The aspirations of Rohan Dennis
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (CT) — Under the hot sun of the Arabian peninsula, Rohan Dennis is getting to know some new coworkers. The UAE Tour is only the second pro race he has started alongside his new Bahrain-Merida teammates. The Arabic lettering on his jersey – a special feature the team is sporting while racing relatively close to home – stands out in contrast to the BMC logo that was splayed across his chest for the past four and a half years.
The change in kit, however, has not altered the long-term plan Dennis has for himself. He may be the reigning world champion in the time trial, but Dennis has aspirations beyond the aero bars. Over the past few seasons, he has been committed to transforming himself into a Grand Tour contender, and he remains committed to that objective as he settles into his new digs — even though his new team already has one of cycling’s biggest Grand Tour stars in Vincenzo Nibali.
“Nothing has changed, other than, basically, I have to learn from Nibali,” Dennis told CyclingTips at the UAE Tour. “Hopefully, that’s good for me for the future.”
Back in mid-2016, Denis embarked on what he characterised as a four-year plan to develop into a Grand Tour contender. Always strong against the clock, Dennis is no slouch at going uphill either, and he hopes to follow in the footsteps of riders like Bradley Wiggins and Tom Dumoulin on the road to three-week success.
Some ways into that timeline, the 28-year-old has yet to deliver a Grand Tour top 10, but he has made improvements as a climber and racked up more experience as a stage racer. Crucially, he has not lost any of his ability against the clock along the way. He has the rainbow jersey to prove it.
As a Grand Tour hopeful at Bahrain-Merida, Dennis will start out waiting in the wings behind an established star — but he knew that would be the case when he signed on. He decided to join Bahrain-Merida anyway.
“I’ve taken a bit of sidestep moving from BMC to Bahrain,” he said. “I’m not the outright leader here by far. Vincenzo has that, and fair enough, he’s proven and he deserves that respect. I’m obviously not going to come in here and say, ‘Hey mate, you’re going to work for me.’ I don’t think that would go down too well.”
Dennis will race the Tour de France this summer as a lieutenant for Nibali. He hopes to one day have the chance to lead a team there, but for now, he will have a golden opportunity to learn from one of the best as he continues to develop his own skill set, without the stress that would come with being the primary leader.
“I’ll be going there to work for [Nibali] and that’s not such a bad thing,’ Dennis said. “I’ll still be training as if I’m a GC rider. Just to be in the finals, the last 20 or 30 guys on the mountain, you still have to be good enough potentially to actually get a result for yourself.”
This week’s UAE Tour is Dennis’ first opportunity to race alongside Nibali. The race has given both riders a chance to learn about each other.
“He’s been pretty relaxed, which is something I didn’t expect,” Dennis said. “I expected him to be a little bit more intense from what I’ve seen from the outside.”
That extends to the team generally as well. Dennis is enjoying the atmosphere at Bahrain-Merida, which he says is more laid back in comparison to BMC.
“I love structure but sometimes things don’t need structure. Otherwise, it causes a little bit of stress,” he said. “Bahrain, I think in some ways it’s a little bit too relaxed, but it’s actually quite nice as well. You don’t have to worry about exact times, doing exactly one thing. It’s a little bit more fluid.”
Although he was ultimately joined at Bahrain-Merida by former BMC teammates Damiano Caruso and Dylan Teuns, Dennis said that Heinrich Haussler was the only Bahrain-Merida veteran he knew when he signed on.
“I didn’t know anyone else,” he said, but “they’ve been really warm and welcoming.”
Dennis’s new coworkers were not sure what they were getting in their new teammate either, but early reviews are positive.
“We got a lot of input about him but so far, he’s very nice, and also very funny,” said sports director Gorazd Stangelj. “Good for team spirit.”
Nibali echoed that sentiment. The Italian said he did not initially know what to expect, and he pointed out that it would take time to get to know each other considering the language barrier, but it’s so far so good for the new pairing.
“I have noticed that he’s really professional,” Nibali said. “His approach, especially in the time trial, can really help us.”
With the Tour still over four months away, Nibali and Dennis should have plenty of time to continue getting acquainted before the summer’s biggest target.
Beyond the Tour de France, Dennis has a few other big objectives of his own in mind. The world championship time trial later in the year is one of them — hardly a surprise considering what he achieved last September in Austria.
His other big goal of the season may come as more of a surprise. Dennis is planning to race the Amgen Tour of California this May with an eye toward the overall title. It will mark his first time back at the race since he delivered a GC runner-up performance behind Julian Alaphilippe in 2016.
This year’s California route was not designed with Dennis’s best-known talent in mind — the seven-day trek from Sacramento to Pasadena eschews time trials entirely. Surprisingly, that’s part of the appeal for Dennis. Success in a race without a TT is a key item on the to-do list. The race will serve as a valuable short-term measuring stick for the progress he has made so far in pursuit of his longer-term goals.
“I have to learn how to race the mountains and not fall back on my strength of time trialling to get time back,” he said. “That’s a challenge, but one I needed to take. Otherwise, I’ll never be good at this GC thing.”