Rohan Dennis starts the 2019 Tour Down Under as the time trial world champion – not that he's going to get the opportunity to wear the rainbow stripes during the race, with no TT stages on the route. But winning the Worlds was, the South Australian tells Cyclingnews, a monkey off his back.
"It proved that I could do it. I always knew that I could, but you still have that doubt – even if it's only half a per cent – as to whether it's actually ever going to happen," Dennis says. "I knew I had the physiology and the mentality to do it, but yeah – it was just nice to get it done."
Had Dennis and his wife – former pro rider Melissa Hoskins – had their son any earlier, it may have been a very different story. He was born just two-and-a-half weeks after Dennis won the world title, which had given him a few sleepless nights ahead of time.
"I was a little bit nervous because the doctors were saying that he might come early," Dennis admits. "I was just thinking, 'Please don't come too early.'"
Back home in Australia for Christmas, Dennis had the opportunity to wear his new rainbow skinsuit for the first time at the national championships in Ballarat, Victoria, in early January. Having moved teams across the off-season – from BMC Racing to Bahrain-Merida – having a first competitive hit-out with new kit and equipment in the sort of heat he might expect to experience at next week's Tour Down Under was important.
That Dennis was unable to defend his national time trial title and take a fourth straight title was, he says, not overly disappointing. But he says he was surprised by the margin – just over 20 seconds on a 40.9km course – that Mitchelton-Scott's TT specialist Luke Durbridge beat him by.
"I was surprised because my power was slightly higher than last year," says Dennis. "But there's different wind from year to year, and I've sat down with the sports scientists and the coaches since then and we're trying to figure out why I went slower than last year, but still with good power.
"But I'd rather look at it now than at a WorldTour race and then be another month or so behind, trying to figure things out mid-season. It's why I did Nationals – to sort everything out as soon as I hit the season to see if anything's wrong, and then fix it. Or, if everything's right, to not change things. So in the end it was a good thing, I think."
With a new baby to get to know during the winter, Dennis says that any intensive equipment testing hasn't happened so far.
"I think that's probably our next step. We've pretty well got the TT position the same as when I was at BMC, I believe. It's very close, but we just have to make sure – that's a real vital thing for me," he says. "The power was there at Nationals, but aerodynamics is obviously a big thing in time trialling, so maybe it was slightly off. There are just some little things here and there that we have to check. It comes down to a half per cent in time trials sometimes – it's absolutely minimal – so that's our next step."
Last season, Dennis made some huge steps forward towards fulfilling his so-called 'four-year plan' – an experiment to determine whether he can make the transition from time-trial specialist to Grand Tour contender, starting after the Rio Olympics and ending, possibly, with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where Dennis is looking to perform at the hilly time trial.
Winning time trials – the 2018 Australian title, a stage at the Abu Dhabi Tour, the individual and the team time trials at Tirreno-Adriatico, a stage at the Giro d'Italia, both time trials at the Vuelta a España and then the Worlds TT to finish – continued throughout last season, but Dennis' best Grand Tour performance yet, at the Giro, where he wore the pink leader's jersey early on and finished in Rome in 16th place overall was, Dennis says, very satisfying.
"Before Chris Froome had his jaunt off the front [on stage 19], I was sitting in seventh place overall," he tells Cyclingnews. "But that ruined me, and I dropped down to 13th. Then the next day I lost 45 minutes, but only dropped three more positions. So that showed how hard the Giro was, and gave me a lot of confidence that I was only two 'off days' off a top 10 at a Grand Tour.
"And that was another little monkey off my back," Dennis says. "I haven't always finished the Grand Tours I've done. Sometimes it was only because I'd crashed out, but it was getting to me as to whether I could finish one when I was going all-in [to do well at a Grand Tour]. So it felt as though I made some good steps forward, but there's still a lot of work to do, though. A lot."
The plan is for Dennis to miss this year's Giro and to instead head to the Tour de France in July, where he'll try to help his new Bahrain-Merida teammate and 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali.
"Vincenzo's doing the Giro [as well as the Tour], so it was a bit, like, would I rather go to the Giro and help or to the Tour and help? So I might as well go to the Tour – the big circus – and try to help in the mountains and still try to be good in the time trials. In a way, that's still gauging myself, and still 'semi-GC', and it takes the pressure off my back, too, as if the pressure's on Vincenzo, I may even ride a little bit better."
For now, Dennis will enjoy being home in Adelaide, and focus on Sunday's Down Under Classic and the Tour Down Under, which starts on Tuesday. As a former winner of the stage race – in 2015 – and with a number of climbs on this year's route that he'll be able to test himself on, Dennis would be a good bet to finish well on Willunga Hill on January 20.
"Well, the last time I didn't win the Nationals TT, I won here," he laughs. "It all comes down to how my body handles the heat. In previous years, I've been okay. Last year I suffered a little bit, but got through it. While training today [Friday], it wasn't too bad for me, and it was quite a hot day, so fingers crossed that it's a good sign for next week."