Rohan Dennis is a man with a plan that went sideways when he literally walked away from the Tour de France last week, his face a mixture of hurt and anger.
Dennis (Bahrain-Merida) is yet to explain the bizarre turn of events that saw him exit a day before the Tour’s only individual time trial, which the world champion was a favourite for.
On the morning of Stage 12, the Australian had rolled down the ramp from sign-on and chose to pull over to answer a few questions for SBS.
I opened with asking if he could confirm rumours that the team’s leader, Vincenzo Nibali, had come down with a stomach bug overnight.
“He’s not 100 per cent,” Dennis answered.
We then moved on to talking about Stage 12 and his own prospects for the “pretty hard” and “tricky” time trial the following day.
“Today will be about getting into the breakaway. We believe the breakaway will stay away and win today. For me, today will be another day to try and save energy and see how the legs pull up for tomorrow,” Dennis continued.
“I’ll just have to wait and see how I wake up. It hasn’t been an easy Tour. We’ll see how today goes. I’ll take tomorrow as it comes.”
In hindsight, Dennis was more restless than his normally smiling self and didn’t stick around to shoot the breeze as we sometimes do. However, there was no clearly obvious indication that he also wasn’t 100 per cent.
Contrary to the outlook, Dennis went on the attack early in the 209.5km mountain stage before dismounting in the feed zone where he got a lift to the finish with a masseur. The Olympic team pursuit silver medallist would have known that there’d be available transport to get out at that point of the course.
One hour later at about 4pm, Dennis arrived at the Bahrain-Merida bus parked in the paddock just beyond the finish line in Bagneres-de-Bigorre. His lone No. 44 bike was rested against the bus outside of which a handful of journalists had arrived following a tweet from the team that it was investigating the surprise abandon.
Somewhere in that time, Dennis had presumably contacted his agent, Andrew McQuaid, suggesting a significant rift between rider and team had occurred.
Dennis emerged from the bus wearing casual team kit and turned right toward the open exit, free from journalists. He was upset and stared straight ahead as he walked back toward the finish line flanked by McQuaid and Bahrain-Merida press officer Geoffrey Pizzorni.
“He’s not going to talk,” said McQuaid, before pushing me.
The trio reached a security position where McQuaid pointlessly told a green shirt guard to block TV crews filming, while Pizzorni, who observed Dennis was upset but appeared as perplexed as the media, fell back.
A handful of journalists had become a hundred by the time the race, which Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) won from a breakaway, finished and head sports director Gorazd Stangelj arrived.
The swarming press pack moved from the bus toward a wall when someone prematurely yelled Stangelj was there. He wasn’t and the moving rugby maul of international journalists had encircled an empty space. In a brief moment of reprieve, laughter echoed as competing reporters were all reminded of the intense madness of the Tour.
Stangelj soon after presented and began taking questions as rumours of a disagreement over bike equipment surfaced. He spoke at length in the hot sun as men grunted under the weight of their cameras, personal space became obsolete and sweat started to saturate the clothing of journalists straining forward, over each other, with microphones and recording devices in hand.
“We are also confused. Let’s say that I am disappointed about what happened with Rohan today because we expected a big effort from him tomorrow. It was his decision today to stop in the feed zone,” Stangelj had said.
“We just called the feed zone car to give us Rohan on the phone. Rohan answered, ‘I don’t want to talk right now.’”
Stangelj added Dennis’s condition was “good enough to perform at the Tour de France” and claimed that he didn’t know of any issue over equipment.
A senior staff member when contacted addressed the technical rumour without prompt.
“We offer the best material in the pro peloton and especially to Rohan. We go out of our way to please him so the rumours of this going around is untrue and unfortunately damaging to our sponsors,” they said.
Dennis is unashamedly a sensitive, one strike and you’re out personality. He can be jovial, insightful and kindly acknowledge those he warrants. If he perceives you’ve wronged him, however, good luck.
It’s a trait that’s been shared with incoming team principal Rod Ellingworth, formerly of British Cycling, Team Sky/Ineos, who helped rear the likes of Mark Cavendish and Geraint Thomas with a strong thumb.
The 29-year-old is impatiently ambitious, steadfast in his views on how to achieve set goals and demands to be taken seriously.
Dennis had an idea of how Bahrain-Merida should tackle the Stage 2 team time trial in Brussels, Belgium. It may have irritated him if Nibali or the team overruled suggestion and went in a different direction despite Dennis’s distinction in the discipline.
Asked if the Australian had been fine to work with up until now, Stangelj avoided a direct response.
“He’s a special guy, let’s say. All the champions are,” said the Slovenian.
“He’s really 100 per cent when he wants something and it’s not difficult to make everybody happy in every single moment.”
In recent years, Dennis has invested in improving on his climbing and consequently weight loss in pursuit of becoming a Grand Tour contender in his own right. He’d started to realise that in earnest with former team BMC Racing, finishing 16th overall at the Giro d’Italia last year where he also marked a stint in pink.
His selection to race for 2019 Giro runner-up Nibali at the Tour this year was explainable but also surprising. Dennis was an obvious asset in the team time trial, but ultimately his overarching goals clash with that of the Italian, who is linked to Trek-Segafredo for 2020.
The morning after his shock exit, Bahrain-Merida, when asked for an update on Dennis’s whereabouts, put up managing director John Allert, from sponsor partner McLaren.
Allert in the immediate aftermath was sympathetic toward his expensive investment and stated there wasn’t a simple explanation behind Dennis’s departure.
“I’d love to say there is one reason. I think there is an accumulation of reasons. Some of those I can talk about, some of those I think are probably best for Rohan to talk about at some point when he feels ready,” Allert said.
“Foremost out of respect to Rohan, I don’t want to go into any great details.
“No one is more disappointed about what happened yesterday than Rohan himself.”
The Tour de France takes a toll on everyone involved – physically, emotionally and mentally. There is not a moment to yourself. Most riders stay in twin-share accommodation and everyone does everything together, which lends to temperamental behaviour. Keeping a lid on that can be challenging for even the most docile of people.
The blinkered and unnatural environment of the Tour can magnify minor complaints and transform them into compounded, big problems fast.
“It’s a very complicated and sensitive situation. I spent time with Rohan last night. He wants to regroup and recover. There has been a number of days of hard racing for Rohan. He was looking forward to today,” Allert continued before the start of the Stage 13 time trial.
“He’s an elite athlete, proven on the world stage and operates at the outer extremes of what he’s capable of doing. If he doesn’t feel he was able to do that I can’t judge that. He needs to make the call himself.”
The Tour de France is greater than its parts and has since moved on, but a bookmark has been placed in Dennis’s own story.