A tale of two bubbles, from Team Dennis to Team Ineos. A year ago, Rohan Dennis prepared in solitude for the UCI Road World Championships time trial after Bahrain-Merida had terminated his contract following his abandon at the Tour de France.
Despite ten weeks without racing, Dennis successfully defended his title aboard an unbranded bike, and the slogan on his wife Melissa Hoskins' baseball cap neatly summed up the Australian's contractual status: 'Team Dennis.'
Twelve months on, Dennis has been able to rely on rather more support from his trade team in the build-up to the Worlds time trial, which takes place on Friday. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Australian has even remained within his Ineos Grenadiers 'bubble' in Imola this week rather than linking up with his national team at their hotel.
His Worlds rivals Filippo Ganna (Italy) and Geraint Thomas (Great Britain) are also staying within the Ineos Grenadiers structure in Emilia-Romagna. The three riders are in line to ride the Giro d'Italia – which features three time trials – and the British squad has opted to limit their contacts in the run-up to the corsa rosa, which gets underway in Palermo on October 3.
Dennis, Ganna and Thomas will thus ride the individual time trial but miss the road race at the Imola Worlds, where they will have close contact only with soigneurs and mechanics from Ineos Grenadiers.
In Innsbruck and Yorkshire, Dennis was able to count on the instructions of Brad McGee during his winning effort, but the Australian national coach has been unable to travel to Europe due to the coronavirus pandemic. Ineos directeur sportif Brett Lancaster – a team pursuit gold medallist with McGee at the 2004 Olympics – will instead drive the car behind Dennis on Friday afternoon.
Dennis has raced twice since the season resumed in August, first at the Tour de Pologne and then at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he rode in the service of Geraint Thomas and placed third behind a flying Ganna in the short final time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto. That concluding stage was only the third time trial he raced in the rainbow jersey this year, after his second-place finishes at the Australian Championships in January and the final stage of the Volta ao Algarve in February.
Ganna's remarkable display at Tirreno-Adriatico – he put 26 seconds into Dennis in 10km – has seen the Italian touted as a favourite, while Wout van Aert (Belgium) heads the list of contenders fresh – if that is the operative word – from the Tour de France. Dennis forcefully demonstrated his ability to hit his lines on the big day a year ago, however, and his former BMC directeur sportif Marco Pinotti has listed him alongside Ganna as a five-star favourite for Friday's flat and fast 31.7km test.
The defending champion has maintained a low-profile in the lead-up to the Imola Worlds, opting not to hold a pre-race press conference and instead limited himself to a brief statement via Cycling Australia.
"The Worlds has been on my mind throughout the lockdown. Regardless of the category, it is always a great honour to race with the rainbow jersey. Every time I wear it, I race to win," said Dennis, who is vying to emulate his Tony Martin and his fellow countryman Michael Rogers by winning the Worlds time trial for a third year in succession.
"I am in good shape. It is always very special to participate in the most important race of the year, but to get a chance to fight for a win for the third time in a row and join an exclusive group of champions who have achieved this feat will be fantastic."
Luke Durbridge, who beat Dennis to the Australian time trial title in January is also in action in Imola. The Mitchelton-Scott was the under-23 time trial champion in Copenhagen in 2011, and though his record in the Worlds at the elite level is not commensurate with his pedigree in the discipline, this year's route appears well suited to his characteristics.
"I really like it, it is really fast," Durbridge said. "Quite short, but it has a lot of different aspects. I think it will be a nice spectacle, with a few nice rides that roll along the back straight with the vineyards along the side. I think it is a good course for myself, I'm liking it and looking forward to it."