Two top-10 performances in individual time trials against some of the world's best have landed Rohan Dennis a spot in Garmin Sharp's squad for the Critérium du Dauphiné which begins in Champéry on Sunday.
The Tour de Romandie in April proved a turning point for the Australian neo pro, who surprised more than a few with his ride against the clock during the fifth and final stage, finishing less than a minute behind current world champion, Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick-Step). Prior to the World Tour event, Dennis like some of his young Garmin compatriots Lachlan Morton and Steele Von Hoff had become increasingly frustrated and bogged down in ill-health and injury. He had just wanted to feel good on the bike again.
A fortnight ago, at the Tour of California Dennis set the benchmark time in the San Jose individual time trial, eventually finishing in third place behind Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM).
"Now everything's started to come together, it's starting to pay off," Dennis told Cyclingnews from Barcelona on Tuesday where he was celebrating his 23rd birthday with girlfriend, Orica-AIS rider Melissa Hoskins. "I probably have to thank Mel for listening to my crap and my bitching about some things every now and then. It feels like all that pain was worth it."
It could have been better for Dennis if not for the oven-like conditions experienced by the peloton over the opening two days in California, surely a story that more than a few riders will have in common. Chasing a top-10 overall finish, Dennis' plans required a re-think and he instead dedicated himself to the lead-out train of Tyler Farrar who showed some of his best form in recent times to come away with a stage win and three podiums. Meantime, Dennis still had enough in the tank to finish 11th on the punishing climb to Mt. Diablo on the penultimate day.
"The first two days I was struggling with the heat and feeling pretty average the whole day, really. Once those two days were over I started feeling better every day. I don't want to sound cocky, but it felt like I was back in the under-23 racing again like I was last year, feeling that I was strong enough to perform and contribute to the bunch and not just be another number," the first Australian to win the International Thüringen Tour explained.
Originally down to ride the Tour de Suisse, Dennis' ride in San Jose was enough to convince Garmin boss Jonathan Vaughters that same afternoon that he was ready to climb with the best for the more-challenging Dauphiné, and could adequately support the hopes of Andrew Talansky.
"He wanted to test me out and put me into the Dauphiné to possibly try and help whoever's going for the lead there on the climbs," Dennis 2012 world under-23 time trial silver medalist explained. "He said obviously I won't be up there in the top five because it's a different league with guys like Froome and Talansky and what not. Hopefully I'll maybe in the top-30 to help Talansky or whoever is going well and be a team player."
As for his own chances, there is a pan flat 32.5km time trial at the race's midway point that Dennis is eyeing.
"That will be interesting, there will be some big names there as well," he mused.
A rider's first full season in the WorldTour can be confronting, with the exploits of those that have gone before them often littering the path ahead. Described by Vaughters as a "rare talent" and with an already impressive palmares from both the road and the track, there is a certain weight in expectation that surrounds the Adelaide-native. Asked if he had a rider that he was looking to for benchmark performances, Dennis was honestly lost for any examples.
"I put the expectation on myself more so than looking at what else everyone else has done," he admitted. "I expect myself to be there when I'm feeling good. In time trials I expect to be around the mark, hopefully top-10 from now on depending on the course."
While quite a number of the peloton at the Dauphiné will be using the eight-stage event as a stepping-stone to the Tour de France, Dennis was doubtful whether an opportunity for him to take on his first grand tour lay ahead this July.
"It's a long shot, I think," he said. "It's still a pretty long way off I reckon. Nothing's been discussed or even mentioned so probably not this year."