Folsom, on Stage 7.
Given his performances last year, including a UCI Hour Record, a TT win at the Tour de France, and overall victories at the Santos Tour Down Under and USA Pro Challenge — as well as the strong team BMC Racing brings to California — Dennis should be viewed as the rider of reference for this year’s Amgen Tour.
Whether or not that translates into reality when the rubber meets the road is the big question for everyone — including Dennis.
The 25-year-old Australian has had a mixed start to the season, which began with a national TT title victory and a supporting role at the Tour Down Under, where his teammate Richie Porte finished second behind Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge).
That was followed by illness, which saw Dennis skip Paris-Nice, and abandon Volta Ciclista a Catalunya. Five weeks later he returned to racing at the Tour de Yorkshire, where was average, finishing 21st overall.
In the long run, the illness could be a “blessing in disguise,” as he focuses on the Tour de France and Rio Olympics, where he aims to win a medal, should he be selected. (Cycling Australia will announce Olympic selections in late June.) What that might mean for next week in California, however, is to be determined.
Dennis spent the week heading into California in Boulder, Colorado, training at altitude with BMC sports scientist (and CyclingTips columnist) Neal Henderson. That training included simulated TT efforts to mimic the Folsom time trial, where he finished second in 2014, a substantial 44 seconds behind Bradley Wiggins.
That TT proved pivotal; Dennis won on Mt. Diablo the following day, but could only take 20 seconds out of Wiggins, and could not drop him on Mountain High a few days later.
This year, California’s main climbing stage comes before the time trial, and Dennis knows he’ll need to keep the race’s best climbers within reach if he’s to be crowned the King of California in Sacramento on May 22.
“I should be good for the time trial,” Dennis said. “It’s the uphills, and the long stages, where I could have some difficulty. Yorkshire was good, I showed I can be up there. There were more tactics involved, the roads are different there, it’s much harder to save energy.”
It’s not Wiggins that Dennis is worried about this time around, however. “Wiggo won’t be able to climb with us, he’s eight kilos heavier than he was in 2014,” Dennis said. “It’s doubtful he’ll be able to get up the climbs. He may still be good on the time trial.”
Instead, it’s riders who can both time trial and climb with the best — names like Lawson Craddock and Andrew Talansky (Cannondale), and Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) — who Dennis will be watching closely.
“Talansky hasn’t had a great start of season, I’m sure he wants to get something,” Dennis said. “He’s dangerous. I don’t want to give him anything. Craddock was good at Pais Vasco, which is a hard race. That means he could come into California flying, or tired. Sometimes you peak for those races, and afterward, you expect to be flying, but you just struggle, and wonder what happened? Guys in their thirties seems to be able to recover, they can just suffer and suffer, but younger guys sometimes have a harder time recovering.”
Another rider to watch, Dennis said, is Sky’s Peter Kennaugh, a talented climber who “is not the best at the time trial, but can pull one out if he really needs to.”
And Dennis recognizes that he’s not the only potential GC contender on his own team, which is also bringing Spaniard Samuel Sanchez, and American Brent Bookwalter. Sanchez won a stage at Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco in April, and backed it up with a fourth-place finish at Liège-Bastogne-Liège a few weeks later. Bookwalter, who was third at the Tour of Utah and second at the USA Pro Challenge (to Dennis) last August, took fourth in the TT at the Vuelta a Andalucia in February.
“We saw Sanchez in the classics, he’s got some good form,” Dennis said. “We’ve got Brent as well. He’s hungry, and he showed in Colorado and Utah that he can be there with the best GC guys. I’m not sure what Sanchez wants to do, or what the dynamic with team will be We’ll feel it out and find out how everyone is feeling. I think Gibraltar will show everything, straight away. Ideally we’ll get two guys on podium again, but that doesn’t happen very often, let’s be honest.”
Proving that he keeps on eye on the U.S. domestic scene, Dennis also pointed to compatriot Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly-Maxxis), recent winner of the Tour of the Gila, as well as Rob Britton (Rally Cycling), who finished third at Gila and stood on the podium with Dennis and Bookwalter at the USA Pro Challenge, as potential threats.
“There’s always someone who pops up, someone who is hungry — maybe someone from the Hincapie [Holowesko-Citadel] or Axeon teams,” Dennis said. “No one is the clear standout as the GC guy to beat, which makes the race more open. That makes for a better spectacle, for the people watching at home. It makes for a more aggressive race, which makes it harder for us.”