Garmin Sharp recruit Rohan Dennis will finally get his season underway this weekend at the Strade Bianche after having been forced to withdraw from the Tour Down Under last month due a viral infection.
The plan had initially been for the 22-year-old to race Paris-Nice but his program changed early on in his recovery. Following the Italian 1.1 event, Dennis will then race Tirreno-Adriatico which starts next Wednesday.
"The team spoke to me just after Tour Down Under and said they were considering putting me into Tirreno," Dennis told Cyclingnews from his base in Girona. "It's a little bit easier I think than Paris-Nice ... I think the main reason is that while it's still a big race, it's not as long and probably the weather could be a little bit better."
A less than ideal start to 2013
There were high hopes for Dennis, the Tour Down Under's Best Young Rider in 2012, at the WorldTour opener, especially since he was fresh off the back of his silver medal-winning performance at the Cycling Australia Road National Championships in the individual time trial. Just hours before the People Choice Classic criterium, Dennis was ruled a non-starter.
"The doctors said that I had all the symptoms of viral meningitis; he didn't diagnose me with it," he explained. "I still don't know how serious it was."
Not only was Adelaide-native Dennis missing his home race, but he was also missing the opportunity to back up his 2012 showing where he'd been fifth overall. In his first race for the team, Garmin Sharp had planned to be riding for their new signing.
"It sucked," Dennis said, frankly. "After last year's result I thought that if I play my cards right in the bunch and don't go up the front and waste energy in the first day I could probably have a good crack at the overall."
So despondent with the situation, Dennis would watch the race on television most days but he treated the sessions as if the Tour Down Under was being beamed in from Europe and he was never meant to be there. While he is now back on the mend, Dennis admits that it's difficult to know how well he's recovered.
"It's hard to tell," he admitted. "I was feeling fatigued but every day, I could still push myself fairly deep on the bike before nationals and Tour Down Under but it was just little things - my heart rate wasn't going up at all but I could still put out the power I had to plus more.
"At the moment I'm feeling that pain and it does stop me every now and then - which is probably a good thing - so I'm not going too deep. I think with Strade Bianche and Tirreno it will be a bit of a test and I'll just sort of see with the team time trial especially and a couple of the big hilly stages in Tirreno, it will be interesting to see how I get through them."
The dirt dilemma
On first assessment, Strade Bianche is a race that should suit Dennis, last-up winner of the win the International Thüringen Tour. Then one learns that Dennis is no fan of the white gravel roads which feature in the Tuscan race.
"I'm not the best cyclo-cross rider in the world," he told Cyclingnews. "I won't lie, I don't like the gravel a whole lot and it's something I need to learn how to do. It puts me out of my comfort zone so I'll go there with the objective of whatever goes down, goes down.
"The steep hills I think from what I saw weren't too long. I can go well on them if I've been training for them. It comes down to a lot of skill on the bike as well and practice. I think you probably have to have some fairly big balls to go around some of those corners as hard as some of these guys will on the weekend. I'm not the type of rider that risks too many things when I can't see a big result for me at the end."
Where Dennis is undoubtedly comfortable however, is against the clock - something he will have the opportunity to show with the 16.9km team time trial which opens Tirreno-Adriatico. Garmin Sharp had set the early benchmark in the stage in 2012, only to be pushed into third place by an exceptional performance by Orica GreenEdge and RadioShack. This time around, Dennis is hopeful that the stage could result in his new team's first win of the year after four second placings and three thirds so far in 2013.
Should his body stand up to the tests of the next week or so, Dennis' provisional race program has the potential to showcase the skill that Garmin Sharp boss Jonathan Vaughters described to Cyclingnews upon signing the Australian last year.
"Rohan is the rare talent that can ride a 3:54 team pursuit, climb with the best in the world, and win in tactical situations," he said. "He will be one if the best riders in the world, the question is only when."
The Tours of Romandie, Suisse and California all lay on the horizon.
"I was pretty happy with the level of races, they've really chucked me in there and there are a couple of races where I'll be able to have a good crack at the overall," Dennis explained.
"I'm looking forward to really digging my teeth into Suisse and California. Hopefully I'll still be doing them and see where I am at against some of the guys that are training for the Tour."