So far in 2016, Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) hasn't had the season that he was hoping for as he builds toward the Rio Olympic Games. The Australian time trial specialist has been plagued with several bouts of illness that derailed his early season program, causing him to miss Paris-Nice and abandon Volta a Catalunya after the first day.
This week he's at the Tour of California – where he finished second overall in 2014 – hoping to get back on track for the Tour de France and the ultimate goal of winning Olympic gold.
"I've had a bit of sickness, but that's all passed," Dennis told Cyclingnews Saturday evening in the lobby of the team's hotel. "A few camps and heavy training hasn't brought it back, so I think it's all done thankfully – touch wood. It's all gone, and now I look forward, obviously, to the Tour of California and then everything is prepping towards Rio."
After a January start at the Tour Down Under, where he finished two stages on the podium, Dennis contracted sinusitis and decided to skip Paris-Nice. He was on track for a comeback in Catalunya, but flu-like symptoms flared up on stage 1, knocking him out of that race. He returned to racing earlier this month at the Tour de Yorkshire, where he finished 22nd overall.
Despite the setbacks, Dennis is coming into California as one of the top favourites for the overall win. But with everything that has happened so far this year, does he put himself on the favourites list?
"Yes and no," he said. "Training has been going well. Yorkshire went better than I expected. Obviously I wasn't at the level I needed to be to win, but it's a bit hard when I haven't really raced since January. So to still be up there in contention somewhat for the overall in Yorkshire, I was very happy with, and it showed that, OK, I'm not perfect at this time of year – stage races haven't been exactly finished or even started since January – but other than that, everything is looking good."
Dennis said the worst-case scenario is that he loses significant time in the first five stages but then comes storming back in the stage 6 time trial on the same Folsom course where he finished second to Bradley Wiggins in 2014.
"That's my back-up plan," he said of stage 6. "GC-wise, I'm not the first pick, and that's natural knowing that it's a little bit up in the air of where I'll be after a couple of days. I think [the stage 3 climb of] Gibraltar will be more of an indicator of where I'm at.
"I'm hoping I'm not second again," he said of the time trial. "I want to come here and get confidence back. I have to win something. I have to perform well in one of the stages or overall, and one of the big objectives is to win that time trial. If it ends up being helpful toward the GC position, that's great, that's an added bonus. But you have to start somewhere and aim for some sort of result to kick start the season again and get the ball rolling."
If Dennis wants to step onto the podium's top step in Folsom, however, he'll have to get past Wiggins, who admitted at the pre-race press conference that he hasn't ridden a time trial in 14 months.
As for other rivals in the general classification, Dennis cited Team Sky's Peter Kennaugh, 2014 third-place overall rider Lawson Craddock (Cannondale), Craddock's teammate Andrew Talansky, George Bennett of LottoNL-Jumbo and Giant-Alpecin's Laurens ten Dam.
"[Jelly Belly's] Lachie Morton's come off Gila with good form," Dennis said of his fellow Australian and former teammate. "It just depends on his time trial."
Dennis also said there's usually a domestic rider or two who surprises the WorldTour riders.
"Like Rob Britton (Rally Cycling) in Colorado last year: no idea who he was," Dennis said of the Canadian who finished third at the USA Pro Challenge. "I haven't seen him since either, but there's someone who is always a danger. You can't rule out any of those guys. They're hungry and they want to come here and win to make that next step."
The next step for Dennis after California will be making the BMC Tour de France selection, which he believes is crucial for his pre-Olympic preparation.
"It's still up in the air, but that's the plan and has been the plan since day one, so I just have to make sure I keep the head down and keep doing everything right on and off the bike and just make sure that I'm good enough for that selection," he said.
There is no prologue time trial at the Tour de France like last year when Dennis won the opening day and wore yellow for a day, so his focus will change slightly.
"My objective is to use the Tour de France to prep for Rio and hopefully get that spot as well," he said. "All going well, I'll be able to use that for Rio prep and work for Tejay [van Garderen] and Richie [Porte] as GC contenders."
While lacking a prologue this year, the Tour does feature two time trials in the last two weeks. Dennis said there's a chance for a stage win there, even if the team might prefer that he save some energy to help the GC contenders.
"Hopefully I'm still in somewhat of good shape and will be able to have a crack at them," he said. "There's only a couple of times I've actually done a time trial where I haven't gone full gas, and I felt like the lousiest, worst bike rider in the world. So whether there are instructions to go easy or not, I'll be going 100 percent for them, just so I can feel good about myself."