“Rohan is a great team player,” said Neal Henderson, the long-time coach of Australian star Rohan Dennis. “I know not everyone has seen that, but that has been something that motivates Rohan.”
Dennis, former doubled world time trial champion, had a turbulent 2020 season after struggling with the mental strain of coronavirus, missing out on a third Worlds title, before changing the course of the Giro d’Italia.
The Ineos Grenadiers rider had cruised through the opening 10 days of the Italian Grand Tour after his team leader and pre-race favourite Geraint Thomas crashed out of the race.
But into the final week as Tao Geoghegan Hart suddenly emerged as an unexpected contender, Dennis flicked a switch and became the decisive factor in the battle against Sunweb.
We spoke to Dennis’s coach Henderson, who is also head of sports science at Wahoo, to find out exactly how his rider fared in the 2020 season.
World Championship defence
After the postponement of the Olympics earlier this year, Dennis’s biggest goal for 2020 was the World Championships time trial as he looked to defend his rainbow bands for a third time.
But to take another world TT title, Dennis would need to better his team-mate and phenomenal talent Filippo Ganna.
In the lead-up to the Imola Worlds, held in late September, Dennis had been knocked into third place on the final stage time trial of Tirreno-Adriatico, a short, flat, 10.1km course that clearly suited Ganna, with the Italian comfortably taking the victory.
With a slightly longer 31.7km rolling course to decide the world time trial champion, the battle between Ganna and Dennis was guaranteed to be heated, but as it turned out Dennis was not able to challenge for the win, despite giving his all.
Henderson said: “Overall, we would say it was a good ride not a great ride. Rohan honestly went in to it fighting to win.”
Dennis fought hard in the opening 15km of the course, but despite digging deep he’d was still 20 seconds behind Ganna at the timing check and by the finish he had slipped back on his other rivals to finish 5th, 39 seconds off Ganna’s pace.
But it was his all or nothing ride that resulted in Dennis fading in the second half of the course, Henderson said: “Coming through on that that first time check second to Ganna with a decent gap, he had cashed in a lot of chips to be to be close there and he paid the price a bit coming into the finish and for sure faded in a little bit. His power dropped over that second portion because he went a little bit over what he would be able to sustain over the whole thing.
“On Rohan’s absolute best ever day would he have been closer? Yeah. Would he have beaten Ganna? Probably not.
“It’s hard to say that but Ganna absolutely on fire at home, great form and he carried that into the Giro.”
But Dennis’s ride was true to form, as Henderson pointed out the 30-year-old has only appeared on the World Championship podium twice in his career, both times as winner – a streak that continues after 2020.
Ultra-domestique at the Giro d’Italia
After the Worlds, Dennis put his own ambitions aside to work for the team at the Giro d’Italia but things went awry for Ineos in the first week when Geraint Thomas was taken down by a stray bidon.
Henderson said: “Rohan is a great team player, I know not everyone has seen that. He’s wanted to ride for a Grand Tour leader, so honestly when Gee went down and was out of the race, it was a little bit of a letdown. And so Rohan was rolling along in the group and not doing a lot of work right there in those first 10 days.”
Ineos switched roles in the race and took to dominating stage victories, but as the race entered the final week 25-year-old Tao Geoghegan Hart found himself within reach of the podium, and once again Dennis could put himself at the service of a GC leader.
On stage 18, Dennis put in an absolutely phenomenal ride in support of Geoghegan Hart over the Stelvio, dropping Sunweb’s Wilco Kelderman and helping his team-mate move into third overall.
Then two days later on stage 20 to Sestriere, Dennis was back at the front and once again dispatched Kelderman putting Geoghegan Hart in position to win the stage and match Jai Hindley on time.
The following day Geoghegan Hart would secure the overall victory with his solo TT performance.
Henderson said: “As things started to turn he got fully engaged and that plan [to support a GC leader] was still there.
“It just so happened that Tao was in a great position and Rohan was absolutely on fire and those last nine days.
“The switch was flipped and man then on the Stelvio, that was absolutely spectacular and then following that up with Sestriere was amazing. He was just fully engaged and all in to do what was possible and to make what seemed impossible possible.”
But what does it mean for a coach to see his rider turning the tides in a Grand Tour, putting his own ambitions aside in the process?
Henderson said: “It was a great third week and it was really amazing as a coach to know that he had an impact on the race, a very dramatic impact overall in helping his teammate have that ultimate success.
“He’s an incredibly capable rider right, he’s got that engine, but he also loves to be able to commit to a team, and can put other’s goals ahead of his own while still then preserving some capacity.”