Damiano Caruso was still draped across his handlebars atop Jebel Hafeet when Rohan Dennis reached over and offered a gesture that seemed to combine a thank you with an apology. Caruso straightened up and clapped his BMC teammate on the shoulder in consolation. "No, you've done the same for me before," he said. Brent Bookwalter eased to a halt alongside them, and the greetings were repeated.
Caruso and Bookwalter served as Dennis' pacemakers as he battled to limit his losses on Jebel Hafeet on the final stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour. The brutal pace laid down by Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) proved too much for the Australian – and ultimately, for everybody else.
Dennis conceded his red jersey of race leader to Valverde and slipped to 9th place overall after losing 1:43 on the final ascent, though he remained upbeat about his showing on what amounted to his first exposure to serious climbing in 2018.
"I had to just respond to what was going on, I think that was the best way to do it. I held on for as long as possible because there was a bit of a headwind but in the end the pace was just too high," Dennis said after wrapping up for the descent to the BMC team car.
"My legs, I just didn't have it today… They started riding away from me and we decided that if that happened, Damiano and Brent would pace me for as long as possible and try to minimise the time we lost. Didn't work, but all good practice."
Dennis had entered the final day with a lead of 14 seconds in the general classification and, buoyed by a fine victory in Saturday's time trial, he was optimistic about his prospects of holding off Valverde, Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) et al to claim the second WorldTour stage race of his career after the 2015 Tour Down Under.
With 6 kilometres to go, however, as Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe), Valverde and Lopez traded accelerations, Dennis began to drop back in an already stretched and reduced leading group, and he was dropped soon afterwards when they kicked once again. The Australian had identified Valverde as the dangerman ahead of the stage, and he smiled ruefully when reminded of the fact.
"When he looked back at one stage and I wasn't feeling too good and he wasn't even breathing," Dennis said. "I picked the right guy to pinpoint to say he was the favourite. Hats off to him, he's a classy rider, he deserved the win today."
Dennis is in year two of his attempt to make the transition from time triallist to stage race contender, and the Giro d'Italia will be the centrepiece of the opening half of his season. The 27-year-old drew encouragement from his showing across five days in Abu Dhabi.
"It's good to know that I'm not completely behind the eight ball. I am within the range I need to be in February. As I said before this race it would be a good test to see what I need to work on between here and May. And we've got a few things to work on," Dennis said.
"Climbing is the main thing. Time trialling is going really well at the moment. I probably need to lose some weight off my arse and somehow keep that power as well."
The conundrum for Dennis, this year as last, is to find a way to pare his body down to scale the mountains of the Giro without sacrificing his power in the time trial.
"The thing is I look skinny but the scales don't say I am. I'm not 100 percent sure what my optimum weight is but I know when I'm going well, normally I'm at about 70 kilos more or less," he said.
Dennis' next outing will come at Tirreno-Adriatico in ten days' time, where he will compete alongside Richie Porte in the BMC squad. After a stint at altitude, one final Giro tune-up awaits at the Tour de Romandie.
"All round, I'm fairly happy," Dennis said. "I would have been happier if it was a better result. But the whole mental battle of keeping going when you've been dropped is what we're working on at the moment. That's more important at the moment, I think."