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Ben O'Connor blog: A Tour de France debut and a new lease of life

Ben O'Connor
Ben O'Connor (AG2R Citroën) (Image credit: Getty Images)

For the 2021 Tour de France, Cyclingnews is excited to welcome a brand new blogger into the fold. Ben O'Connor, the 25-year-old Australian riding for French team AG2R Citroën, will be providing insights from his debut Tour.

O'Connor had a breakthrough ride at the 2018 Giro d'Italia but it ended with a broken collarbone two days from home and he then struggled for consistency, but now that has changed. His mid-pandemic contract search led him to AG2R, where he has landed on his feet and put together a string of performances that have made this Tour a very exciting proposition indeed. Over to Ben.

Hello from the Tour de France. This feels special. It’s the peak, I guess – like the World Cup in football, or the Grand Final in Aussie Rules back home. It’s one of those big life moments.

There’s a certain amount of personal satisfaction, but I’m also thinking about the people around me – my fiancée, my parents. People give up a lot for you to be able to get here, and if you’re able to make it to that peak, it makes a lot of people proud, not just myself. I think that’s one of the special things about being an athlete and achieving as an athlete.

It also has an impact back in Australia. The general public don’t really know about bike racing, but they do know about the Tour de France. That was certainly the case for me. I wasn’t from a cycling-mad family or a cycling-mad area. I grew up with football, my parents being British. Cycling was just when the Tour de France came on SBS late at night. Do I remember a lot? No. I think I remember watching Lance, but that was it. We just used to watch the pretty French scenery – not the sprints or the climbs but the chateaux and the people on the side of the road. Even when Cadel won in 2011, you watched it, but it was hardly madness. I don’t remember being in the school playground and anyone shouting ‘oh my god Cadel won the Tour!’.

So I can’t say I had any big childhood dream to ride the Tour, but I’m thrilled to be here nonetheless, even if the enormity of it maybe hasn’t quite hit me. I arrived in Brest on Wednesday night after a crazy long journey. I live in Andorra so my fiancée and I, with Jack Haig in the back, drove to Barcelona to catch a flight to Paris, then across the top of France to Brest. We left at 1pm and only got in after 10pm. The problem was we were going along the highway and got stuck behind some sort of amateur bike group. It was super weird. They had a police escort and two follow cars, but it was just a group ride, just some blokes on bikes. It was quite ironic, being like ‘well, actually we’re trying to get to the Tour de France…!’ It was a little bit of karma, I guess, for us blocking all the roads for everyone else for the next three weeks.

I’m excited to get going. Things have been going well for me recently. It’s fair to say I’ve had a bit of a strange career so far. I’ve definitely blown hot and cold. There’s always been a hurdle. There have been plenty of times that I’ve shown I’m a strong rider but there’s always been a spanner in the works somewhere, whether it’s a crash, or illness, or whatever. I had a rough 18 months but I know plenty of guys who have had much worse times of it, and it’s important to keep things in perspective. It’s not so much about managing my own expectations, as actually meeting the expectations I had of myself from quite a while ago, which then brings relief, which then brings less stress. I’m not normally a highly-strung guy but I think trying to keep less agitated has helped me a lot. 

Part of the turnaround has been the new team. I know what it might have looked like – this strange Australian guy turning up at a French team for no reason – but it hasn’t been like that at all. I was never an outsider. They guys were always super friendly – every one of them. Even the really French guys – I’m thinking guys like Benoît Cosnefroy and Nans Peters – were super kind and made a huge effort with me.

I can’t speak much French, and the management don’t really speak English, but I kind of like the fact I’ve had the chance to gradually learn to get by. I can’t get every word but I can pick up the context, and with requests and directions it’s pretty simple to figure out. Some guys think it’s daunting but I don’t agree. If you come here and only speak English, that’s pretty selfish. They’ve shown respect and commitment to you, and you’re not helping yourself if you don’t show the same in return.

I have a thing about stereotypes. Maybe it’s because my parents are scousers, and people have a stereotype about the Liverpool accent and all that. I know people have pre-conceptions about French teams but it’s been so nice to have that open-mindedness and respect on both sides.

The objectives

So what am I hoping to get out of this Tour de France?

Objective number one: get to Paris. I definitely want to finish the race. To be honest, I have no real doubt I can do that, from a physical perspective. It’s just avoiding disaster, and if disaster does strike, continuing to do your best. 

Objective number two: give this GC thing a go. I think I’m strong enough to do it. I know I’m not Geraint Thomas or Primož Roglič, I’m not trying to win the Tour de France, but I can be up there or thereabouts. I’m not getting too hung about it, and I’m certainly not putting any numbers on anything, but I want to do the best overall I can.

There is a plan C: stages. There are always stages. If something goes wrong in the first week, there are still two weeks left, and I know I have the form to win from breakaways in the mountains.

As we wait to get going, I can’t help think back to my Grand Tour debut at the Giro three years ago, when I crashed out two days from the end. I still see it as this massive missed opportunity. I’ve always lamented not having that result on my palmarès – maybe last year would have been less stressful with finding a team, for instance. 

But I don’t want to see it as a regret. I’m really happy with how things are going right now, so I can honestly say there's not a lot I would change. Now let's ride the Tour de France.