Were it not for the snap of a handlebar in Rio de Janeiro, Rohan Dennis would likely have brought the curtain down on his season well before these UCI Road World Championships in Doha. The Australian was on course for a silver medal – or more – in the time trial at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games only for a most untimely equipment malfunction that ultimately saw him slip to fifth place and redraw his late-season plans.
"To be honest, if I'd won in Rio, I probably would have been more than happy to call it a season. It was a little bit rough the first half, with sickness and just fighting to get on top of things. So if I did pull it off then, I might have thought: 'Ok, end it on a high,'" Dennis told Cyclingnews in Doha. "I would probably have continued to race, I'm paid to race, but just not with any pressure and end my season as I normally would do, in September."
Dennis was remarkably sanguine when discussing his ill fortune in the minutes immediately after finishing his effort in Rio – "Shit happens," he said wistfully – but some wounds take time to make themselves felt in earnest. The consolation of defeat is that it offers the chance to dream it up all over again, but the cruelty of an Olympic defeat is that the chance takes so long to come around again.
"It makes it harder because it was something that shouldn't have happened, but it did and it's always going to be in the back of my mind: 'What if it didn't break?' I know in my own mind that silver would have been a guarantee, but obviously you never know what extra pressure that would have put on Fabian [Cancellara] too. I think that's the hardest: the unknowns of what might have been and the fact that it's four years until another chance," Dennis said.
"A lot of people have said 'You're only young, so you've still got two more Olympics in you.' But I still have to make it to those Olympics. It's not a year by year thing, where you've got another chance regularly."
The World Championships, on the other hand, are a yearly occurrence, and while victory would not quite provide full consolation for Rio, a rainbow jersey would put a rather different sheen on Dennis' season. Others who came away from Brazil disappointed, notably silver medallist Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands) and Tony Martin (Germany), are also among the favourites for Wednesday's race, though holding form to this point in the year is a hazardous business.
"It is a weird Worlds, because everyone did try to peak for August. At the moment, a few of us probably want to get some sort of redemption for what happened there," said Dennis, who has been the most consistently impressive of the time trial favourites in recent weeks.
Second overall at the Tour of Britain, Dennis was on course for Eneco Tour victory when he crashed out on the final day in the leader's jersey, and he won stages in each race, including the individual time trial at Eneco Tour.
"Eneco was good signs for the time trial obviously, so I can't be any happier than I am with my form. It's a little bit unexpected but for some reason I feel better now than I did in July and August," Dennis said. "But I'm not going to complain."
Dennis sampled the flat and fast Doha course in a competitive setting when he was part of the BMC sextet that finished second in Sunday's team time trial, and while past Worlds circuits have been better tailored to his talents – such as Ponferrada 2014, where he placed fifth in a very competitive field – form and motivation account for perhaps nine-tenths of the law at this late point in the campaign.
"I think the perfect time trial would be a little bit lumpy: nothing mountainous, but just enough to wash some of the speed off the bigger guys," he said. "Something like Ponferrada would have been great, but still a flat time trial is something I'm quite suited to, and I can still win on Wednesday."
There is no time like the present, not least for a rider whose range will broaden to match his ambition in the years to come. Just like Dumoulin, the Olympic project meant that time trialling was Dennis' principal focus in 2016, but now 26 and no longer a neophyte, the Australian will surely begin to place a greater emphasis on exploring his limits over three weeks from next season.
"I don't want to throw that time trial strength out the window, though, because you can win Grand Tours through time trialling, like we saw with Froome this year or Wiggins in the past. The gaps can be seconds in the mountains but then minutes in the time trials," Dennis said. "The tricky part is losing weight but not losing power at the same time."