Ben O’Connor must be wondering what the catch is. Fourth in the Tour de France, a seamless start to life at a new team, and a contract through to the end of 2024 with AG2R Citroën – even he would have laughed you out of the room if you’d promised him that 12 months ago.
It’s not that the Australian doesn’t feel worthy of those achievements, rather that he has grown more accustomed to his true potential being blocked by forces beyond his control.
“It seems that for me, in my life in general, something always goes wrong, at the worst moment,” he told Cyclingnews.
The obvious place to start would be the 2018 Giro d’Italia. A 22-year-old O’Connor was making his big breakthrough when he crashed out two days from Milan. It was a sliding doors moment and instead of sealing a top-10 and announcing himself as a future Grand Tour contender, he set about nursing a broken collarbone and struggled through the rest of the season.
Things didn't get any better in 2019.
“In the 2019 Vuelta, I really hated cycling. The first week was really the worst week I’ve had in bike racing," he said. "That was a point where I was like: ‘I think I might stop if the next year doesn’t go well’."
But 2020 started with a bang, and a stage win at the Etoile de Bessèges, which he beamingly describes as the most fun he’s had racing his bike. He was soon brought crashing back down, however, as the pandemic arrived and wiped out any sense of momentum.
There were health problems of his own, too, not to mention the stress of his team, NTT, being on the verge of collapse. He went back to cloud nine with a stage win at the late-season Giro d’Italia, but it didn’t solve all his problems; he only ended up with one firm contract offer to continue his career as a professional cyclist.
It has been a rollercoaster ride and there are arguably few other sports where the fourth-placed athlete at the world’s biggest event can be someone who nearly fell through the cracks entirely just six months previously.
“It’s a little bit bizarre, isn’t it,” O’Connor notes in tentative agreement.
“I always felt hard done by that the last part of 2020 was so stressful. I never had consistency but it’s not like I never win any races. I found it bizarre that no one was very interested, but I guess that’s the cycling world, people see you differently to how you see yourself.
“I would be pretty unhappy with the idea of falling down the hole, that’s not how it should be. I don’t mind if you get really good and then you fall, but to have potential and never have the chance to meet it…”
Even if he was only handed one lifeline, it turned out that one was all he needed to get his career back on track.
AG2R Citroën seemed like an odd fit at the time. This was an overwhelmingly French team who were just pivoting away from stage races and towards the Classics. What’s more, O’Connor was only given a modest one-year contract. It seemed a bit like a short-term, low-cost, low-risk roster-filler.
However, things clicked immediately and, just five months in, he was signed up through 2024.
“I didn’t envisage so quickly re-signing for multiple years, but I’m so happy I did,” O’Connor said.
“I found that pillar of trust with this group. I never expected to find so much security so quickly, especially with a French team. Even in my first races, my French wasn’t great but they were so welcoming.
“They took me in and gave me a chance. They had been interested for a while, they spoke to me in 2018 as well, so that was a big thing. I could have waited [for another team] but if there’s a team that has shown interest and gives you a great chance, it’s almost rude not to take it, like, ‘who do you think you are?’ That’s why it’s so cool, because it’s like payback, being able to repay them for giving me that chance.”
O’Connor started his AG2R career with 16th at Tour de la Provence, fifth at Tour du Var, 12th at Paris-Nice, and 23rd at Itzulia Basque Country, but the highlight was the Tour de Romandie, where he was second on the big summit finish and sixth overall in a stacked WorldTour field. He signed his new contract soon after and went on to place fourth at the Mont Ventoux Challenge and eighth at the Critérium du Dauphiné before taking to the start of his first Tour de France in Brest.
Ironically, while his fourth-place finish in Paris added newfound stability to his career, the 21 stages themselves were another rollercoaster.
He must have felt a sense of déjà-vu when he came crashing down in both of those opening-day pile-ups, but he clung on and ended the first week as a stage winner and second overall, enjoying a dream solo victory from the breakaway in Tignes on stage 9. There was sudden danger as he began to crack in the heat on Mont Ventoux but he rescued the situation and went on to produce a solid final week to seal fourth overall.
“It feels a bit silly now to think I did that,” he said. “When you actually reflect on it, it becomes a little more real, but it still seems ridiculous. It’s just not what you ever thought would happen, especially in your first Tour.”
O’Connor’s season effectively ended in Paris. After a holiday, which involved cycling at a more casual pace, O’Connor resumed racing at the Deutschland Tour but was “completely cooked” and pulled the plug on the Italian Classics.
“It didn’t really matter, because all the success had come before,” he said.
“I can only look back proudly on my season, because everything was more consistent than I’ve ever been before. It was a massive progression. You meet the expectations that others had put on you in the past but which never worked out, for all sorts of reasons.
“To be in a very different team and loving it, and not just loving it but having success as well, was pretty cool. There was a change in the set-up, with some big riders leaving and some opportunities for other riders, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why it worked out. I had that free rein and was able to step up with each race. It could have gone either way but every chance was there to take. We sort of planned it from the start of the year but never thought it would actually happen.”
Incremental goals, not silly ones
Having had such a good year, there is now an obvious next question. Where does Ben O’Connor go from here?
“Next year is a year of proving yourself, of backing up, of proving what you’ve done for just one year,” he said. “That’s what it’s always like in cycling. You have one-hit wonders but there needs to be a second album, there needs to be consistency. That’s where next year falls in.”
In line with that sense of consistency, O’Connor is remaining level-headed. It might be tempting to bask in such a Tour de France result and only look up, but he is resisting such temptations in favour of a more considered vision of success.
“Win the Tour? No, you’ve jumped a couple of guns there. The idea of standing on the podium is really cool, too, but I haven’t got a number in mind. The number does mean a little bit but it just depends on how you race. Sometimes you go there and guys are gonna be stronger in that year or it’s not going to work out.
“It would be a dream goal for the future, but it’s not like the next thing. You’ve got to think about your steps. It’s funny because it's maybe not how it turned out this year, but I want incremental goals, not silly goals.”
Besides, with the way Tadej Pogačar dominated this year’s Tour to seal his second title in as many years suggests the yellow jersey is as good as out of reach for mere mortals.
“The guy is pretty much untouchable, really,” O’Connor said. “There are very few people in the world who would say they could beat him, so you’ve got to be realistic.”
Still, O’Connor’s status will certainly be altered in 2022. For starters, he won’t be such an underdog and surely won’t be allowed as much freedom as he enjoyed on the road to Tignes in July. Secondly, there’s the role he has assumed at AG2R, with his name now the first on the Tour de France team sheet. Whereas little was expected of him at first – which effectively made all the success so much sweeter – he is now central to the team’s plans in 2022, bringing not just the expectation of results but the responsibility for calling some shots.
“I don’t shy away from the leadership thing. I actually quite enjoy it. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” he said.
“You have to trust your ability and if you don’t have that then be honest enough to say so and try a different route, instead of banging your head against a wall. The leader thing is not scary for me, and in fact in the bunch I think it helps with respect.”
As for how he develops as a rider, O’Connor, who only turned 26 last month, still sees room for improvement. He has always described himself as a climber, but a ‘diesel’ version, who prefers the longer grinding mountains, Tignes being a perfect example. But he also said he has noticed improvements in his shorter, punchier efforts.
The area that needs most attention, however, is time trialling. He is solid enough against the clock, placing 31st in the Tour’s two time trials and top-16 at Romandie and Dauphiné, but there are gains to be made if he’s to solidify his GC credentials.
“I’m going to have to have a lot more emphasis on it,” he said. “I started this year not doing much at all – I actually couldn’t because of my collarbone and ligament problems, but the plan for the season was more stages over GC anyway.
“My time trialling is not the worst, but you go back to Tadej and Primož [Roglič], because those guys are just unreal. They’ll win flat TTs, against big men. It’s madness actually. It’s almost a bit unfair, because it wasn’t like that before as much, I feel. But anyway, I have to improve my TT. It’s part of the sport.”
With a successful season and a three-year contract in the bag, O’Connor will set out in 2022 feeling he finally has a platform on which he can build. He might never quite outgrow that fatalistic sense that misfortune lurks behind each hairpin, but that does perhaps defend him against complacency.
“I’m still in this moment where I just want to make the most of every opportunity I get,” he concluded.
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