A day in the leader’s jersey at the Dauphine, a first start in the Tour de France and the overall title at the Tour of Alberta: it’s fair to say that Rohan Dennis’ first season as a professional has been a success. However with 2014 on the horizon, the Australian is already looking ahead to the future with even grander ambitions.
The 23-year-old, who turned down a number of rival WorldTour teams to sign with Garmin-Sharp, is now back in Australia and is building for a strong showing at the Tour Down Under and a second crack at the Tour, but he will also be looking to develop his stage racing abilities with the dream of taking on the likes of Chris Froome in Grand Tours.
"I wasn’t meant to do a Grand Tour at all," he admitted to Cyclingnews.
"There were a few big races in my schedule, but they didn’t want to push me into anything too big. However Jonathan Vaughters said he believed I could handle the workload, and the team backed me."
Garmin’s decision to include Dennis in their Tour line-up came after he donned the leader’s jersey at the Dauphine. Second place in the individual time trial to Parc des Oiseaux netted him the lead as he held off both Froome and Richie Porte. Dennis lost the lead the follow day as Froome and Alberto Contador locked horns in the French mountains but he held on for a top-10 place overall.
It had been a very different situation at the start of the year though, when illness and a subsequent lack of form had led Dennis to question whether he was suited to the rigours of professional road racing.
"The start of the season was pretty rough," he told Cyclingnews.
"At first I was questioning whether or not the sport was for me. After Tour Down Under, with my sickness, I wasn’t able to get on top of my health, and I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel until around Romandie. It wasn’t until the Tour of California that I started to really find myself coming back into that confidence. Then obviously, it all started to fall into place at the Dauphine, and then at the Tour."
If the Dauphine was the confirmation of his talents and the Tour a chance for him to gain experience, then the Tour of Alberta was the confirmation of his choice to stick with road racing. Although the race comes at the end of the season and with a parcours not as demanding as the Dauphine or California, it is still one of Canada's most recognised stage races.
"Alberta was a surprise, as I was only going there for a possible win in the prologue. I didn’t get that, but I thought I’d try and defend second place and on stage 3 everything changed. Everything seemed to happen without too much planning this year and I think that’s the best way to go heading into 2014."
With a season of racing under his belt, attention turns to 2014. Garmin signed Tom Jelte Slagter from Belkin and as the defending champion at the Tour Down Under, the Dutchman may receive first refusal on whether he will lead the team come January but Dennis will be ready should his teammate falter or decide his aspirations sit elsewhere.
"At the moment it’s a little bit unknown. We’ll have Slagter in the team so it’s only fair that he has the chance to go back to back. I’m not sure what his opinions are on that, but the team will back him if he’s willing to go for it. However I’m not going to rule myself out form wise. I’m still preparing myself as I am going there to win. So if Tom isn’t up to it or doesn’t want to target the race, then I’ll happily put my hand up but that’s still not 100 per cent certain yet."
Another ride at the Tour de France remains another key objective. This year Dennis pulled out of the race early - as planned - after finishing last on the stage to Ax 3 Domaines.
"This year coming up the Tour is again a maybe. The team isn’t sometimes picked until a week to go so it’s up in the air but I’m one of around 14 guys down for a possible place. My name’s on that list."
The Tour of California and another strong showing at the Dauphine are also marked on Dennis’ list of ambitions for 2014.
"Next year I believe I can podium at the Tour of California. It’s a bit up in the air with the Dauphine though. This year an opportunity opened up because [Andrew] Talansky was sick. Next year that probably won’t happen again. I’ll target the race but my role in the team will depend on what Andrew is doing in the lead-up to the Tour. There’s also Ryder [Hesjedal] and Dan [Martin] to think of, too."
“Alberta, it would be great to go there again and try and win again. It will be leading into Worlds again and I’ll have that big block of altitude as well but basically I’ll try and mimic what I did this year and try and contribute to the team a bit more than this year.”
One the reasons Dennis opted for Garmin and turned down a number of WorldTour teams was because he felt that Garmin was the best option in terms of developing his talent. Without one single GC rider like a Froome or a Contador or Nibali, Dennis believed that he would have more options throughout the season. A single season in the professional ranks has provided an indicator rather than a blueprint for where his future may rest, but at 23 he believes that competing against the best in stage races is a possibility.
“Anything is possible. People talk about how it’s unnatural that some guys are riding so fast uphill but when I look at it, I’m a neo pro and on the last stage of the Dauphine, Froome and Porte put 30 seconds into me on a 10-kilometre climb. I know it wasn’t an overly steep climb but it was still around six per cent. It’s not out of the question that in two to four years that I can climb with them and be in contention with them.”