Ben O'Connor: Unfinished business

Ben O'Connor experienced a dream season in 2018 when he found himself leading his Dimension Data team at the second-biggest race in the world in what was only his second year racing at WorldTour level.

However, last year's Giro d'Italia would end in devastating fashion for him when he crashed on stage 19 while in 12th place overall, and heading for an almost-certain top-10 position, just two days from the finish in Rome.

While just 22 years old last May, and having first raced a bike at the end of 2013, the Australian had experienced close to the pinnacle of professional cycling only to be brought back down to earth with a painful bump.

Eight months on, it clearly still rankles. O'Connor comes across as a happy – and happy-go-lucky – young man who looks a little like he'd dream of one day riding for a WorldTour team if he hadn't already been riding for one for two seasons.

And while he chats easily and animatedly with Cyclingnews about his cycling life so far, his smile turns almost imperceptibly gritted when the conversation moves to discussing his 2018 Giro.

"I have massive regrets because it was my fault," he tells us. "I'd started to get really tired the day before, and so it had become – or should have become – about trying to control my decision-making. I didn't need to be that aggressive; Tom Dumoulin, Miguel Angel Lopez and Richard Carapaz were in front, and I'd already made up ground on Rohan Dennis, while Patrick Konrad and Pello Bilbao had been dropped. So I didn't need to panic – but I was still pushing."

O'Connor crashed on the descent of Sestriere, and immediately knew that he'd broken his collarbone. His race was over, and yet he feels as though he didn't need to put himself in a position where he was ever contemplating pushing as hard as he was.

"I didn't need to be greedy," he says. "I would have been eighth or ninth overall by the end of the day, at my first Grand Tour, and that kind of hurts. I felt good, but the crash happened purely because I felt good. I wanted to do more. I just wanted to progress even further. I guess it's just that lust as an athlete – to always do your best."

Ben O'Connor in the bunch at the Down Under Classic (Getty Images)

Humble beginnings

"I was a runner, initially, at school," O'Connor explains. "I won some cross-country races, but it was through one of my best mates that I got interested in riding, and did a race in the summer of 2013, won this criterium, and it kind of evolved from there. I was then with a National Road Series development team and did some NRS races in 2014, and then in 2015 I was already in a Continental team [Navitas Satalyst], and did some Asian stuff" – including the Tour de Filipinas and the prestigious Tour of Qinghai Lake – "which turned into 2016 and joining with Andrew Christie-Johnson's Avanti IsoWhey Sport team."

With Avanti – whose alumni include Richie Porte and Nathan Haas – O'Connor took a stage win at the New Zealand Cycle Classic, third overall at the Tour de Taiwan, and third overall behind Enric Mas and Tao Geoghegan Hart at the Tour de Savoie in France. He quickly caught Dimension Data's eye as a result, signing with the African WorldTour team for the 2017 season.

"It all happened very quickly, but it wasn't through luck. I had got results," O'Connor says, as far from arrogantly as it's possible to be. "But yeah – it did move fast, and I guess the cards did play nicely for me. But I didn't have to spend years trying to get to the WorldTour, and I guess that if you can get here and prove that you're a capable athlete, I guess that's it."

Opportunities Down Under

O'Connor rides this week's Tour Down Under in South Australia with a very real chance of finishing high up on the overall classification, and at the very least of animating a stage, perhaps starting with Thursday's third stage from Lobethal to Uraidla, with further opportunities to come on Friday, which includes the climb of Corkscrew, and on the final day on Sunday with its summit finish on Willunga Hill.

Dimension Data's team in Australia is packed with possibilities, too: Tom-Jelte Slagter won the race in 2013 and finished third last year, Michael Valgren won last year's Amstel Gold and Het Nieuwsblad and could light up the second half of this week's race, while Nic Dlamini won the mountains classification in 2018.

O'Connor was somewhat thrust into the limelight at last year's Giro, thanks to both his own good performances but also by designated leader Louis Meintjes' struggle to consistently keep pace with the overall contenders, and the South African's subsequent retirement with sickness following stage 16's time trial.

But he's legitimately one of the team's leaders now going into 2019, and perhaps even O'Connor's stepping-up last season wasn't entirely unexpected: a stage win at the Tour of the Alps in April had shown the kind of form he was in, although he would freely admit that before it happened, leading his Dimension Data squad at the Giro had seemed unlikely.

"I didn't expect it, but I knew that I had wicked shape after I won that stage at the Tour of the Alps, and I was flying there. At the Giro, I was waiting to explode on one day, whether that would be on the Zoncolan [stage 14] or Sappada [stage 15] – perhaps somewhere around that mark.

"So I didn't expect to still be OK by the time we got to the Finestre on stage 19. But it wasn't really overwhelming; it was more unreal. You're just in the moment. You're not scared, because you have no pressure, and you're not scared because you don't actually have to make the race, either. It was up to the other guys. So I was purely thinking, 'Wow – I'm here!' and was just trying to hold the wheels."

Ryan Gibbons and Ben O'Connor stay cool before the start of stage 2 at the Tour Down Under (Getty Images)

Enjoying the off-season

O'Connor's rise to the top has been as a result of his undoubted talent, but also a humble belief that professional cycling doesn't require some monastic existence 24/7.

"A lot of guys will say that they're really stringent with their diet, but they're not. They're not! It's true!" he laughs. "You can have a glass of wine a couple of times a week. You can have desserts. As long as your weight is still on track for whatever goal you've set, then it's fine. You can do your own thing and enjoy it, and also get to be an athlete. I think people fret, and there are times when you have to, but it's not all the time."

Ben O'Connor is one of the new generation: lean, not particularly mean, cycling machines with smiles on their faces and talent in spades.

So while O'Connor's passion and talent for racing is clear, he clearly relishes the opportunity to kick back and relax with friends and family in the off-season. In fact, it could be a key reason for him having been able to keep his feet on the ground despite his rapid rise to pro cycling's stratosphere, with lofty ambitions for the future.

"I was pretty tired by the end of last year, but I think I've had more consistent training through the summer now, and have done a few more hours compared to what I've done before," he explains. "I came back home to Perth pretty much straight away after Il Lombardia. I'd started to fade, and was really tired. It was disappointing to finish the season like that, but I'm already feeling really good for the start of the year."

He says that there have been no repercussions following his Giro crash; his collarbone has healed well, although he admits that his attempts to come back from his injury should have been kept a little more in check.

"I wanted to be as good as I'd been at the Giro again," he says, "but it just doesn't click like that, super fast. I kind of got close, and then it went flat, and then I jumped off a cliff. So this is the beginning again."

Now, O'Connor goes into the 2019 season hoping to replicate his Giro form of last year and to try to finish in the top 10 overall in Verona on June 2.

"I'm really ready to do it again," he says. "It's just like doing a job and not finishing it; you're always going to regret it because there was this silly thing that happened, and you were so close. So you know that you can do it again, but I've only done it once as well, so you have that doubt where you say, 'Can I do it again?' But I probably can. I'm still only 23, so for sure I can, but I just need to get back there."

Unfinished business

O'Connor grew up wanting to play football for Liverpool or cricket for Australia. Luckily, cycling found him, and while Merseyside's loss is cycling's gain, the 23-year-old says he was still playing district cricket a recently as 2014 back home in Perth.

"None of my friends ride, which is part of the beauty of coming back home because you don't get stuck in a cycle of guys who only talk about riding," O'Connor laughs. "There's none of that. I'm just there with the boys, and it's cool."

And O'Connor's cool. Calm and collected, he's ready for another crack at the Giro in May, where'll he'll push hard in the hope of finishing unfinished business, but, he hopes, not too hard.

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