The Rise and Fall of Rohan Dennis
Rohan Dennis made his pro debut in 2013, being slotted into the Tour de France within his first year as a pro. The move was not a surprising one, as Dennis crushed the amateur circuit, landing 1st in both U23 national road race and time trial events, 1st overall at Thüringen Rundfahrt der U23 (and 1st at the event's ITT), plus 1st place wins at Memorial Davide Fardelli and Chrono Champenois -- All of these achievements in the same year, just one year before turning pro at the age of 23. And Dennis did not disappoint, in 2014 he managed to stay toe to toe with the legendary Bradley Wiggins at the Tour of California (finishing 2nd just behind Sir Wiggins) as part of the Garmin-Sharp pro racing team. The following year, Dennis would transfer to BMC racing, set a new world hour record, and won the ITT stage of the 2015 Tour de France. By all accounts his performance under BMC racing was phenomenal, winning individual awards such as the Male Athlete of the Year, and became one of only 95 riders of all time to win at least one stage in all three Grand Tours.
Rohan Dennis at the 2014 Amgen Tour of California.
All-in, Rohan Dennis was a quickly rising talent with a lot of room to continue growing and improving. In late 2018 Dennis transferred from BMC Racing to a two-year deal with Bahrain-Merida along with teammates Damiano Caruso and Dylan Teuns. In 2019, everything would come crashing down as viewers were shocked to watch a quiet protest in the middle of Stage 12 of the Tour de France as the seasoned rider quit riding and started walking in the middle of the event and demanded to be given a ride in the team car. The drama did not end there, as spectators, presenters, and interviewers continued to seek answers. But the answers only raised more questions as Dennis slammed the Tour, commentators, and his own team. The seasoned rider and rising star would be dropped from his new team and not appear at a Grand Tour since finishing 35th at the 2020 Giro.
So, what happened?
Beginnings and Early Career
Most pro cycling stars have a lot of information about their beginnings in cycling, childhood, early achievements, etc. Not much information exists about Dennis before 2012, I guess that one could try reaching out through one of his active social media channels. Dennis' own Wikipedia page has one single line about his early career, "Dennis began his career by focusing on the track, and was part of the Australian team that took the silver medals in the team pursuit at the 2012 Summer Olympics."
Ride Media was one of the first publishers to take note of the athlete, penning an article about his rookie season in 2013, and even they do not provide information prior to his 2012 Olympic silver medal achievement. However, the article, titled "Rohan Dennis: a rookie season..." provides some historical insight into the athlete's issues with anger and inability to receive criticism. In an interview with Dennis, he admits to struggling with anger management in the past, and that he was working on it. He says that being aware of when he is getting angry and knowing when to step away from a situation has helped him to improve. Rohan recalled that when he was younger, he would bottle up his anger until something small would trigger him and he would "go nuts." In the 2013 article, he compared himself to the character in the movie Anger Management who takes everything until he finally snaps. Rohan says that the issue had been constant throughout his life, even recounting the issue being brought to his attention in high school.
When interviewed by Rob Arnold about the Olympics, the cycling star claims that the event felt like any other race he had been in and that it felt like a letdown. Rohan said that the reality of the Olympics was different from what he had expected as a child. He found that the village was just apartment blocks, the rooms were small with two single beds and no room to move, and that although food hall was a really big buffet. He also stated that it was just another race against people his team raced against all year round and although there were bigger rewards in the end, at the same time, it was no different from any other race in his eyes. Rohan's personality traits are very different than most other pro cyclists that we hear from that typically lavish the chance to compete on the world stage, relish little sentimental tokens provided by the event, and instead the star largely just downplayed the event. That is one of the sad truths behind cycling, a lot of the top athletes find the sport to be boring after doing the same training, the same events, and seeing the same people year after year.
Climbing the Ladder
Before even attending the Olympics, Dennis was already a gold medalist. He won gold two years in a row, 2010 and 2011, at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Team pursuit. Little information about the athlete exists from this time, but Dennis was already a world champion at age 20. In 2009, at age 19, he won silver in the same event and again in 2012 before heading to the Olympics in the same year.
The rider signed onto Garmin-Barracuda-Sharp in the year following his Olympics debut and was skyrocketed into the world of pro cycling. This was the youngest lineup Garmin-Sharp unveiled as their 2013 roster was finalized with frontline positions given to Andrew Talansky and Dan Martin, both of which won stage races for the team in prior seasons along with Ryder Hesjedal winning the Giro in the prior year. In an interview with Sky Sports, the team director states that the move was intended to develop young riders such as Rohan Dennis, Lachlan Morton, and Caleb Fairly. Judging by team statements and the high-profile lineup, it is more than obvious that Dennis would not be given many opportunities in the spotlight -- match that information with a history of anger issues, and it is unsurprising that the rider left the team one year later, in the middle of the racing season.
By all accounts, the negotiation for the switch from Garmin-Sharp to BMC racing was amicable on both ends, as spectators are rarely ever given an eye or ear behind closed doors. But a mid-season switch is very unusual. Ride Media caught up with Dennis again to interview about the swap, and it turns out that he was on friendly terms with BMC's performance manager, Allan Peiper. By then, the rider already had his own personal manager, Andrew McQuaid. Both Dennis and McQuaid felt that he would either not be offered an extension to the current contract or just not be willing to sign up for another term. However, they felt that BMC had a much better lineup that would suit his talents. More chances of career achievements, a better team dynamic, and friendly faces -- looking back, the switch is unsurprising.
The cycling star claims he almost quit cycling in 2014 when a gust of wind blew him off his bike during the time trial, ruining his race and leaving him injured. "I did everything right," says Dennis. Allan Peiper also commented on the rider's frustrations, "but you need that edge to rise above adversity." In his younger riding days, Dennis had many strengths that were recognized by coaches and nurtured by those who understood that with the right guidance he could achieve big things. He would have some issues but his determination allowed him to seek support work on his problems and find a way to manage these issues.
That year, 2014, marked a major transition. The team pursuit gold medalist earned his first UCI World Championships Team Time Trial gold medal, a feat that he would repeat in the following year. The rider would remain with BMC Racing longer than any other team, from 2014 to 2018, and accumulate a ton of career achievements such as 1st in the Tour Down Under and USA Pro Cycling Challenge (also winning the mountains classification and ITT stages) in 2015, 1st in National Time Trials in 2016 and 2017, and 1st in the UCI World Championships for Time Trial in 2018 and again in 2019 (more about that 2019 victory later).
However, BMC Racing had a secret for the rider's success. They could (somewhat) manage the rider's problems with anger and frustration. In an interview with SBS Sport in 2015 in reference to a statement where the rider mentioned using cycling as an outlet for his frustrations he was asked if anger was part of his USA Pro Cycling Challenge win in Colorado, Dennis responded, “I think yes and no.” His comments continued to mention how deploying emotion to generate extra watts is a tricky business: "I think there are times when I've been super angry in a race; frustrated. And I've ridden really crap," Dennis explained. "And other times I've been (angry) but able to control it and vent it throughout a whole stage or a whole week. It's worked in my favor but also against me sometimes. I think there's a balance." The rider again referenced how he would contain his anger in high school "It's almost like putting Mentos into a Coke bottle," Dennis said.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
The problem with pinpointing any specific issues in a modern cyclist's career is that a lot of things that happen behind closed doors never make headlines. Many articles will instead say things like the rider had conflicts with management, did not get along well with the team, had disagreements, etc. Sometimes these confrontations are physical, sometimes they are loud and vulgar arguments, saying that a situation became heated is one way that the cycling industry downplays events.
There is only one real exception to this rule, and that is when things happen in the public eye such as Gianni Moscon physically punching Elie Gesbert in the 2019 Tour de France. Physical altercations are much less common than personal meltdowns. Dennis had many heated moments during his career that caused problems with pretty much every team, except that with the help of friends and familiar faces in the industry he managed to stay somewhat level-headed with BMC Racing. Also as a pretext for the focal point of this article is that Le Tour is a very long and brutal event, with 21 stages that span approximately 3,500 km, making it unsurprising when riders break down.
Another issue that riders often face is an overinflated ego after success. Peter Sagan, for example, has his own personal clothing line, his own dedicated rider page, personal support teams within his two most recent teams, and many other aspects that would give anyone an ego out of this universe. And that is fine because the cycling world loves to have heroes. The problem is that in the cycling world, even heroes lose sometimes. Lance Armstrong was another prime example, after winning Le Tour consecutively numerous times he would often put even his own teammates down. One of the most shocking discoveries of the Armstrong controversy is how many careers he destroyed alongside his own.
Everything together serving as part of a bigger picture shows nothing less than a recipe for disaster.
Controversy and Legal Matters
Everything looked good going into the 2019 season, having just finished a very successful season the year prior and the BMC Racing contract was about to end so it was a good time to start looking for the next big opportunity, as pro cycling teams were about to undergo some transformations pending the end of their contract with sponsors as well as riders. For example, BMC Racing became CCC Pro Team (now Circus-Wanty Gobert) and Bahrain-Merida became Bahrain-McLaren (now Team Bahrain Victorius).
General manager of Bahrain-Merida at the time, Trent Copeland, said of the signing, "Rohan adds a great value to the team, not only as one of the world's best time trialists, but we believe his ability to race in the general classification of grand tours is where we want to invest in and we are all very excited to be able to work together." Dennis himself stated, "I am extremely excited to be joining Bahrain Merida for the next two years ... The organization has been upfront and honest about its plans and objectives for me the entire time, which is really positive. As I know, we are working towards the same goals." The contract was set for two years, as is standard in the industry. That was the news around August of 2018.
However, in terms of results, 2019 was not a good year. Dennis was only able to achieve one victory this year, the Tour de Suisse ITT (stage 1), taking the lead ahead of Maciej Bodnar of Bora-Hansgrohe by only fractions of a second. He would finish overall the event in second place. Earlier in the year, he finished 5th at the Tour Down Under, an event he won in 2015. This year also marked breaking the National ITT winning streak, coming second to Luke Durbridge, results which would repeat iself in 2020. For those unaware, the Tour de Suisse is often viewed as one of the major warm-up races leading to the Grand Tour, namely the Tour de France.
And that's where this story begins.
The 2019 Tour de France
If that was the beginning of the story, this is probably the end. The single most controversial and notable event in Dennis' career was the very unusual end to his first appearance at Le Tour with his new team, Bahrain-Merida, which as mentioned earlier had a few familiar faces he worked with before.
On stage 12, at the very beginning of the first climb, Rohan Dennis suddenly ditched the event. Spectators and fans watched confused as the seasoned cyclist suddenly just ... Stopped riding. Without reason, without explanation, without warning. Apparently, his team was not even made aware. In an interview with the Associated Press, team director Gorazd Stangelj said, “We are all so confused ... It was his decision today to stop at the feed zone. We tried to speak with him. He said, ‘I just don’t want to talk,’ and abandoned the race.” That response was given after his team found him waiting by the team bus, after hitching a ride from a non-team car.
The move was seen publicly as nothing less than odd, as Dennis later commented, “I am very disappointed to leave the race at this point ... The individual time trial tomorrow had been a big goal for me and the team, but given my current feeling it was the right decision to withdraw earlier today.” Articles noted that the athlete was in good physical condition to continue racing and fans quickly took to speculating over social media. Some cited depression, some cited anger with the team, and some cited Dennis not being given a position he wanted. But it was all nothing less than speciation as no official reason had been given. The rider was completely mum on the subject.
Fans were left only with hints as to what happened. Stangelj stated on the matter, “He’s the kind of guy who wants to have everything 100 percent and it's not easy to have everything 100 percent all the time. He’s a special guy, let’s say. All champions are.” And that was about it.
Fans were left wanting answers, but by then the controversy was causing unwanted attention to the team and the rider failed to fill his obligations to the team. The rider was in legal trouble as there was a binding contract between him and the team which made it even more difficult to get any real answers. Dennis later told VeloNews, “It was snowballing, it was getting worse and in the end, I didn’t want to be a statistic of a sportsperson who was potentially going to be divorced ... Read between the lines.” It is worth noting that nearly 3 years later, there is no news about divorce and the athlete had attended the Tour de France in 2013, 2015, and 2016 along with both other grand tours including both the Giro and Vuelta consecutively two years in a row prior.
The rider considered that the backlash was disproportional, saying, "What I did was pull out of a race, it's been blown out of proportion so much that people have slammed me for being everything under the sun." It is worth noting that everything adds up together. This comment is coming from the same person that said the Olympics were disappointing the first time he went. To Dennis, Le Tour was just one race out of the year. To many fans, it is the pinnacle event of a road racing season and some riders even take a break until the next season starts again. Vincenzo Nibali, the rider Dennis was supposed to be supporting, even said that he was drafting behind the rider and when he pulled off it took a fair amount of effort just to get back up to speed.
The team was without a strong supporting member, it also lost its time trial specialist just before the TT stage. The team decided the right decision was to terminate his contract on September 13th. That was not the end, in retaliation, Dennis raised a case with the UCI Arbitral Board arguing that he should be paid his full contract. The case was denied, the board citing the fact that the rider was not racing for the team to the end of his contract.
The Lonely King
Nobody can change the past. After abandoning the race, the team was already deliberating the next steps. At least, once it was confirmed the rider was okay and left the event of his own free will. Not even providing any reason and leaving the team in the dark. Everyone that was keeping up with the controversy was wondering what would happen next.
What happened next is that Dennis won gold again.
Remember that the team terminated his contract in September? That is also the same month as the UCI Road World Championships. Spectators were confused to see the rider show up to the event in Australian national cycling colors instead of any pro team colors. Not only did he show up, he won gold in the time trial event, wearing his national colors. And he didn't win by a fraction of a second, he won by an entire minute and 9 seconds.
And that was the last time Rohan Dennis would win a world-class event. Since 2019 (until the time of publishing this article) the only major results are two stage wins in 2021 (Tour de Romandie's prologue stage and Volta a Catalunya's ITT stage) and a national TT win in 2022.
After the controversy, Dennis was in rider limbo as he was without a team before being picked up by Ineos in 2020. He signed a 2-year contract with Ineos and by all accounts seemed happy with the deal as the team had its own psychologist and a lot of prestige. However, the team did not use the rider to his fullest ability, largely focusing on smaller stage races and often being used as a domestique for other riders. The contract only lasted a year before switching to Jumbo-Visma in January 2022. As is usual in modern cycling tradition, there are no reports of internal conflict with Ineos and only good comments about Jumbo-Visma. The team has not slotted the rider for the 2022 Tour de France. As for final thoughts, Rohan Dennis' biggest rival is himself and the spectators of the sport.