After starting 2020 in France at the GP la Marseillaise, Ben O'Connor will once again return to France to get his 2021 season underway. This time, though, the former NTT Pro Cycling rider will be racing on a French team, too, having made the big decision to change surroundings after six years spent at English-speaking squads.
It's a leap of faith for the 25-year-old, who moves on from four years at the South African team to join AG2R Citroën, which has undergone a full rebuild through the winter.
Speaking from the team's pre-season training camp, O'Connor said that a change of scenery was always on the cards for 2021, even if the near-collapse of NTT would eventually be saved by Assos.
"I wanted to do this for some time," he told Cyclingnews. "If this hadn't popped up, I would've waited, but still think I would've looked at different pathways. I live in Europe now and my life should be here. It makes life a bit more exciting."
O'Connor, who bookended his 2020 season with stage wins at Etoile de Bessèges and the Giro d'Italia, signed up with AG2R Citroën midway through the Italian race, after a first week wracked by illness but before he captured his first Grand Tour stage win at Madonna di Campiglio.
He said that sorting out his future with the team, who had pursued him in the past, helped free him for the end of the race to take his career-best result.
"That was confidence boosting too, because I was sick, and happily AG2R Citroën showed confidence in what I can do," he said. "That was really humbling and maybe that's why I was so relaxed and free flowing afterwards.
"I remember in the years before they showed interest, but I was too scared to move or go anywhere because I had just started making friends. It was exactly the right time to change and have a different atmosphere. It was the perfect thing for me – I didn't want to stay stuck in the same bubble as all the Australian and American guys."
With the change in teams comes a big change in culture. O'Connor lives in Andorra and doesn't speak French – "I hear French and travel there but it's completely different to being immersed in it like I am here" – and also knows very few of his new teammates. It's a challenge, but it's one that he welcomes.
"It's a completely different change but everyone has been extremely welcoming and friendly, almost like family. I've raced against Bob Jungels [another new signing for 2021] and Benoît Cosnefroy, but I don't know most of the guys. It's a different world for me.
"But I wanted something different, a different atmosphere. It's very easy to go from Australian team to American to South African where everyone's the same, so I decided to change my outlook on my career."
Tour dreams and Romandie goal
As it was for everyone in the peloton, 2020 was an up and down year for the Australian. After the win in Bességes – a stage win ahead of Simon Clarke on Mont Bouquet – he hit a low patch of form before racing was cut short due to COVID-19 at the end of Paris-Nice.
O'Connor hit good form before the restart, but was hit by illness shortly after, a tough break for a rider seeking a contract for next season.
"I don't want to elaborate, but it was a pretty shit start," he said. "I knew I didn't have a contract and I had to do something, but I knew that if I worked hard enough I could win a race.
"It's one of those things where you know that you can do it but the stars didn't align very well. Then in the Giro they did. Actually, in the first week I was super sick as well. I got a stomach bug and was dead last in some of the early stages, so I had to grit and fight for it and it was so rewarding to finish off like that on top.
"That win gives you confidence coming to a team like this. It was one of those years where I found out what my potential can be, even with all the shit that happened with health and COVID-19."
AG2R Citroën, who have "always raced aggressively" O'Connor says, looks like a good fit for him going forward, in part due to the departures of GC men Romain Bardet and Pierre Latour. With the longstanding team leaders moving on, there'll be Grand Tour freedom for O'Connor, even if he's torn between battling for stage wins and the GC fight.
"I don't know what my future will hold but I know that if I can get everything right, I can be up there in big races, whether it's for stages or the overall. With those gaps in the team, it was also perfect because I know I can take opportunities if it all falls into place.
"As for the GC thing, I don't think that's all cycling is. I think it doesn’t really mean much to me because I'd much rather win Grand Tour stages than finish eighth or 10th at the Giro or the Vuelta.
"I was already in the top 10 at the Giro and crashed out and I was pretty sad, but I can assure you that I celebrated a lot more winning that stage than I did about being in the top 10. It was definitely a better feeling. Unless you do a Jai [Hindley] or Tao [Geoghegan Hart] and it all falls into place, I think it's more important to target your best opportunity."
O'Connor is aiming for a Tour de France berth in 2021, saying that if he's in Giro 2020 form then he could target a similar result for his new team. Having raced the Giro three times, he's excited about a chance to make his Tour debut.
"It'd be a dream to start there, especially being in a French team, that's even more hype," he said. "That'd be my main aim for the season, to start there and bring the same thing as I did to the Giro. I can't see why there would be no lack of opportunity to achieve something like that. Grand Tours are my best forte. I tend not to dip, and kind of stay the same form. If I could do the Vuelta as well that'd be perfect."
Before July, short stage races are on his list, with May's Tour de Romandie a real goal for O'Connor. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is another on his hit list, though a race he's looking to help teammates Cosnefroy and Jungels at, rather than go for his own chances.
"I start in France and then I go to Tirreno-Adriatico, País Vasco, and then Liège to help Benoît and Bob," he said. "That's exciting because I don't do a lot of one-day races. that's a race I think I'd like, and it'd be cool to be there deep in the race to be one of the last guys to help on the final climbs.
"I haven't done the Swiss races before, so that'd be great. Romandie would be a great opportunity to try and do something overall if possible. It'd be in that perfect time when you're on your way up just before you have a bit of a chill. So that'd be a great race with hard climbs, turbulent weather, and it'd be good to aim for that and see how far it takes me."
O'Connor starts his AG2R Citroën career at the Tour de la Provence in February, staying in France to race the Tour du Var and the Faun-Ardeche Classic.
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