Rohan Dennis was reluctant to call himself the favourite for the elite men's individual time trial at the 2018 UCI Road World Championships because he was afraid that saying those words out loud would somehow ruin his chances of capturing the rainbow jersey.
"Don't say that I'm the favourite," the Australian told Cyclingnews after warming up on the course last Saturday. "If we say that I'm the favourite, I'll lose."
The superstition that he had about time trials and the World Championships was ingrained in him due to the fact that he's been a top contender in the discipline over the last four seasons, but had never even stood on the podium in the elite men's event until he secured the world title in Innsbruck, Austria, on Wednesday.
"I've never won a world title, and I haven't been on the podium, either – mostly because of luck issues: mechanicals, crashes, bikes breaking. It's those issues that have caused me not to be on the podium," he said earlier in the week.
Outside of the World Championships, Dennis' palmarès included individual time trial victories in stages at the Tour de France in 2015, and at both the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a España this year.
He's won time-trial stages at the Tour of California, USA Pro Challenge, Eneco Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico, Tour de Suisse and the Abu Dhabi Tour, along with three elite national titles, and he briefly held the World Hour Record. This year, he won six individual time trials.
It's hard to say if the previous mechanicals, crashes and broken bikes caused Dennis to lose would-have-been world titles, but they certainly pushed him down the World Championships rankings over the years: fifth in Ponferrada in 2014, sixth in Richmond in 2015, fifth at the Rio Olympic Games and sixth in Doha in 2016, and then eighth in Bergen last year.
Fast forward to his winning performance in Innsbruck, where he smashed the 52.5km course in a time of 1:03:02, to finish a whopping 1:21 faster than both silver medallist Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands) and bronze medallist Victor Campenaerts (Belgium); Dennis said that this astonishing performance was four years in the making.
"It's been a lot of work in the background and a lot of work by the Australian team and by BMC, too, always to make sure that my bike was getting better and better, and that fewer things were going wrong," said Dennis. He expressed his gratitude for the support that he continued to receive in his quest to become a world champion, despite his previous setbacks in the event.
"It would have been easy for the Australian team to say, 'Aw, he'll never win. He hasn't got it when it comes to a World Championships,' but the fact that they kept backing me so that I could have a go every year... I have to thank them a lot."
Winning time trials, or any bike race for that matter, is as much about having luck and functioning equipment as it is about being mentally and physically prepared to rise to the challenges presented by the parcours, competitors and race situations.
Despite his reservations, Dennis was always one of the two outright favourites to contest the time trial in Innsbruck, along with Dumoulin, mainly after he won the stage 16 time trial at the Giro d'Italia before going on to win the two time trials at the recent Vuelta a España.
"This project started four years ago, but this year I knew what I wanted to do," Dennis told Cyclingnews. "My coach and I planned in December to target the Giro – to win the prologue and the time trial to give myself the best possible chance, GC-wise. That was preparation for the time trial, but I also had to learn how to climb better after four or five hours.
"After that, I got sick, and I didn't want to do the Tour de France because it's not the best preparation for the World Championship time trial. We tried to mimic last year, and 2014's preparation, too, by doing the Vuelta before the Worlds. It was sort of similar with what I did with the Tour de France leading into Rio, and it worked perfectly."
Dennis knows that even the best-laid plans sometimes don't work out. Not only was he nervous about the possibility of another mechanical or crash, but he was also up against the defending champion, Dumoulin, who beat him in the opening time trial at the Giro d'Italia and went on to win the time trial stage at the Tour de France – placing second overall in both Grand Tours.
Dennis and Dumoulin have been racing neck-and-neck in most time trials over the years, and this year's elite men's parcours suited both of them because of its length and the climb from Fritzens to Gnadenwald: a 5km ascent averaging 7.1 per cent and with pitches as steep as 14 per cent.
Dennis said that the entire time trial effort hurt, but that he felt good in the first 25km, which were flat. It wasn't until he reached the climb that he wondered if he had gone out too hard.
"I tried to block out those thoughts as much as I could and stick to what I knew I could do – which came down to what my coach was planning power-wise, and then holding my form, staying as aero as possible. It's years of practice, I think, and there was a big mental aspect to it today for me."
Dennis was as stunned by winning his first-ever world title as he was by the margin by which he beat Dumoulin, adding, "I was thinking that there would be about 10 seconds, or even within 10 seconds, between Tom and me, so to come across the line and win by 1:21 was a big surprise for me."
Now the owner of the rainbow jersey that had eluded him over the last four years, Dennis said he would now turn his attention to the elite men's road race on Sunday before he heads home to Girona.
He and his wife, Melissa, are expecting their first baby soon and so the World Championships will mark the end of what has been the most successful and memorable season of his career. He heads into 2019 ready to start a new chapter: as a dad, as the newest member of the Bahrain-Merida team, and as the time trial world champion.
"I could say it's been a long time coming, but there's no point in saying that too much," Dennis added. "I'm just thankful that there are people who've had belief in me over the last four years, and that they never doubted me."
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