A little more than two years after he won the opening stage of the 2015 Tour de France in Utrecht, Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) has returned to the overall lead of another Grand Tour in the 2017 Vuelta a España's first team time trial.
South American climber Darwin Atapuma led the Vuelta for BMC Racing last year for four days, and BMC won the opening team time trial in the somewhat-controversial opening stage of the 2015 Vuelta as well, with Peter Velits taking the first red jersey of the race.
But for Dennis, after his setback at the Giro d'Italia this May when injuries forced him to quit what was his big GC target of the season, leading the Vuelta a España from the get-go represents the strongest of returns to Grand Tour racing.
The first Australian, too, to lead the Vuelta since Michael Matthews back in 2014, Dennis insisted that he is not fighting for the overall in the Vuelta a España as an initial goal, saying he is going for stage wins. But he qualified that a little by pointing out that if he is in a good position on GC, as he is now, he's hardly going to step on the brakes.
Describing his season objectives, he said, "It was always about the Giro for GC and the Vuelta is for stages. But in saying that, the first stage is in Andorra and I'm going good there, I'm not going to sit up. I'm going to fight for a stage win. But if it doesn't work out, it doesn't matter."
As for today's stage, speaking before the win, the 27-year-old Australian said, “It was a hard course, very technical to start and we really had to tactically figure out if it was better to finish with nine or drop a few beforehand. It tested everything, it tested strength, technique, speed and handling.”
The last instructions from BMC time trialling coach Marco Pinotti before the BMC Racing Team's nine riders rolled down the ramp were, he said, the same as ever. "[He said] 'smooth is fast', we always have to think about the ninth guy coming out of each corner, it's as fast as possible but it's always about looking after, in some ways, the weakest rider.'" As Dennis concluded, "you can't win if one crosses the line a minute before everyone else.' That's the simple rule of team time trialling, it's a team effort."
If much of the Vuelta 2017 team time trial was business as usual for BMC Racing Team, then, Dennis said there was one moment when he had a "funny feeling, one we noticed in the recon," crossing through the Roman amphitheatre. "It was quite special, different, quite nice. It felt like in some ways we were back in the old, old times, and you don't usually get that in a race so we appreciated that," he observed.
One of the harder pre-Vuelta moments for BMC Racing to overcome, too, was off the bike when veteran team-mate Samuel Sánchez failed a doping test and left the Vuelta less than 48 hours before it began.
"To be honest, it was shocking," Dennis said. “We didn't actually know til we got back from training. He'd disappeared from the hotel. You hear about it happening in other teams. It's more of a surreal feeling that it has actually happened in your team."
Dennis opined out, too, that the B sample has yet to come through and that "we have to wait for that result and let's hope for sport it comes up as a different result from the A sample."
In a much broader, far more serious context than sport, Dennis was asked if he was worried by the recent events in Barcelona and whether they had talked about it in the peloton. "What happened there was terrible. It's quite close to where I live, and it's something you don't want to see happening at all in the world.
"I think that at this stage, touch wood, every cycling race never had [these sorts of] issues come to it. When it comes to this sort of thing and it would be an absolute shame if ever did. We can't think about it too much, but we can feel for the victims and hope this sort of thing stops."
Moving back to the race per se, Dennis was asked about the next day's stage on Sunday and a flat run across France, which he said "won't be easy. It's known for cross-winds, it can make a race, but if everyone knows about it, which they do, sometimes it can neutralise the effect that crosswinds can have."
"It'll be great to hold onto the jersey, but we have to enjoy this victory. But if that [keeping the lead] doesn't happen, it's not the end of the world. I'll just be happy if I stay safe."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.