At 21, Ben O'Connor is one of the youngest riders in the WorldTour peloton but the Dimension Data is quickly settling into life as a professional rider. Signed to the South African team off the back of a breakout 2016 with the IsoWhey Sports SwissWellness team, O'Connor explained to Cyclingnews his start to the year could have gone any better as he dreams of a Liege-Bastogne-Liege start next month.
"It's been a pretty fabulous start to my career with Dimension Data. Tour Down Under was a really good race with such a good group and Lachy [Morton] and myself could play a key role for Nathan [Haas] to get up there," O'Connor told Cyclingnews of the WorldTour opener.
After his Australian debut where the team came close to wins with Haas, O'Connor jetted over to Malaysia for the Tour de Langkawi. At the race, O'Connor rode in assistance of Ryan Gibbons, signed at the same time as the Western Australian, as Dimension Data won two stages and the overall. Despite riding as a domestique, O'Connor managed to finish in eighth place overall.
Originally scheduled to make his European racing debut with the team at Coppi e Bartali, O'Connor's first race came at the Volta a Catalunya last week. Considered to be one of the hardest one-week stages races on the calendar. Having negotiated the Volta, O'Connor is now hoping his place in the squad for the Ardennes has been secured.
"If all goes to plan, I will go to the Ardennes and help out some of the guys like Serge [Pauwels] and Steve [Cummings] in races like De Brabantse Pijl or Fleche or Liege, so I am looking forward to those races," he said. "It would be a massive learning curve. They are big races, very long in distance, with changeable condition so that is going to be an incredible learning experience."
The block of one-day races would be a departure of sorts for O'Connor who has shown his potential thus far in stage races. Last year, O'Connor won the UCI 2.2 NZ Cycle Classic and finished third at the Tour de Taiwan to prove his GC capabilities but he is confident in himself and the team that he will be given time to develop his GC potential. Even if that means playing a support role at La Doyenne in his first season with Dimension Data.
"It is a completely different ball game to winning a sprint compared to winning on a mountain top," he said of the difference of expectation placed on a first year sprinter compared to a climber.
"When you're young you can have the power and if you're ballsy enough and you have the skill, then you can win a sprint. Climbing is a little bit more difficult because it is such a long progression to get your weight right and to get that watts per kilo which is so important.
"I am not a man who gets too daunted by what is put in front of me, if I do it is the pressure I put on myself. Not from the team and the team knows with the kind of rider I am it's a slower progression. I have started the season really well and I don't feel like I am out of place at all. I am just looking forward to trying to be the best rider that I can."
In the hilly Ardennes, O'Connor will be aiming to express his best qualities on the bike and continue his successful start to live in the WorldTour.