This Giro d'Italia is part-race, part-finishing school for Rohan Dennis, who is looking to learn the ropes as a general classification challenger in the Grand Tours. Bedecked in the maglia rosa since the end of stage 2 in Tel Aviv, the BMC rider has scored full marks in all of his early assignments, though the syllabus becomes a little more demanding on Thursday with the Giro's first summit finish at Mount Etna.
"Tomorrow is a big test to look at the work I've done in my training, to see if it's gone the right way, and to see if we need to change it in the future or keep it the same," Dennis said in Santa Ninfa after stage 5. "Tomorrow's a big test for what I've done as preparation."
As Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) has demonstrated in recent years, there is no better way to pick up the skills of a Grand Tour contender than by wearing the leader's jersey over an extended period of time. The Dutchman's stints in red at the 2015 Vuelta a España and pink at the 2016 Giro certainly stood him in good stead ahead of his overall victory in last year's corsa rosa, and no matter how his race plays out, Dennis will surely benefit from his experience as leader here.
After racing aggressively to take control of the pink jersey in Israel on Saturday, Dennis has had to defend the precious tunic in a variety of different ways since. The most rigorous inspection of his credentials came in the uphill finish in Caltagirone, where he stuck snugly to Dumoulin's wheel in the finale
"Every day leading up to this day has been a little bit different," Dennis said. "The wind was the main factor in Israel. Yesterday was about positioning and then a very tough uphill sprint. Today was a little bit more relaxed, and I think after yesterday I had the confidence not to stress too much. It was as pretty relaxed today. I felt good on that final climb with 2k to go, and if there was a split, there was never any doubt that I could close the gap."
The challenge will be altogether different on the arid slopes of Mount Etna on Thursday afternoon, where Dennis knows he will be hard-pressed to defend his maglia rosa with Dumoulin a mere second behind him. Losing weight without sacrificing his natural power has been the central tenet of Dennis' attempted transition from rouleur to stage racer, but racing in the high mountains is not simply a mathematical equation. Dennis will look to dose his effort much as he did at the recent Tour de Romandie, where he placed 7th overall.
"Tomorrow will basically be about doing what I did in Romandie," Dennis said. "If I'm in trouble, and I know I can't go with the move, then I can just ride my own pace to my absolute limit and hope that it comes back."
Dennis abandoned last year's Giro before it even reached Mount Etna on stage 4 due to the effects of his heavy crash on the previous stage, but the area holds no secrets for the Australian. He trained on Etna for two weeks back in 2016 and sampled the novel approach from Ragalna that will make its Giro debut this year.
"I've done it every way. I'm pretty sure the way we're going up is the hardest at the bottom and then it gets easier," said Dennis, who smiled when asked if he would back in the press conference room atop the volcano on Thursday evening. "I hope so."