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Three years ago, reflecting on a career that, until that point had been defined by adversity rather than triumph, Rohan Dennis insisted: “If you keep knocking on the door, one day it will open.” It was an apt mantra for Dennis, a mercurial cyclist from South Australia. In the three years since, the door has opened – to two individual time trial world championship titles. On Wednesday, five years after a devastating mechanical ruined his medal hopes at the 2016 Olympics, the door opened again – to a bronze medal at Tokyo 2020.
Dennis’s Olympic medal brings his sometimes brilliant, sometimes troubled career full circle. Like so many Australian road cyclists, the 31-year-old began his career on the track, winning silver in the team pursuit at London 2012. He moved to the road and quickly found success – Dennis wore the yellow jersey at the Tour de France in 2015 after winning the opening stage, and has also won individual stages at both other Grand Tours.
Yet for so long, a return to higher honours in his national jersey eluded Dennis.
At the 2015 world championships, a puncture dashed the Australian’s hopes of securing the hallowed rainbow jersey awarded to each world champion. In Rio in 2016, Dennis was on track for a medal in the time trial when his aero bar broke. Having to change bike mid-race ended his hopes of a place on the podium (he ultimately finished fifth).
At the 2017 world championships, Dennis was again on track for a medal in the individual time trial, going through the intermediate time trial in second, only to crash in wet conditions. “I have done all three: punctured, crashed and broke my bike. So what else can go wrong?” he later quipped.
Success in Innsbruck in 2018 finally delivered the national team success Dennis had craved, becoming only the second Australian to win the individual time trial title at the world championships. The door had opened to one of his dreams.
But just as Dennis has battled demons on his bike, so have they haunted him off it. In 2019, Dennis quit the Tour de France without notice, literally stopping on the side of the road and abandoning. His trade team at the time, Bahrain-Merida, terminated his contract with immediately effect. “It has been the toughest period of my career, it was almost breaking,” the rider subsequently admitted (he later attributed the withdrawal to unhappiness with the team environment and their equipment).
Barely two months later, Dennis defended his world time trial crown. After winning the rainbow jersey, he credited his psychologist for helping him overcome his inner demons. “I mean physically I have always had it, but it was always the negativity in my head thinking not the positive things,” he said at the time.
In recent years, Dennis’s stranglehold on the individual time trial discipline has loosened – Italy’s Filippo Ganna won the most recent world championships in 2020. it meant Dennis went to Tokyo with a question mark lingering over him. After an underwhelming past year (by his lofty standards), could the Ineos Grenadiers rider reassert himself when it mattered?
Over a challenging 44.2km course in sweltering conditions, Dennis did enough to return to the Olympic podium almost a decade after he last stood there in London. It may not have been the gold medal he craved, but it was an impressive ride from a rider that has shown impressive perseverance. Dennis’ career has been glittering and gruelling in equal measure. The same could be said of his ride on Wednesday.
“Obviously it would have been great to get the gold, but I’ve done everything possible to be in this position,” Dennis said afterwards. “I was just beaten by two better guys. I can be proud of everything myself and the team achieved. Everything we did was on point. We didn’t falter once.”
After crossing the line in third, Dennis faced an agonising wait for the final handful of riders to finish. Stefan Küng came in less than half a second short of Dennis’ time, but it would not be enough to displace the Australian.
“The second lap, as we expected, was quite a battle. It was more of a dog-fight for the last half-lap of that second lap between five or six of us,” he continued. “I didn’t know about Küng. I sat down in the hotseat and I was asking ‘did I beat him or not?’ No one asked me to move.”
Dennis may have meant that last line literally – he retained his place on the podium – but it has metaphorical resonance, too. The Australian has showed unmovable determination during a career with as many ups and downs as the time trial course at Tokyo 2020. True to his words, Dennis has kept knocking on the door.