Ben O'Connor's rapid rise in cycling has seen the 20-year-old pen a contract with Dimension Data just two year's after taking the sport. An impressive first season with the Australian Avanti IsoWhey Sports team caught the eye of several suitors but it was the South African WorldTour team and its link with the Qhubeka charity that sealed the deal as he explained to Cyclingnews.
"From when I've talked with Douglas Ryder and Rolf Aldag, it sounds like an absolutely brilliant team with a lot of rider contact and also with the main objective of the Qhubeka charity it gives a different meaning to riding. It's not just for you which I think is a really great initiate and gives you little bit more initiative and inspiration besides your own personal aspiration," O'Connor told Cyclingnews from his home in Perth, Western Australia.
O'Connor will be one of the younger riders in the 2017 WorldTour peloton at 21. He is playing the long game with his eye on a long career and won't be aiming to set the world alight in his debut neo-pro season as he explained of his aims and ambitions with Dimension Data.
"Gradual development is what I want to achieve as a rider and to be able to keep progressing as a climber and perhaps get some sort of a result. Whether that be in young rider classifications or take an opportunity in a breakaway and be the unknown a little it," he said. "There is a feeling of satisfaction when you ride for others and you get the job done. That is a really, really good feeling and that's something I haven't really done a lot this year but when I have done, I've thoroughly enjoyed it and looking forward to that part of the job. The main ambition is to keep on developing and become the best rider that I can be."
At Dimension Data, O'Connor will link up with fellow Avanti alumni Nathan Haas and follows Chris Hamilton in progressing to the top level of the sport after spending the 2016 season with the team. In recent years, the team also sent Paddy Bevin (Cannondale-Drapac), Jack Haig (Orica-BikeExchange), Campbell Flakemore (BMC) and Richie Porte among several others. O'Connor is quick to praise team manager Andrew Christie-Johnston for his role and propelling him into the WorldTour ranks.
"Andrew gives the most amount of opportunity to each one of us riders who he thinks has talent and has faith in us and the way that the team riders to together, allows us to get the results that we do. Since I started this year with Avanti I've stepped up to that next level and his support, you can talk to him whenever you feel, whenever you need and he will help you. He's been absolutely brilliant and someone I really look to both as a team manager, and as a mentor to ask and lean upon when you need help. Andrew has been unforgettable this year."
Pathway to a professional contract
Growing up, O'Connor always wanted to be "professional sportsman" that saw him test he waters with running, cricket and football but once he acquired a road bike during his final year of schooling, there was no looking back.
"My best mate used to have a road bike and I was super jealous, I was incredibly jealous of him and eventually towards the end of school I managed to get a road bike and changed from running as the school was pretty strict on its sporting aims and goals," he explained of his pathway into cycling. "I remember watching a lot of cycling and being intrigued, especially the mountains, and wanting to ride up the roads. As soon as I got on the bike, I just loved it and would do it on the weekend as a cross training thing. It wasn't like a leisurely ride, I would go out full biscuit the whole way or just try and ride full biscuit the whole way so I'd get back so tired."
As a recent convert to cycling, O'Connor explained that his early idol was Warren Barguil after his dual stage wins at the 2013 Vuelta a Espana and is still uneasy with the complicated history of the sport.
"I know a lot about current riders, I haven't really looked so much towards the past because, it sounds bad and I know cycling has a very tainted history, but it does disgust me a little but when you look back at the names and you see all the guys," he said. "I know a lot of them where doing it back then, but it's something I didn't really want to learn about entirely.
"I have faith that they are clean and are the new generation of the sport and actually sport itself in being hopefully a predominately clean sport," he added.
O'Connor's sharp progression saw him sign with Australian Continental squad Navitas Satalyst Racing in 2015 as a 19-year-old and earn selection for the 13-day Tour of Qinghai Lake stage race. The high altitude race is widely regarded as one of the tougher races on the calendar but for O'Connor, it wasn't quite tough enough as he explained.
"You don't usually do a 13-day tour when you're 19 and it was absolutely a brilliant learning experience. What made it even better was that I went into the tour in great shape having done a lot of altitude training, I had a tent, I used the mask and machine a lot and had been eating really well. I was in almost as a good shape as I could have been for a 19-year-old. Going up in the real high mountains and show what I love to do, to climb, and being able to do that was extremely enjoyable. You see how strong some of those guys are, I don't know how legitimate they are, but it was still a fabulous race. There are a lot of horror stories from the race but I didn't get sick at all and thoroughly enjoyed it."
"To be honest, it sounds weird but was actually hoping towards the end of the tour that there would be some more hardier stages and mountains ones because you gradually go down and the hardest days are in the middle of the week, stage 4 to eight, and then the other ones get easier and easier. You could tell how tired and fatigued people would be getting as I was getting around people in the bunch sprints even though I cant sprint at all. Wes Sulzberger and I were hoping for some harder stages but I know some of the other guys definitely weren't."
A contract with the Continental Avanti team was then forthcoming for the 2016 season as O'Connor instantly repaid the faith placed in him by team manager Andrew Christie-Johnston and coach Mark Fenner as he took bronze in the U23 time trial at the nationals of January this year. Not feeling great for the U23 road race, O'Connor still managed to finish top-ten as teammate and WorldTour bound Chris Hamilton took the victory.
With half the squad heading over the UCI 2.2 New Zealand for the NZ Cycle Classic, and the other half heading to the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, Christie-Johnston called his young charger and told him to bring the yellow jersey from across the Tasman.
"Going to New Zealand was brilliant as initially I was going to do Sun Tour but Andrew called me up and told me 'I am going to take you to New Zealand and I want to you win it'. The fact that I'd just joined the team and the manager is telling me that I am the man and I am going to win the race was a really cool feeling. It wasn't something I was used to so the take the opportunity on Admiral Hill and really give it my best was really enjoyable," said O'Connor who sealed overall victory with the hilltop finish. There were no hilltop finishes in Tour of Qinghai Lake but there was one day were I was caught with one kilometre to do so since then I've had a real bit ambition to win on a hill top finish so to do it there was really special. With Marko [O'Brien] coming second for the one-two was even better but it was a shame, as I couldn't put my hands up as seat post snapped."
A stint in yellow and third at the Tour de Taiwan followed before call up to the U23 national team for a stint of racing in Europe. While the one-day Belgian races weren't suited to his strengths, the learning experience was one O'Connor wouldn't take back and helped him in the second half of the season as the team switched focus to several French stage races.
"I had a month and a half from getting pneumonia before Le Tour de Bretagne to Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc (UCI 2.2) so I don't really know how I managed to get over in such good shape but I know I had good legs and my weight was really good coming out of Bretagne," he said. "I'd been building up for that race for a long time and what helped me the most in that preparation was Andrew sending me to Chambéry in the alps two weeks before the race and that last little bit of preparation was some big days in the mountains doing a lot of 1000 metre plus climbs which was one of the big difference in that tour and I cant thank him enough for doing that."
O'Connor finished third at the Tour de Savoie behind Tao Geoghegan Hart and Enric Mas, who will also be riding in the WorldTour next season, before fatigue and over training caught up with him was off the boil at the Tour de Alsace. That meant he also missed the Tour de l'Avenir and called time on his longest season to date.
"I've had a great season and long season as well with out much of a break," said O'Connor who ended his season with NRS Tour of Tasmania event last week.
Several long rides are on the agenda for O'Connor before he meets up with his Dimension Data teammates for the first time and ramps up his preparation for the 2017 season that will see him line out at the Australian nationals potentially alongside Nathan Haas, Lachlan Morton and Mark Renshaw.