The Dimension Data soigneur jumped for joy and punched the air as Ben O'Connor took his solo victory at the Tour of the Alps in Merano. The 22-year-old Australia rider joined them in celebration as he realised he had pulled off a breakthrough victory and given the African team something to celebrate after a series of injuries to key riders.
O'Connor was Dimension Data's protected rider for the Tour of the Alps as team leader Louis Meintjes quietly completes his build-up for the Giro d'Italia. O'Connor finished eighth on Tuesday's mountain finish to Alpe di Pampeago, only losing contact in the final kilometre when Chris Froome attacked.
He had shown his potential with 11th place overall at the Volta a Catalunya and arrived at the Tour of the Alps after a long spell at altitude. When the Tour of the Alps peloton exploded on the gradual but constant slopes of the Passo dello Mendola, O'Connor decided he wanted to be part of the action.
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) and O'Connor emerged as the strongest at the summit of the successive Passo Palade. They were caught after a hectic chase led by Chris Froome, but O’Connor had the legs and the tactical instinct to go again, time trialling clear in the streets of Merano to win alone, five seconds ahead of Pinot and a select group of eight other riders.
"The attacks started going, but I felt good and so made sure I took on the race and was able to make most of it all. I saw Pinot go, I knew he was strong and so thought I might as well try to win it. That's the essence of it," O'Connor explained, a little stunned to win, but enjoying his moment on the podium and suddenly being the centre of the attention.
"Today is pretty amazing," he said. "I started to get things together at Catalunya, and we could see the progression taking place. Now it's nice to take on the race see it work out here. I didn't really know what I was doing in the early races of my career, now I do."
Injuries and crashes have left Dimension Data without Mark Cavendish, Bernhard Eisel, Scott Thwaites and other riders, with Cavendish's stage victory at the Dubai Tour the team's only win so far this season. That has obliged the other riders to stand up and give the likes of O'Connor to chance to shine.
"I think it's important to start to show ourselves in races. We've been struggling with problems, and so we wanted to take on the race and show ourselves, that was our goal. We've still got two more days to try and see if we can get another result," O'Connor said.
O'Connor hails from Western Australia. He was a runner at school and only started racing in 2013. However, he quickly rose through the ranks, riding with Navitas Satalyst in 2015 and then with Avanti IsoWhey Sport in 2016, where he got his first taste of European racing. He finished third overall at the mountainous Tour of Savoie Mont Blanc behind Enric Mas of Spain and Britain’s Tao Geoghegan Hart, and third at the Tour de Taiwan. He was also third in the under-23 Australia time trial championships.
His 2016 results secured him a place at Dimension Data for 2017, and he confirmed his growing ability by winning a long and mountainous stage at the Tour of Austria.
"I was a later starter, but it's kind of been fast track and fast forward since then. That's why I didn't really know what I was doing. Now it's coming together," he said.
Helping Meintjes but aiming for the stars at the Giro d'Italia
O'Connor's stage victory has made him a name to remember for the Giro d'Italia. He will make his Grand Tour debut and will play a vital team role alongside Meintjes, but that does not stop him from shooting for the stars in the hope of another day of personal glory.
"Our goal from the start of the season has been to help Louis at the Giro, and we're going to stick with that, he's proved what he can do in other Grand Tours. My goal is to be there with him but if then something comes out of that then great," he said.
"I’m still an unknown; I'm still so young, I don't know what I can do. I can only try my best, take the race on and see what happens. I honestly don't know what to think or expect about the Giro d'Italia. I've never done a Grand Tour, I've never raced or two weeks, never mind three weeks….
"Like in everything I do, I just want to be best I can be. The feeling of winning a bike race and the feeling it gives to everyone who works so hard for the team is special; it's the best part. That's what I'd like to do more of."
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