Mind over machine : Rohan Dennis’ world title defence

Rohan Dennis has attracted more attention for his actions off the bike than those on in in the last few months.

However, as he powered to his second world championship time trial title in Harrogate last week, it was his legs that were doing the talking.

Dennis stirred up a huge hornets’ nest when he abandoned the Tour de France midway through the race, the day before the time trial into Pau.

With it, he denied himself the opportunity to display the time trial champion’s jersey at the biggest race in the world. He calmly got off his bike, got in a Bahrain-Merida team car, and within hours, was off-grid, with no interviews or explanation as to why he abandoned.

It was well known that the prickly Australian wasn’t happy with his Merida bike. In the finnicky world of time trialling, a wasted watt can mean the difference between anonymity and infamy, and so many pointed to Dennis’ machine as the cause of a string of disappointing time trial performances.

Rumours were also swirling around the state of Dennis’ mental health, and his Bahrain -Merida DS added fuel to the fire of speculation when he said after his rider’s abandon at the Tour when he said: “I think his condition is good enough to perform in the Tour de France. For sure it’s nothing to do with his physical condition.”

Rumours were also swirling around the state of Dennis’ mental health, and his Bahrain -Merida DS added fuel to the fire of speculation when he said after his rider’s abandon at the Tour that “I think his condition is good enough to perform in the Tour de France. For sure it’s nothing to do with his physical condition.”
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The world heard next to nothing from Dennis between that mid-July day in France and his time trial defence in Harrogate.

While it was his legs that powered him to the finish line through Yorkshire, it became evident that it was a mental fix that got him there, not a physical one.

“My body’s always been good,” he said after his winning performance. “It was a lot of work off the bike from my sports psychologist that got me here.

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“He’s given me a lot of support to help me believe and be more confident and stop being so negative in my head and be positive about the good things in my life.”

While the thorny issue of equipment was met with a muted response by Dennis, it was clear that his unbranded bike was a BMC Timemachine. However, the turnaround in his mindset seemed far more essential to Dennis’ title defence.

The 29-year-old wasn’t defensive or reticent as the world clamoured to know what had been going on since his temperamental abandon of the Tour.

He is remarkably powerful and direct in interviews, and as I asked him a question at the mixed zone in Yorkshire, he fixed me with his blue eyes. He clearly had nothing to hide and was brimming with self-confidence.

Likewise, when addressing the assembled media at his post-race conference, every journalist that asked the Australian a question was fixed with almost unnervingly direct eye contact throughout his response.

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There was none of the fiddling or glazed eyes of so many press conferences. Rohan ain’t shy.

The media was desperate to know about just where Dennis had been, and what he’d been when he entered the black hole between his Tour de France abandon and arrival in Yorkshire. Whatever it was, he had succeeded in turning around a season that looked in tatters.

“It was about getting the mental side to really be in the fold of not caring too much about anything but what I’m doing and what the people around me are doing to support me,” he said, remarkably openly. “It was about removing negativity and thinking about the people who support me no matter what my choices are.”

Dennis’ story is a reminder that an athlete is only successful if they also have happiness and a strong team around them.

The story of Marcel Kittel is similar. The once-prolific German sprinter recently announced his retirement after a fallow season of lost motivation and unhappiness with Katusha-Alpecin that left his well off his best.

When speaking after his time trial, Dennis repeatedly referenced the support network around him, namely his wife, sports psychologist, and coach. The close-knit team enabled him to re-frame his mind to one of positivity and self-belief.

“When I was riding I was thinking negatively and it was affecting my training,” he said. “But then, after months of counselling and self-reflection, the tide turned in one pivotal training session.“

“It wasn’t until September 15th [10 days before the race] when I really nailed a training session and that’s when the confidence really came up and I knew I’d no doubt be on the podium here and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be.”

Although Dennis is a once-in-a-generation talent with phenomenal power, drive and positioning, if your mind isn’t in it and there isn’t sufficient support at hand, it goes to waste. Cycling is a race of both individuals and teams, and even in the solo pursuit of an individual time trial, that still applies.

Dennis seems in the right space now, and it’s landed him a place in the rainbow jersey for 2020, if not longer. With a support network in place and attitude focussed on the upside, he could be attracting attention for his on-bike exploits for a long time yet, and he knows it.

“I’m confident in myself, I’m confident that I’m here to stay, I’m here to continue to win, and push to be the best in the world, not just in the next 12 months but in the future as well. I’m not going anywhere.”

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