It’s not often the defending champion comes into an event shrouded in such mystery, but such has been the turbulence experienced by Rohan Dennis this summer, it’s hard to say how he might fare in Wednesday’s World Championship time trial. We don’t even know what bike he’ll be riding.
The Australian, who stormed to the title in Innsbruck 12 months ago, hasn’t raced since his sudden exit from the Tour de France in July, reasons for which themselves remain a mystery. As such, it’s difficult to assess, from the outside, what sort of form he’s in, even if he described himself on Monday as “more than confident”.
As for the bike, Dennis has made it clear he will not be riding his team-issue Merida Time Warp, which gives an indication of the breakdown of the relationship between him and the Bahrain-Merida team since the Tour. Instead, he will use as-yet unspecified set-up, and his reluctance to discuss his equipment choices reflects the sensitivity surrounding these sponsorship issues, even if he is free to use what he pleases.
After Cycling Australia’s media officer had advised against asking questions relating to Bahrain-Merida, Dennis spoke to a small group of reporters in Harrogate on Monday, and he struck a bullish tone.
“My expectations are to back up and win again. I think in the worst case scenario, it will be a podium for myself,” he said.
“If things go smoothly and I get the performance out of myself that I know I really can, there’s no reason why I can’t win.”
The course in North Yorkshire, 54km long with plenty of undulations, is one he feels plays to his strengths. But is he at full strength?
“It’s been a different lead-in to a World Championship than I’ve ever had before. At first, it was a little bit unnerving,” Dennis admitted.
“With 10 weeks between races, you don’t know where you’re actually at. When you’re in the peloton, you can feel it, obviously through results, or being able to keep up with people. I haven’t really had that exact results-based preparation, and that’s the mental side I really asked a lot of help with from a few people, especially David Spindler, my sports psychologist.
“The only thing I could go off was hitting goals in training. If I didn’t hit those goals, my confidence would be a bit shot but, at the moment, I’m more than confident.”
Dennis admitted his confidence had taken a knock in the aftermath of his exit from the Tour, but he was back home and back training very quickly. In three of the past five years he has ridden the Vuelta a España as preparation for Worlds, but this year he hasn’t competed since July, and hasn’t even sought to replicate that workload in his training.
"I’ve done a lot of very specific work. There hasn’t been a huge amount of base. It has been shortened blocks instead of making extra stress on body. We’ve really stuck to two to three-day blocks, keeping the intensity and specific work there, and really trying to nail what we need to be good at here," he said.
“It’s been a very difficult build-up but I think we’ve really nailed it. That’s why I’m confident Wednesday is going to be very good. My feelings on the bike are good, and the numbers as well – they’re right up there with the best I’ve ever done, in training, obviously. Things are looking really positive."
While every other rider in the field will be racing on the bikes they use with their trade teams throughout the season, Dennis is heading off-piste. Cyclingnews spotted a blacked-out BMC Timemachine at Cycling Australia’s hotel in Yorkshire, which is the bike he rode to the world title 12 months ago.
Dennis, however, refused to go into detail about the bike, components, and helmet he’ll be using on Wednesday.
“It’s going to be national team equipment that has been supplied to me by Cycling Australia and, through testing, has been deemed to be the best possible equipment for myself,” he said.
When more specific questions about the bike resurfaced, he simply said: “National team equipment.” When prompted about the reasons behind the choice, he added: “The national team deemed it was the best equipment for me and my body position, and the best equipment for me to get the result I need to get here.
“I’ve literally just done testing leading into this. It’s all been a mash-up over… probably since I’ve been in the national team, which I’ve been in every year since I was a junior in 2007. Since then we’ve started finding out information about what’s best for me.”
Veering from sponsor equipment for Worlds, though perfectly within the rules, invariably comes with tension. Linda Villumsen sparked fury among her United HealthCare bosses when she rode a blacked-out, non team-issue bike to the world time trial title in 2015, and was nearly sacked on the spot.
Asked if he’d encountered any such difficulties with Bahrain-Merida, Dennis said: “Not at all” before insisting: “National team trumps trade team.”
As for whether Bahrain-Merida were ok with the situation, however powerless they may be: “That’s a question you’d have to ask them.”
Sticking with the ill-advised topic of his relationship with his trade team, Dennis confirmed he had no plans to race again with Bahrain-Merida in 2019, but gave no indication as to what will happen in 2020.
The Tour de France episode, which became a huge talking point as team staff could offer no explanation as to why he had suddenly climbed off his bike on the eve of the time trial, clearly took its toll. Dennis deleted his Twitter account in the aftermath, and only resurfaced 10 days ago via an interview given to an Australian newspaper.
“Initially. Initially, yes,” he said when asked if his confidence had been knocked, “but it’s right back up there now.
“That [deleting social media] was the first step, but you still hear things. It was about trying to remove the negative thoughts in my own head and bring more of the positive stuff in, especially closer to the event, so it’s been really about being more positive about myself and the people around me who actually do support me, and back me fully, no matter what I do with my life.”
Asked if he had anything he wanted to say about what has happened over the past couple of months, Dennis said: “Nothing.” As for the future: “Let’s get through Wednesday and Sunday first.”