Five months have passed since Rohan Dennis abandoned the Tour de France in mysterious circumstances, climbing off the bike seemingly without cause during stage 12, the day before the race’s major time trial.
It’s fair to say no one saw that coming. A BMC one-two to end Stage 3 of the Tour Down Under leaves Cadel Evans’ dream of a fairytale finish to his professional career facing the most unexpected obstacle.
Drama was expected on Torrens Hill Rd, but certainly not in what was delivered.
This climb was last used in 2000 when Alexander Vinokourov and Stuart O’Grady duked it out on the run-in to a stage finish in suburban Modbury. On that occasion, the visitor got the better of the local. Today a local boy made good, but could’ve cost his teammate the finish he was dreaming of.
“No gifts,” said a certain former cyclist, and so it should be at the Tour Down Under.
Assuming all goes to plan for Dennis and Evans today on Stage 4, they’ll have to fight for ochre on Old Willunga Hill on Saturday. In theory Cadel should have the edge on a climb that’s more suited to him than we saw at Paracombe. But Dennis clearly can climb and has history on Willunga. In 2012, he was fifth on the Tour’s Queen stage, and also won the king of the mountains classification. He’s got better since then.
In last year’s Tour of California, the South Australian won in the mountains of Mount Diablo State Park, which he says signals major improvement:
“Usually in races, I would get dropped in the last three kilometres of the final climb and that was a big goal of mine, to win a mountaintop race… it was something I was unable to do last year, so that was a major goal for me.”
He beat Brad Wiggins too that day, which is no mean feat.
Evans may need the time bonuses on offer at the finish to wrest the ochre jersey from Dennis’ shoulders.
It’s hard to see how else that quandary can be decided, short of one of them having a bad day or an accident, which of course can happen.
After the stage, when asked about what happens now, Dennis said, “Cadel he’s still, in my eyes, a leader and I’m going to respect that.”
So Dennis has said he’ll play the team role, and there’s little doubt he’ll get other opportunities in the future, but when you’ve got one hand on the prize how can any elite athlete just let something go?
What makes the whole scenario much more complicated of course is that BMC is a man down after Campbell Flakemore’s unfortunate accident.
Talking to another team director after Tuesday’s stage, he told me he had a rider who was a little unwell and might not be able to continue in Stage 2. But he wasn’t too worried because in a six-day race, covering for one rider isn’t an impossible task.
That might be fine under most circumstances, but what if you have one of your six in the leader’s jersey and another the designated team leader. Who does the work for whom and how does the team work to control the rest of the race?
Not only do BMC have to work out what happens within the team, they’ll also be expected to chase down the breaks and control the tempo of the race. It’s something the other teams can exploit.
It may be the major boost that Richie Porte needs, because he didn’t really deliver on Torrens Hill Rd despite getting dropped-off in perfect position at the bottom of the climb.
None of the four in the final selection – Evans, Porte, Tom Doumoulin and Domenico Pozzovivo – were prepared to risk an attack in the final 500 metres, leaving open the possibility of a surprise attack.
That duly happened, and although BMC had planned for Dennis to figure at the end, he was meant to put pressure on the other riders and not his team leader.
Now Porte can sit and watch while BMC try to control the race and sort out their internal politics. In all likelihood he’ll be fresher for Willunga Hill than his two rival compatriots. That said, with 15 seconds to make up on Dennis, Porte will need the time bonuses and a gap on the road, so he has much to do.
The history of the Tour Down Under is laced with tiny winning margins; a count-back in 2012 and 2003. One second last year. Two seconds in 2011 and 2001. Three seconds in 2007.
So no margin is too tight to defend, and no winning margin is too small.
Richie Porte has been talking all week about needing to believe he can win big races when he is the favourite. He’s talked about being “motivated” and wanting to “get stuck in”. Well if he really wants that ochre jersey, he’s got some big battles to win over the next two days.
Of course there are others eying the big prize.
Tom Doumoulin is in third at nine seconds, but he’s very inexperienced and that may be a weakness. Jack Haig is at 15 seconds but like Doumoulin is very young. Michael Rogers on the other hand knows how to counter every possible scenario but he says he’s in no condition to challenge.
For me, it’s down to Dennis, Evans and Porte.
I’m suddenly not so sure Porte is able to do it, but it’ll be amazing theatre.