Rohan Dennis is smiling as he sits in the lobby of his hotel in Singapore. He’s here for the Tour de France Prudential Singapore Criterium alongside his wife who he plans to sightsee with before he heads back to Europe in a few days time. It’s an opportunity to relax after what has been an up and down season for Dennis who has had his struggles with illness, catching Covid-19 in June and suffering from severe gastrointestinal problems at the Commonwealth Games.
A rollercoaster season this year is one thing, but Dennis is a rider who has had a bit of an up and down career. When he’s good, he’s really good: think his two Vuelta a España stage wins in 2018 or his ITT World Championship titles in 2018 and 2019, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the Aussie talent. Dennis’s unapologetically honest straight talking has got him into hot water a few times with previous teams: his contract with Bahrain-Merida was terminated early in September 2019 and the Australian ended up in a legal battle with the team over payment disputes. Last year, Dennis famously said that the Ineos Grenadiers were “copying” a lot of things that Jumbo-Visma were doing when he announced his transfer.
In just four seasons, Dennis has been on three different teams. Has he found his home with Dutch outfit Jumbo-Visma?
“Jumbo is a good team for me,” he tells Rouleur. “Everything is dialled to the point where if you're not performing it's your fault, which is a nice thing to have. That adds extra pressure on the athlete, but that's a responsibility that you have as a professional anyway. I'd rather be that way than you rock up to a race and your bikes are not built properly and it breaks or the equipment is second hand and you're at a disadvantage.”
“I'd rather have the pressure on my back, knowing that everything's perfect with equipment and with nutrition and everything, then that responsibility is on me. It’s a nice place to be, rather than finishing a race and not winning and going: I could have potentially won or this happened or that happened, then you look like you're just complaining. It’s like when teams first brought buses in, it wasn't to get a benefit as much as giving no excuses. You've got a shower. You can't say that the public were in your face while you're getting ready. There's no excuse not to perform now.”
Rohan Dennis at the Vuelta a España 2022 (Image: Tim de Waele/Getty)
This meticulous attention to detail means that every rider on Jumbo-Visma is expected to perform at the highest level. This makes them dangerous to their rivals, but also can make for a tough environment within the team. Dennis experienced this first-hand as he missed out on Tour de France selection this season following his Covid-19 diagnosis at the Tour de Suisse.
“Nothing is a guarantee, not one position is a guarantee. This year with the Tour, I wasn't up to scratch for health and whatnot. It's like okay, cool, you're out and Nathan took my spot and he was flying so there's always someone,” explains Dennis.
The 32-year-old says that there is little he could have done to get himself in shape for the Tour while he suffered from the effects of Covid-19 just a few weeks before. I wonder if this makes him resent the significant decrease in protocols at races to protect athletes from the illness compared to in 2020.
“I think we need to move on. We can’t let Covid control our lives,” he says. “This whole wearing a mask didn't really stop Covid, when we had the masks, we were still getting it. We're in the peloton without a mask on so wearing it to the team presentation when we're not around anybody and there's no public, I think it's more for the image.”
Missing the Tour de France was a blow for the Aussie, but he watched parts of the race from home and explains that it was the right decision for him not to be there given his health at the time and the difficulty of the event. “Since 2020, things have just completely flipped upside down. These young guys coming through just went: stuff it, we’re going to bring the junior race to you and they’re good enough to actually pull it off which is unfortunate for us.”
Dennis notes that Jumbo-Visma have altered their strategy this season to account for this new style of racing. “Everyone saw the Tour, it was really played out well by the one-two of Primož [Roglič] and Jonas against Tadej [Pogačar]. It was just throw everything at it and the best guy won,” he says. “It was nuts to watch. It was completely different to what the Tour de France is usually like, which is much more controlled. You really have to grind everyone down over three weeks, whereas this was just thrown down every single day, I'm glad I'm not a GC rider!”
One thing that missing the Tour de France allowed the Australian rider to do was place full focus on the Commonwealth Games where he came away with gold in the time trial. For Dennis, representing his country is a huge honour, this result is one he’s been searching for.
“From a young age when I was swimming, you never heard about the world champion swimmers, you always heard about the Commie Games winners,” he says. “The Commonwealth Games are like a small Olympic Games, it's every four years, alternating two years after the Olympics, and it's a special event because of that. You can’t just say: stuff it, I’ll give it a go next year, you've got limited chances in your career as an athlete and I haven't been able to get that gold until this year, so it was a big box ticked.”
Rohan Dennis on his way to Commonwealth Games gold (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
After the high of winning gold in the time trial, a sudden low for Dennis followed quickly when he became ill the night before the Commonwealth Games road race. He was suffering with stomach pain so severe he was admitted to hospital that night, and explains that the results of multiple tests he went through on hospital came back inconclusive.
“They said: modern day medicine hasn’t picked up anything, so it shouldn’t kill you, and the pain slowly went away,” explains Dennis. “I was still not feeling great for the next week and a half which was leading into the first part of the Vuelta.”
Dennis’s role in the Vuelta was to help Primož Roglič fight for the overall GC win against Remco Evenepoel. “Roglič is a good guy to work for,” says Dennis. “He’s pretty chill. I think he like his freedom, if he wants to move forward, you follow him. He’s not someone who will purposely make his teammates hurt to just get to the front. He’d rather go through [the peloton] than let us take him up the wing, which is sometimes hard for me. But it’s never much stress with him at all.”
Things were going to plan for Jumbo-Visma, with Roglič set to challenge Evenepoel’s lead midway through the race, until an unfortunate crash in the finale of stage 16 forced the Slovenian to retire from the event.
“It was a huge blow to lose Primož,” says Dennis. “He had a really good chance, I mean, second was the worst that was going to happen. I’m not going to say Remco was going to crack, that’s unfair on him. Maybe Primož would have been close, we’ll never know.”
Dennis is quick to compliment Evenepoel, and constantly speaks about the strengths of the young Belgian. However, he does see a few chinks in 22-year-old’s armour. “Technical downhills,” he says when I ask if Remco has any weaknesses.
“You don’t want to exploit someone’s bad luck with that crash he had on the downhill [Evenepoel crashed on stage 12 of the race], but it was a crack, we’re not going to just let him win. It’s part of the sport to find a weakness and exploit it. Before that crash he wasn’t showing too much weakness on the downhill, but after that he was a little bit nervous. There were some cracks there.
“The day that Primož crashed at the finish, those cracks showed up with Remco. It was a little bit technical, it was a bit fighty, a bit nervous, that’s where he [Remco] started to slip back and got out of position. Luckily for him he had that puncture within three kilometres to go.”
Once Roglič left the race, Dennis explains that it was just a fight for survival to the finish for him in order to end his season with some race miles in his legs. For 2023, the Australian wants to reset and focus on some of his own goals, as well as playing the role as a loyal domestique.
“The Tour Down Under is back, I’d love to have a good crack at that,” says Dennis. “After that, I’m not sure if it will be the Giro or the Tour yet. Obviously the Tour would be great prep for Worlds which is 10 days after and Worlds time trial is a race I really want to have another crack at.”
“The time trial course is back where I think it should be [Dennis lamented the shorter distance at the World Championship time trial this year], in the 40 kilometre plus mark,” Dennis says. “I think it should be closer to the hour.”
A self-proclaimed “realist” Dennis says that time trials will be the area where he continues to focus in the upcoming year, rather than specific road races. “I like them because they are structured, controlled environment, luck isn’t as much of a factor,” he says. “It’s the best guy who wins on the day. There’s obviously the mental side of it as well, you have to figure out how to get through the bad periods within the time trial which is quite nice, it’s rewarding in that sense.”
Dennis explains he’s happy with his role at Jumbo-Visma and believes his future lies at the Dutch squad which he views as pioneering and ahead of the game. “I don’t think anyone’s taking over from Jumbo for a while,” he says. “It’s a huge gap and it’s a team that’s pushing the limit, legally of course, to get the best performance out of all the riders.”