Australian climber Ben O'Connor's dreams of finishing in the top 10 of his very first Grand Tour literally came crashing down just two days out from the finish of last year's Giro d'Italia when the Dimension Data rider fell on the descent of the Col de Sestrière, breaking his collarbone and ending his race after almost three weeks of mature, consistent riding that saw him go into that 19th stage in 12th place overall.
Still just 23, and yet to finish a Grand Tour, O'Connor will nevertheless shoulder the responsibility of being the team's main hope for the overall classification at this year's Giro, and tells Cyclingnews from his base in Girona, Spain, that a similar performance to last year – with the added bonus of staying upright and making it to the finish in Verona – would make him very happy, while a top-10 finish would be the realistically achievable icing on the cake.
Cyclingnews: When we last spoke to you, at the Tour Down Under in January, you were still angry at yourself about your crash at last year's Giro, and said that perhaps you'd ridden overly aggressively when it looked as though you would quite easily have been inside the top 10 by the end of that stage, having dropped a number of rivals. Has anything changed?
Ben O'Connor: I think that has kind of gone now, to be honest. So, no – it doesn't haunt me anymore! It's now completely about looking at what I'm going to do for this year's Giro. That's the only thing you can do, really. And if the best you can do is 10th or 15th overall, then, well, you've done your best. Of course, I still haven't actually finished a Grand Tour, so it would be lovely to actually finish one.
CN: Are you approaching this year's race in the same way as in 2018? Last year your performance seemed to be very much built on consistency, and on still being in contention in the final week.
BO'C: I know that way of riding suits me: that consistency, that longer grind. I would just like to do the same thing as last year, but finish this time. I know that doesn't sound very aggressive, but it's not like I won't try if I see, say, an opportunity to win a stage.
CN: Last year, you went into the Giro having won a stage at the Tour of the Alps, but you were still relatively unknown. Do you think that you're going to be more of a marked rider this time?
BO'C: No – because I've done nothing this year! I crashed at the Volta a Catalunya, and then just kind of got through the race. But then, on the last stage, I was caught up in that other massive fall with Romain Bardet [AG2R] and Simon Geschke [CCC], when that stage was the one I was most keen to try to show myself on, and then didn't have the chance. And then at the Tour of Turkey, I was kind of below par. Yet my form is pretty much where it was last year; it just hasn't worked out as well as it did last year ahead of the Giro.
CN: You've changed your race programme slightly in the build-up to the Giro, with Turkey instead of the Tour of the Alps, with you also riding the Tour of Oman this season, but have you otherwise followed the same kind of path as last year – when it comes to training, for example?
BO'C: This year I've looked a little more at increasing the duration of my training, as last year I'd train hard but not do too many big hours. I also got pneumonia in February last year, and didn't do any altitude training. I have a place in Andorra, so I've been training up there this time, trying to get used to the bigger climbs, as most of the Giro climbs in the third week – and some of the second week – are at over 1,000m gain [in altitude], so I've been doing long durations on climbs, for 40-50 minutes. When you get long climbs like that in the third week, people are tired, but I saw that I was kind of suited to that last year.
CN: So you've looked at the route and have decided that it will suit you again?
BO'C: I'm one of those guys who definitely looks a lot at a course when it comes out, and it probably does suit me. I'm not going into it on absolutely hotshot fire, so I think it's about dealing with the stress of the first week, and then about how much you can suffer for 40 mins on each of those massive climbs later in the second and third week. I'm hoping that the longer stages in the first week will allow me to kind of 'ride into it', as going well in the last week was one of the few things that I could take away from last year.
CN: How are you feeling now, a week out from the start of the race? Have you had a chance to look at your competition, or is it a bit irrelevant when you're 'simply' trying to do as well as you can?
BO'C: This last week, I've felt as though I've got my confidence back. Now it's a kind of fine-tuning, but it's literally just making sure you don't get sick and getting to the race feeling fine. In terms of who I'm up against, I'm not going to challenge Tom Dumoulin [Sunweb] or Mikel Landa [Movistar]. It's a different kind of ball game for what I'm trying to do. I just have to try to hang on to the front group for as long as I can, and just give it everything on each mountain stage, or any stage, to be honest.
CN: With Dimension Data going less well, results-wise, at the moment, how important do you think it is to try to come away with a good result?
BO'C: The team's obviously put faith in me, and that's something I'm aware of and conscious of… We haven't had the best start, but if we keep ticking the right performance boxes, then things will come around. At every race I've done so far, we've committed completely to the cause. And if you have some success, people forget that bad patch pretty quickly.
CN: What would the ideal, achievable scenario be come June 2nd in Verona?
BO'C: Finishing with all my skin and without a broken bone [laughs]. No – I'd like to just do what I did last year. I just want to be racing in that front group in the mountains, and obviously last year I was close to a top 10 – and was pretty much in it when I crashed out – so I'd like to be in the top 10 again. But you can only do the best you can, and if that's 15th, then so be it. I just want to get to the end knowing that I've raced every stage for the GC trying to be in the front group, and that's pretty much as simple as it gets.