“Honestly, I don’t think it has sunk in yet.”
Rohan Dennis is sitting in the lobby of the Australian team’s hotel on the picturesque outskirts of Innsbruck. The sun is shining, the mountain air is clean. A sign on the reception’s counter announces to all guests: “Congratulations Rohan Dennis – time trial world champion.”
The 28-year-old might need a few more reminders. “When people ask about it, it goes over my head,” explains Dennis. Cycling Australia performance director Simon Jones chuckles, no doubt pleased that the success isn’t going to his rider’s head.
“It does not feel like I am a world champion,” Dennis continues. “I guess I need to get my new bike and my skinsuit and to race in it and hopefully by then I will realise what I’ve done. Until then it might not sink in.”
Dennis entered Wednesday’s 52.5 kilometre time trial as joint favourite with defending champion Tom Dumoulin. At the first intermediate timing check, Dennis held a modest advantage over the Dutchman. After a challenging climb, his lead exceeded a minute. Following years of misfortune in this discipline – a puncture at the 2015 Worlds, a broken aero bar at the 2016 Olympics, a crash at the 2017 Worlds – the elusive rainbow jersey was finally in sight.
“[Coach] Brad McGee was telling me at the top of the hill that I had one minute and I had won it and not to do anything stupid,” said Dennis. “I had a good idea at the bottom of the hill that I had a shot. I didn’t think I would take time off Tom on the hill – I thought I could hold it over the top and then go full gas to the finish.
"On the final section I was holding back on corners, but I still knew that if I had a puncture or something I needed time up my sleeve.”
This time there would be no bad luck: no punctures, no equipment failures. Dennis rocketed into Innsbruck to claim the world title by over a minute. The South Australian not only demonstrated his physical prowess against the clock, but also conquered his mental demons.
“Beforehand I was trying not to think about the bad luck,” Dennis said. “That was not easy. It’s a weird one – I knew I had good form, the team time trial felt really good, but it’s the sitting around – the little niggles you wouldn’t usually feel, you notice them because you’re doing nothing.
"Once I got on the ergo I knew I had good legs and everything was firing. It was just a matter of getting out there and doing what I knew I had to do.”
Dennis admits that in the early stages of Wednesday’s race he thought it might be his last appearance at the world championships time trial. “I was thinking I could never do this race again, I just wanted to have a good one and never do it again,” he said. That attitude did not last long. “Pretty quickly you realise why you do it. I really wanted this jersey and now I have it, I want to defend it next year.”
The rainbow jersey caps a remarkable year for Dennis. He began it in January successfully defending his Australian time trial crown in Ballarat, before collecting wins at the Abu Dhabi Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and Giro d’Italia. Dual time trial successes at the Vuelta a España suggested Dennis would be the man to beat in Austria, and so it proved. But the rider says it was actually his general classification form that left him buoyant.
“This year I took a massive leap forward on the general classification side of things,” Dennis explained. “Being able to get through three weeks as a GC rider – that was a big goal. I didn’t think I would be sixth overall at the Giro d’Italia after stage 16 and really looking at a chance of a top 10. To top it off with this Worlds win – I think we really nailed the mental side of it throughout the year.”
Dennis moves to Bahrain-Merida in 2019, a switch compelled by uncertainty throughout this season about the future of BMC Racing Team. But the rider insists these off-road issues didn’t distract him.
“Either way I had to get results,” he said. “I had to make sure the team still wanted me next year, but – if the team was to fold – I needed results to go to another team and not have to take a massive pay cut. So I just looked at it as ‘keep doing what you do every year Rohan, prepare for your races and forget what is going on behind the scenes.’”
Dennis joins Bahrain-Merida to continue his time trial prowess and further his transition into a general classification rider. He waves away concerns about a potentially inferior time trial bike at his new team – “no, not at all’ – and says he is excited about linking up with the Italian-influenced outfit.
“At the moment I am not sure what Grand Tour I will be doing,” he said of his 2019 plans. “I don’t think it’ll be the Vuelta as a GC ambition. It will either be the Giro or maybe as a second leader role at the Tour de France with [Vincenzo] Nibali.”
While Dennis wants to continue his development as an overall contender, he has no plans to give up on time trialling. “This year I thought I was going to have to sacrifice my TT ambitions, but somehow I got better!” he exclaimed.
Australian cycling fans will hope more of that success comes in the green and gold. “I have told [Bahrain-Merida] that the Tokyo Olympic are a big goal,” he concluded. “And I am sure they already know that I don’t want to throw away my Worlds jersey.”