The Australian was two days away from finishing his first Tour as he spoke, knowing, too, that he had two days in the Alps to get through before Sunday’s finish in Paris.
But Dennis (BMC Racing) was determined to get through the 19th and 20th stages in the Alps and be there for the final and 21st stage from Sevres, on the outskirts of Paris, to the Champs Elysees, where he could finally start to savour his breakthrough achievement. That achievement was not just to finish the Tour, but also to impress as he did in it.
Although, as Paris neared, Dennis, 25, was happy to focus on finishing the Tour for the first time – his one previous start in 2013 ended after eight days due to injury.
Asked before Saturday’s 110.5km 20th stage from Modane Valfrejus to l’Alpe d’Huez if he was still seeking an opportunity to get in race winning move or to just reach Paris, he said: “The opportunity of just finishing will be enough for me … 110km to l’Alpe d’Huez. I’m just going to the finish within the time cut and then Paris it is.”
Tejay van Garderen’s abandon
Dennis’ performance in the Tour was impressive. It began with him winning the stage 1 time trial to also become the first yellow jersey wearer. He then rode strongly in the stage 9 team time trial BMC won and worked well for their team leader and podium contender Tejay van Garderen until the American abandoned on stage 17 in the Pyrenees, citing a respiratory infection dating back to four days previous.
“It was disappointing,” Dennis said of van Garderen’s demise. “We weren’t disappointed with him, but we didn’t expect it. He kept it from us [the riders] so it wouldn't stress us out, which was good of him, but at the same time it came as a bit of a shock.”
The toll of Dennis’ work was bound to catch up sometime, and like clockwork it came in the decisive third week of the Tour, when many riders physiologically fall apart.
“This has been a lot harder,” Dennis said when comparing the Tour with the one previous grand tour finish in his career, last year’s Vuelta a Espana.
“I know that I have done a lot more at the Tour than what I did at the Vuelta last year, and I came into the Vuelta a little fresher than what I did at the Tour this year …
“But I am starting to feel [the fatigue] a lot this last week [in the Alpine stages].”
Coping with the third week
However, while Dennis’ body told him otherwise, his mind didn’t stop him getting in a break of 27 riders during the 18th stage from Gap to Saint Jean de Maurienne.
Although, he admits: “Immediately the second I was in the breakaway I regretted it.”
As if to reinforce how far such a move was from his mind, Dennis recalls how: “I told the team [beforehand] I was going to take it a little bit easier the next couple of days.
“I started to feel [the fatigue] the day before, and stupidly I went into the break.”
What's more, Dennis attacked the break soon after passing through the feed zone with 78km to go, but to find steadier rhythm: “With a big bunch but with that many people, it gets really surgy. People get nervous and want to attack. It’s not very smooth.
“So through the feed zone I attacked and just decided if they drop me they drop me.”
As Dennis found: “That was the case.” And on that note, he returned to Plan A, to keep his head down, don’t waste what energy he had left and reach Paris.
Once the cobblestones of the Champs Elysees were under him, Dennis emptied the tank by first bridging across to a three-man breakaway. Dennis was then the last of the lead group to stay out in front before the peloton came over him in the last lap to set up the bunch sprint that led to German Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) winning.
Dennis hay have fallen from being first overall in the Tour after stage one to 101st at 3 hours 27minutes 34 seconds to the British winner, Chris Froome (Sky) after stage 21.
But for one who hopes to one day compete for overall honours, yet whose focus this time not the overall classification, his Tour de France was a success in many ways.
Rupert Guinness is a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media).