Eight months into his first season with Dimension Data and Ben O'Connor is loving life in the WorldTour. So much so that the 21-year-old has no qualms to say that "I don't think there is anything else I'd rather be doing."
The West Australian hit the ground running at the Tour Down Under, helping teammate Nathan Haas to fourth overall and toiling away on the front of the peloton. It got better at the Tour de Langkawi where O'Connor was eighth overall with teammate Ryan Gibbons taking the overall win. There was more team success with Serge Pauwels winning the Tour de Yorkshire before his season highlight of a stage win and fifth place overall at the Tour of Austria.
"The first pro win in Austria. That stage was absolutely amazing. The fact that it was such a special day with massive mountains, and plus, the day before I was shocking," O'Connor told Cyclingnews of his season highlight. "I won't lie. I did want to win a stage [of Austria] but I went there wanting to be top three overall. I didn't think that would be the case after day four because I had a really bad day on Kitzbüheler Horn and I was super disappointed there. The next day, I completely turned it around on one of the longest, most climbing kind of days I've done before. That was pretty cool.
"Tour Down Under as well. Your first WorldTour race, that was also up there because it was the first and it will always be special to me."
Making the win even sweeter was the fact that O'Connor had specifically targeted the Tour of Austria for a result and was able to deliver with a win.
"It was a yearlong target as it was slightly lower than a WorldTour race and I knew I could perform when you get to those really big mountains," he explained. "I wanted to be good for the Dauphine and then be at my best in Austria. I think that was purely because I knew I could achieve a result there. While in Dauphine I knew I would be helping Serge and Eddy win those stages so that's how my mind was set."
In opening his professional win count at the Tour of Austria, O'Connor follows in the footsteps of fellow Australian Cadel Evans. A fact he was unaware of until after the race had concluded.
"I didn't know until a couple of days later. If you can follow in his footsteps, even in the slightest way, you'll be a successful rider. It is cool to be part of that I guess," said O'Connor of Evans who won on Kitzbüheler Horn and won the GC in 2004.
While the opening half to O'Connor's debut WorldTour has been above expectation, there have been some lowlights. A crash at the Tour of Norway the biggest slight on his season thus far as he explained.
"The biggest downer was probably Norway. I was feeling really good and then I fell and was knocked out with a big, big concussion," he recounted. "I was off the bike for a couple weeks so that was terrible. I felt awful but I don't actually remember anything from that day. That kind of sucked but otherwise, it has been a year of positives."
Prior to joining Dimension Data, O'Connor spent two seasons at Continental level with the Australian Navitas Satalyst and Avanti IsoWhey Sport teams. During those two seasons, he was exposed to European and Asian racing but 2017 has been another level with O'Connor riding his first monument, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and some of the most prestigious one-week WorldTour stages races.
"It is the next level," he said of WorldTour racing. "The Tour Down Under is a little bit different because it is so early and we as Australians; we are in absolute mad shape. But races likes Cataluyna and Dauphine, it is just that little bit harder. You are on the pedals a bit more, you have to think a bit more and the stress is a little bit higher. The fight for positioning is more difficult for sure because the guys have that talent and can move you really easily. I've had to learn and adapt to that which was the most difficult aspect I found. It's starting to click now and in Poland I was much, much better. I really enjoy it, I don't think there is anything else I'd rather be doing."
Rather than be daunted by the depth and quality on show at races such as the Criterium du Dauphine, O'Connor explained that with time he believes he can be challenging at the pointy end.
"I'd had two weeks off before that so to get into that race and actually be not just a sheep and be laying off the back but riding hard on the front for a number of days and still put in a decent ride when you get to the mountains and just hang on to the front group gave me good confidence to know I can be up there when I'm in good shape," he said of the Tour de France dress rehearsal. "When I went to Poland, I was just behind that top group and finished 20th overall. I am still only 21."
Having had a taste of Liege in the spring, O'Connor is also keen to return to 'La Doyenne'. But first, he is keen to work on his one-day racing prowess having struggled to adjust from stage racing.
"I know not many people ever finish their first Liege, even their second one, it is such a hard unforgiving race purely because of the way it is raced and the terrain. And you never know with the weather either," said O'Connor. "I still haven't got the knack of one-day racing. I haven't done many one–day races where I've felt really good. At the end of this season, it will be interesting to see if I can click with it. I tend to do a lot better towards the latter end of stage races, from stage 4 onward or so. I don't know but I always feel better later on than the first couple of days. I think it an art to learn how to prepare or how to get your body in the right mindset before the race. Maybe that's it, I am not sure."
While named on Dimension Data's Vuelta a Espana long list, O'Connor's next race is the Arctic Race of Norway and the Canadian one-day WorldTour races where he is aiming to continue his bright start to his professional career and try to perfect his approach to one-day racing.
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