If it wasn't for bad luck, Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing Team) wouldn't have had any luck at all this past couple of years. This is the man who built his 2016 season around the Rio Olympics time trial, and was on course for a medal when his challenge was ruined late on by a broken aero bar that forced a bike change and ultimately saw him drop to fifth place.
In 2017, Dennis took aim at the Giro d'Italia, but his race was over before it really began, as a crash during stage 3 in Sardinia meant that the Australian would never make it to the mainland. To compound that disappointment, a crash during the World Championships time trial in Bergen ruined what had all the appearances of a medal-winning ride.
"I haven't much luck for the last three years. Every other time trial during the year goes smoothly, and then when it comes to Worlds or Olympics, I get a puncture, or I get a crash, or my bike fails," Dennis told Cyclingnews at the Abu Dhabi Tour. "But I think it's just a matter of going, 'Oh that's happened' and trying to make sure it doesn't happen again. What's out of your control is out of your control."
What Dennis has been seeking to control this past year or so is his transition from time trial star to three-week contender, and although his two Grand Tours in 2017 ended prematurely – illness forced him out of the Vuelta a España – he has stuck to the task of balancing the intricate equation of paring down weight without sacrificing power. He has yet to test the results of his labours in the crucible of the high mountains in a Grand Tour, but the early evidence against the watch has been encouraging.
"It's funny because last year, my time trialling was better and I did less work for it. I don't know if I'll eventually cop the consequences of doing less work for time trialling but I'm hoping not," Dennis said. "It still is a battle. I haven't mastered the whole losing weight to the point that Tom Dumoulin did last year, but then he didn't look crazy skinny at the Giro. He was lean, but he wasn't at the leanness of some of the other GC riders and he was the strongest by far.
"I don't think it's a matter of making yourself look sick. I think it's about being strong as well, especially in a race like the Giro where it can get cold as well. If you get sick it's not really a good start, is it?"
The very fact that Dumoulin, another rider born in 1990 with markedly similar characteristics to Dennis, has achieved the feat is a source of reassurance in itself, while the way Sunweb patiently managed the transition lends something of a template to other teams who have assured rouleurs trying to harness their power in the high mountains.
"You can't just expect things to happen straight away. Things don't happen overnight," Dennis said. "When the team realises that and backs you, it's a comforting sort of thing. You don't have to win instantly, it's about building and getting the base in and the background to be able to do it better when you can."
For the second year running, the opening half of Dennis' season is built around the Giro d'Italia, where he is slated to lead BMC's general classification challenge. The short opening time trial in Jerusalem offers an earlier opportunity for Dennis to complete his collection of Grand Tour leader's jerseys, even if at this point in his career, testing himself in the third week is the priority.
Dennis has finished just two of the Grand Tours he has started to date – the 2014 Vuelta and 2015 Tour, when he raced without GC responsibilities – but he sees no point in shying away from lofty aspirations.
"I'd still love to get top 10. Top five is really ambitious, I think," Dennis said. "If all things go well with my preparation, and my luck is in, then it's a possibility, but I just have to worry about the little things. Just finishing it and having a crack in that third week is still a big stepping stone."
On the long road to the Giro, Dennis will have opportunities to test his mettle as a stage race contender on a smaller scale. Next month, he will line out at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he placed a fine second overall a year ago, while his final tune-up for the corsa rosa will come at the Tour de Romandie. The Volta a Catalunya, on the other hand, has been scratched from his original programme.
"Otherwise I'd have had 57 race days at the end of the Giro, which was probably a bit too much," Dennis said. "It's good to practice in the one-week races, and that's what I'll be doing here in Abu Dhabi. At Tirreno, we've got Richie [Porte] there and then at Romandie, we've got Richie and Tejay [van Garderen], so those races will be more me learning how to help them and being there in the later stages of the race."
In the here and now, Dennis has an opportunity to amass WorldTour points at the Abu Dhabi Tour, where the 12km time trial on the penultimate day has marked him out as one of the principal contenders for final overall victory, alongside one Tom Dumoulin.
While the Dutchman is in his first race of the season, Dennis already has an Australian time trial title on his palmarès and the Tour Down Under in his legs since the turn of the year, though he doubts the racing days will make a material difference this week.
"I guess it just settles the nerves a little bit more than anything. Training's been going well since Tour Down Under and usually you get a bit of a bump from racing but it's not like I've done 40 race days," he said. "I've only had seven or eight race days, so it's not that big a deal."
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