Whatever happens from here, Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) has something tangible to show for his Giro d'Italia, though he is not ready to label his race an unqualified success just yet. The Alps await, and there is again a place in the top 10 overall to be defended.
After a spell in the maglia rosa during the opening week, Dennis added stage victory in the Rovereto time trial on Tuesday, but he might have been almost as pleased to have moved up to sixth place overall with just five days remaining.
"To be honest, I was hoping I could take more time out of some of the climbers but I'm not going to say no to a lead of two minutes over 10th place, that gives me a bit of a buffer," said Dennis, who lies 5:04 down on the unassailable maglia rosa of Simon Yates. "But the stage win is hard to go past. I would have liked to have two, from Israel and here. But having pink for four or five days, and now a stage win is pretty good so far, I think."
Dennis set off down the start ramp in Trento targeting the time of the day's early pace-setter, Tony Martin, and he cruised through the opening time check after 12 kilometres with a lead of 15 seconds over the German, though the gap tightened considerably by the next check after 25 kilometres.
Come the finishing straight, Dennis believed he had already fallen short of the best mark, only for his radio earpiece to crackle into life with the felicitations of directeur sportif Marco Pinotti. He stopped the clock in 40 minutes flat, to beat Martin by 14 seconds.
"For some reason, I thought Tony had done a 39:40 and I thought I'd lost it but when I got to the finish Pinotti was in my ear screaming, and there was no time on the clock at the finish, which normally means you're the quickest," Dennis said. "Then they confirmed I was quickest and it was a good surprise."
The flat and fast course lent itself to the pure time triallists, though it was an altogether new experience for Dennis to take on such a test after racing day in and day out for the two weeks preceding it. As it turned out, a number of climbers – including Yates (20th at 1:37) and Fabio Aru, who was later 20 seconds for drafting – produced stronger displays than one might have anticipated, but the top four places on the stages all fell to recognised time triallists, with Tom Dumoulin and Jos van Emden taking third and fourth.
"You never know. In the third week of a Grand Tour, GC guys can do quite a good time trial and I was surprised by some of the climbers who lost less time than I thought they would have done," Dennis said. "It was a time trial-specific course, but the third week of a Grand Tour changes everything."
Rocky road to Rome
Dennis has made no secret of his ambition to transition from a pure time triallist to a stage race contender, and this Giro has been his first clear run at a project that began in earnest after his ill-starred tilt at time trial gold at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Asked how far he was into his project and how far behind he was a rider like Yates, Dennis cracked a grin: “I’m two years into a four-year plan, and I’m five minutes behind him at the moment.”
The Australian has battled gamely to limit his losses on the Giro's summit finishes to this point, and has managed to avoid the dreaded giornatano to this point. The terrain in the final week, however, is unlike anything to come before, with two particularly brutal legs to Bardonecchia and Cervinia on stage 19 and 20. In that context, Dennis is pragmatic about his possible final position in Rome.
"I still think top 10 is the target," Dennis said. "Tomorrow should be a sprint but we saw after the last rest day that the transition day wasn't exactly a transition day, it was quite hard. There’s an uphill start tomorrow, 10k at 5% and that’s not going to be easy. After that there's three big mountain stages and I have to get through them as best as possible and keep doing what I’ve done these last two weeks."
Normally deployed in the service of Tejay van Garderen or Richie Porte, this has been Dennis’ first Grand Tour as a team leader. Rather than struggling with the pressure of the role, the 27-year-old noted that he has been benefiting from some of its perks.
"I've funnily enough felt better at this Giro than any other Grand Tour after stage 16," Dennis said. "That's partly because I'm doing less riding every day. Normally I lose about two to four hours on GC, which is like riding a whole extra stage. So as much as it's harder to ride as a leader, I'm actually a little bit fresher."