Rohan Dennis will ride for Team Ineos in 2020. The shock factor may have worn off, given that Cyclingnews first reported the likely move back in October, but it still felt pretty seismic when the time trial world champion was unveiled as a new signing for the British WorldTour team on Monday morning.
The timing of the announcement only added to the sense of occasion. As Dennis' former squad, Bahrain-Merida, welcomed the media to the headquarters of new title sponsor McLaren for the launch of their new kit and identity, Team Ineos hit send on their press release.
A coincidence, perhaps, but one that, if nothing else, drew attention back to the acrimonious nature of Dennis' split from his old team, which is still the subject of a UCI arbitration process.
It's now nearly five months since Dennis suddenly climbed off his bike and walked out of the Tour de France, and the news of his new signing, if not healing past wounds, finally puts an end to the speculation surrounding the Australian's future. Quite how this plays out from here, however, is still very much up in the air.
Are Dennis and Team Ineos a good match? There are solid arguments on both sides.
Dave Brailsford's team are rooted in track cycling, having been born as something of an offshoot of Britain's national federation back in 2010. Likewise, Dennis spent his early years on the boards, winning two world titles and an Olympic silver medal before going full-time on the road in 2013.
Dennis is also something of a perfectionist, demanding the very best equipment and the very best of everyone around him. The concept of 'marginal gains' may look rather hollow now, but Team Ineos do share that attention to detail, and of course they have almost bottomless pockets to cater to any and every need. The regimented, scientific approach is common to both parties.
Then again, with Dennis, you get the impression it has to be on his terms, and therein lies the risk associated with his signature. You're getting an ego. That's a loaded term but it's not necessarily a criticism. Dennis' headstrong mentality and intense, almost tunnel-vision focus are key ingredients in his two time trial world titles and victories in the three Grand Tours. It's what makes him so fascinating as an elite athlete. The Worlds victory in September, where he pointed to his head as he crossed the line, was one of great individual displays in the history of the sport. But it was just that – an individual display.
It might be a stretch to say that Dennis isn't a team player, given the role he played for Michael Matthews in the Worlds road race four days after the time trial, and given that he's won two world titles in the team time trial. Yet his record – two mid-season contract terminations in the space of three teams – hardly paints a picture of someone who fits seamlessly into team structures. It was difficult not to raise an eyebrow when Dennis took to Twitter to voice his pride in signing for 'Team Sky'. The 'delete' button was swiftly pressed.
The team's Grand Tour focus
Team Ineos have shown over the years that they're quite willing to throw money at big names, but they're far from a collection of individuals, and they have a clear identity as a Grand Tour winning machine. It's often said they have domestiques who'd be leaders elsewhere, but there have been relatively few fall-outs in that respect, and the likes of Michal Kwiatkowski and Wout Poels have happily dulled their own potential in the name of the greater good. Can the same be expected of Dennis? Surely not.
Ineos have also invested heavily in youth in the past few years, with the average age of new signings since the 2016-17 transfer window being just over 23. The arrival of a 29-year-old world champion – one of the biggest names in the sport – seems slightly out of kilter with that recruitment strategy.
The question for Brailsford would have been whether the potential rewards outweigh the risks.
In the short term, Dennis has confirmed that his major ambition for 2020 will be the Olympic Games time trial in late July. Secondary to that would seem to be the World Championships in September in Switzerland, where a famous treble is on the cards. At both events, he won't be competing for Ineos, but for Australia.
International titles are significant in terms of knock-on publicity for teams and sponsors, but you sense it's further down the priority list for a team managed by Brailsford and owned by Jim Ratcliffe, whose involvement in Eliud Kipchoge's sub-two-hour marathon stunt points to a desire to achieve on their own terms.
Many have earmarked Dennis as a perfect cog in Ineos' Tour de France juggernaut but, with just a week separating the finish in Paris and Tokyo, he won't be part of the team's bid for an eighth yellow jersey in nine years. Instead, he'll ride the Giro d'Italia, where he has three individual time trials to go at.
Whether it's Bernal, Thomas, or Carapaz, there'll also be a GC bid to support, and Dennis has said he'll help out, but how committed will he be? GC teams often look to rest domestiques in time trials to save them for the mountain stages, while time trial specialists often do the opposite and take to the gruppetto in the days preceding a time trial. With the final Giro TT in Milan coming at the end of a brutally mountainous final week, it's hard to see how Dennis can commit 100 per cent both to the team cause and to the final stage win. Something has to give.
And what happens after the Giro? It wouldn't be a surprise to see him left to his own devices in the build-up to the Games to replicate the preparation that yielded such success in Yorkshire. The same could be said for his late-season build-up to the Worlds.
So we're looking at a year that could be monumental for Dennis on a personal level, but where his contribution to the team amounts to a couple of Giro stage wins and a couple of time trials elsewhere in the season. Does that really justify a team like Ineos, who have won five of the past eight Grand Tours outright, making this kind of splash? Granted, Dennis didn't actually have many solid options, and Ineos won't be paying over the odds, but it's hard to see them making a vanity signing that doesn't really fit with the overall ethos of the squad.
What's key, then, is the long-term vision. Dennis has signed a standard two-year deal, but there must be one. Beyond the Olympic year, what does Dennis' career look like? It was four years ago that he started to think seriously about a future as a Grand Tour contender, giving himself until 2020 to see 'light at the end of the tunnel'. With the exception of the 2018 Giro, however, where he placed 16th overall, he hasn't given it a proper crack. In that respect, his second place at this year's Tour de Suisse was a reminder of the potential that remains largely untapped.
And where better to tap into that potential than Ineos? It's a team that has turned not one but two former pursuit world champions into Tour de France winners, in Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas. Ineos' Tour de France dominance has been built on watts-per-kilo and a TTT-like approach to mountain stages, and Dennis fits that mould perfectly.
The question mark comes in the form of the array of Grand Tour riders already on the Ineos books, but it's not quite as well stacked as it may appear. Egan Bernal has the future ahead of him and the world at his feet, but Froome is 34 and is uncertain to return to his best after a career-threatening injury, while Thomas will also turn 34 next May.
As for timescales, once 2020 is out of the way, Dennis will have the 2021 season to take his next step before his contract expires. The 2022 season would seem to be a key point of reference, given he'll turn 32 – the same age at which Wiggins and Thomas won the Tour.
In Yorkshire, we discussed how the Worlds time trial was a seminal moment in Dennis' career. After all the fall-out from the Tour, a poor performance could have left his career in disarray, but he came out with the perfect response. The next chapter begins now, in the black and red of Team Ineos.
Vanity signing or long-term project? It's probably a bit of both.
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