Ben O'Connor's first race in Dimension Data colours didn't go to plan for the 21-year-old as he recorded a DNF in the time trial at the Australian national championships. Explaining to Cyclingnews that he was suffering from "swooning sensations" and didn't want to compromise his or his teammates' chances for Sunday's road race, he pulled the pin on the 40.9km event.
"I did want to do at least a good result but it did not come together well. I guess that is cycling. It was a bit obscure and I feel completely fine now, so I don’t really know if I can put my finger on the cause, but I think the road race is more important for the team and for myself. It is a race that suits all of us in the team," O'Connor told Cyclingnews ahead of the 183.6km road race.
Joining O'Connor on the start line for Dimension Data are last year's fourth-place finisher, Nathan Haas, and Lachlan Morton. The triumvirate shape up as a dangerous combination and will attract plenty of attention from the other riders in the peloton, and O'Connor believes the green-and-gold victory is within reach for Dimension Data.
"With Nathan and Lachy it opens it up to all sorts of possibilities. Nathan is quite fast and Lachy can climb extremely well and I am not too bad on a climb either, so it will be good to have the options there and to have teammates there to rely on and work with. And being the first race of the year, it is great to start those relationships with them," added O'Connor of his Australian teammates.
With Orica-Scott fielding its smallest team of just six-riders, though packed with quality, the opportunity for an outsider or individual rider to continue the recent trend of 'upset' victories is on the cards. Assessing Dimension Data's rivals for the road race, O'Connor picked out a few names.
"There are dangerous guys - you could see from the crit that Jay McCarthy is in good shape," he said. "Travis Meyer in his last race, he has been training very well and I’ve ridden with him back at home and he is definitely keen to finish off well.
"Obviously, his brother Cam as well and Chris [Hamilton]. It is hard to control but there are teams with bigger numbers than us. Obviously, we are still a WorldTour team so we’ll be looked at but Orica have a lot of the pressure because they are the Australian WorldTour team."
As a first-year neo-pro and in just his third year racing full-time, O'Connor is looking to his first full season racing in Europe and has come into the nationals under his peak racing form and condition. As a rider focused on riding general classification at one-week tours and, in the future, Grand Tours, O'Connor is looking at the start of 2017 as a period in which to soak up as much as possible and acquaint himself with his new teammates.
"It is definitely better than what it was at the start of last year. I have worked hard on being consistent and I don’t think I have over-done it either for this first block of racing with nationals, Tour Down Under and Cadel Evans. I think it will be a really good start to the year," said O'Connor, who will also be racing the Tour de Langkawi in February. "Once again, I am a first-year pro, so I will be playing supporting roles for the guys who have done it before and have the big chance to win the races."
O'Connor's climbing skills attracted the attention of Dimension Data while he was racing with Isowhey Sports Swisswellness in Europe last year, but he has also demonstrated an ability to contest for time trial wins in the U23 ranks. With his focus on GC, time trialling is an essential skill for overall success and, despite the outcome, O'Connor explained that racing the Australian national time trial is part of the bigger picture plan.
"You know when you head into that kind of event you have guys like Rohan Dennis, who is one of the worlds best, so you know realistically that being a first-year pro you are not going to be winning that event or even podiuming - unless you are absolutely exceptional," he said.
"That was the initial point of it, to keep doing time trial training because it is so different in terms of putting power out on a bike. For general classification, eventually and hopefully, throughout the years you can build on that skill and I think the training that comes with it, the 20-30 minute efforts do pay dividends and do help with your climbing. I know it is a different way to put out the power but I think helps with that climbing simulation in a way because you do a long aerobic effort."
While some riders may argue that focusing on time trialling is a hindrance to their climbing and vice versa, O'Connor believes the two skill sets are complementary.
"I know a lot of guys disagree, but I definitely think that whenever I have been doing well on the time trial bike that I tend to be climbing very well as well. I purely think it is down to getting the legs and body used to that sustained aerobic effort. That is why I don’t mind time trials and working on the skill. Because that is what it is," explained O'Connor, who suggested he may work on improving his position in the wind tunnel later this season.
Although there is no time trial at the Tour Down Under, there will be two key climbing stages and that is where O'Connor will be aiming to play key roles for his teammates with 'long aerobic efforts'.
"It is my first WorldTour event and we have guys like Nathan and Lachy who have proven in the past how good they can ride," he said. "I think that will be my role and I am really looking forward to it. Like I have always said, it is about developing and learning and I think that is the overall key for this season especially in my first race in the WorldTour."