After 11 stressful days, amidst a flurry of crashes, rain and fraught bunch sprint finishes at this year's Giro d'Italia, Ben O'Connor (Dimension Data) finally reaches his favourite terrain of the mountains on Thursday.
And for the 23-year-old, who rode strongly at last year's Giro d'Italia – his rookie Grand Tour – before crashing out late in the third week, the climbs can't come a moment too soon.
On the plus side of the Giro so far, in San Marino, O'Connor rode what he calls "the best time trial of my WorldTour races" – finishing 17th, well ahead of many of the top climbers.
On the negative side was a bad day into Frascati on stage 4 when his front wheel broke in a crash, culminating in a time loss of nearly two minutes. Then he was entangled in another pile-up on Tuesday's stage 10, which left O'Connor on the tarmac with a banged-up knee, but without losing any more time.
With a privileged perspective on the ongoing GC battle from inside the peloton, O'Connor feels that whilst top favourite Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) could well be the man to watch between here and Verona, the climbers will have a lot to say on the Giro's 26 classified ascents between now and a week on Saturday.
So far, the Australian has come through the Giro relatively unscathed, but it's certainly not been a smooth ride, either, with the latest incident coming with O'Connor in Tuesday's big pile-up in the last kilometre.
"I got hit from behind and I went down. The bunch was slowing down for the crash as well when I fell, but it's still rubbish," O'Connor, currently 32nd at 7:12, told Cyclingnews before Wednesday's stage, sporting an unsettlingly large-looking gauze bandage on his knee.
"We've got a big covering on the injury for today [Wednesday]. Tomorrow [Thursday], it should be a little bit lighter," he explained.
"It's happened over some wounds I got in [the Tour of] Turkey, but I'm not that sore. I didn't fall fast; I more just skidded a little bit. So it's worse than it looks."
However, O'Connor's strong time trial in San Marino has strengthened his morale, as well as helped him pull back some time on his rivals after the Frascati crash.
"The time trial was probably one of the best ones I've done – for sure the best ever in the WorldTour," he says, bullishly. "I've not done so many but last year I was 24th in the TT and I was happy, and here I've been 17th. So of course I'm pleased. I know a lot of of GC guys had to do the TT in the rain, but still…"
His time loss on Roglic in the TT was over two minutes, but fighting the Slovenian is not part of O'Connor's Giro war. It's the other mountain specialists, particularly the younger ones, that he's interested in challenging, and on that front, he fought a good fight.
"You know what? I don't care about Roglic, or how much I lose to him," he states categorically to Cyclingnews. "Compared to the other climbers, they were around where I was. Whether it's Miguel Angel Lopez [Astana] or Hugh Carthy [EF Education First], I did quite a good TT.
"It's just a shame earlier in the week I lost time in Frascati [on stage 4]. My front wheel broke in that massive crash, where Tom Dumoulin [Sunweb] went down and I finished on a teammate's bike.
"Nothing has really played my way so far," continued O'Connor, "which is a shame because with the TT I know I've got good shape. But there's not a hell of a lot you can do."
The key thing for O'Connor is to get into the mountains as soon as possible, when the pressure will change from being negative to the sort that he likes.
"I just like things to run smoothly. I want some hard racing and to finally be able to race my bike, rather than just getting stressed and caught up in unfortunate circumstances," he explained.
"Thursday won't be an easy day, and Friday, with those really long climbs, will be the first testing point. So that's the point when I say, 'OK, where do I sit compared to the others?' Because I should know by then."
What O'Connor doesn't know, and it's intentional, are the 2019 Giro d'Italia's climbs themselves. And that's for two reasons.
"We decided to go blind. I thought it'd be better to stay up at home, in Andorra, to get two-and-a-half weeks of absolutely caning myself [training], rather than travelling and trying to look at the course."
It's also because he's still relatively inexperienced and finding his feet at the Grand Tours.
"For me, at this stage in my development, it's all about being physically as good as I can be, rather than the actual recon. That can come in my next Grand Tour, maybe, or later."
As for his specific goal in the 2019 Giro d'Italia, the aim is to get as high on the overall ranking as he possibly can. In other words, to repeat the strategy of 2018, but hopefully without its untimely finale, when O'Connor crashed two days from the finish in Rome while in 12th place overall, but while heading that day for a place in the top 10.
So far, psychologically, after nearly two fraught weeks, with the injury and the time loss, not to mention the time trials, it's been a rollercoaster ride at the 2019 Giro. But from here on in, O'Connor is determined to make his climbing ability count, and people shouldn't be deceived by his deceptively lowly spot on the overall classification, he says.
"I know it looks like I'm a long way down [on GC], but I'm sure by the time we get to the finish, the gaps [between riders on the GC] will be absolutely monumental, man," he argued. "So you just have to deal with it for now, because it'll come around. I think it'll be a game of patience to just gradually work your way up because you know that people will explode. Eventually."
As for those who are least likely to blow – and to shine on the GC as a result all the way through to the finish, O'Connor points at Roglic as a top favourite. But he has some important reservations about the Slovenian's capacity to arrive in Verona in pink, too.
"He definitely looks the strongest for now. But I think there are teams with stronger teammates around, because Roglic has lost Laurens De Plus and Robert Gesink.
"Richard Carapaz [Movistar] looks really good, but as for the other guys, I'm not sure. Simon Yates [Mitchelton-Scott] is always amazing, barring the mishap at the Giro last year. But at the 2018 Vuelta a España, he had it all under control so if he's anything like that… But my current podium is Roglic, Yates and Carapaz," said O'Connor.
Meanwhile, and regardless of what his rivals do, O'Connor will be pushing himself as hard as he can on the climbs – starting on Thursday.
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