Rohan Dennis (BMC) smiled as the question was translated for him in his press conference following stage 4 of the Giro d'Italia. After defending the maglia rosa for a third day on the punchy finale in Caltagirone, he was asked to outline his general classification ambitions for the remainder of this race.
"My personal goal is I would love to wear this to Rome," Dennis said. "Realistically, I have to look to the long-term and try to learn from this Giro."
This Giro is young, of course, and the high mountain tests are all ahead of him, but Dennis has dealt comfortably with the lessons doled out to date. Tuesday was the first stage on Italian soil, and there was to be no gentle re-introduction to racing in the bel paese. After a wearying, 200km trek inland from Catania, the peloton faced a fraught run-in to the stiff uphill finish in Caltagirone.
Dennis' BMC team worked to help control the early break, and the maglia rosa was prominently placed throughout the rapid closing kilometres. On the climb proper, he even briefly contemplated the prospect of chasing stage victory, but eventually elected to mark Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), the man who lies closest to his pink jersey on general classification.
The 12th place on the stage, four seconds down on stage winner Tim Wellens (Lotto Fix All), was enough to keep Dennis atop the general classification ahead of the second – and perhaps most straightforward – of the Giro's testing troika of Sicilian stages. The Australian maintains a lead of one second over Dumoulin, while Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is third at 17 seconds.
"The team did a great job to put me into position, and then I had a couple of guys, Alessandro De Marchi and Nico Roche, for that final. There was a little bit of stress but not too much," Dennis said. "We were hoping if I maybe felt good enough, I'd try to take the sprint in the final, but when I got to 250 metres to go, I knew it wasn't possible, so I just held the wheel and made sure there were no gaps to Tom Dumoulin.
"The finale was hectic. There were a lot of corners, bumps in the road as well, it was about trying to stay out of trouble in the last 10 kilometres from the top of that climb to the run-in to the climb to the finish."
Tuesday's stage brought the race through Vizzini, the birthplace of Giovanni Verga and the setting of his novella Cavalleria Rusticana. As the Giro came through duelling country, however, it seemed increasingly clear that the narrative of this race will not simply be that of a straight fight between the pre-race favourites Dumoulin and Chris Froome (Team Sky).
Froome conceded 17 seconds to Dennis, Dumoulin and most of the other GC contenders after losing his position on the run-in to the final climb, while Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) underscored his credentials by taking fourth place in the final sprint.
Dennis, however, warned against reading too much into Froome's subdued Giro to this point. The Briton, who is riding despite an adverse analytical finding for salbutamol at last year's Vuelta a España is now 55 seconds behind Dennis in 20th place overall.
"I've seen him lose time on finishes like this before and then on the next big mountain he's taken about a minute, so I'm not really reading into it too much," Dennis said. "I think obviously every second is helpful, and it counts towards GC, but I'm just taking it day by day and not worrying about what's happened in the past too much."
As if a reminder were needed, Giro's first mountaintop finish was visible to the gruppo as they set out from Catania on Tuesday morning. They will return to the locality on Thursday for the 15-kilometre haul to Mount Etna, which ought to be the first major rendezvous for the overall contenders, and a serious examination of Dennis' credentials.
"Hopefully I can keep the jersey a couple more days," Dennis said. "Tomorrow [stage 5] I see as being similar to today, but Etna will be a really big test for me, and we will also see where the GC riders are at for the rest of the Giro."
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