O'Connor: I hope to wear the Tour de France yellow jersey one day
Australian reviews breakthrough Tour de France result
"Would you have bet money on me coming fourth in the Tour? I don't think so." Ben O'Connor asked on Sunday as he heads towards doing exactly that this evening in the Champs-Elysées.
The Australian uses a rhetorical question to sum up precisely the scale of his breakthrough race this July, in such an exceptionally hard Tour de France finishing fourth overall clearly is a result that hasn't exactly landed into his lap.
When hired by AG2R Citroën in 2021, he says, he wasn't contracted with this particular mission in mind.
As O'Connor told a small group of media, he was not hired as a GC rider at the start of 2021 by his new team, but rather to be "aggressive like I was in the Giro d'Italia in 2020."
During the Tour, O'Connor has not only delivered way beyond expectations, he also claimed a spectacular solo stage win in Tignes. He managed to bounce back from AG2R's disastrous first stage, when he was one of seven of their eight riders who crashed. In O'Connor's case, very hard.
Caught up in the mass pile-up with 45 kilometres to go, O'Connor came away with a deep wound in his right forearm that required ten stitches as well as a badly banged-up shoulder. Despite strong initial pessimism about his chances of continuing, he battled on.
"I couldn't move my arm. I couldn't stand up and move my shoulder. I thought my race was over, I was 100 per cent sure I'd broken my shoulder. It was a pretty awful feeling, that on day one of my first Tour de France I was going to be a DNF," he said.
"It would have been very sad after all my hope and support from my friends and family."
Fortunately a hospital check up revealed he could continue, and O'Connor, having touched rock-bottom, began to bounce back. His most notable progress came in the Alps, of course, where quite apart from the stage win, he gained 27 places in two days, including his victorious breakaway on stage 9 to Tignes, moving up to second overall. Suddenly that question about his putting money on finishing fourth in Paris didn't feel so rhetorical.
"I'd already fallen into this GC role earlier in my career in the Tour of the Alps [in 2018], telling myself I had to be there. But I was too young and inconsistent to finish it off. So here it was maybe believing in my ability and taking the race on rather than just trying to hold on every day.
"I lost it in 2019, but then I regained some self-belief in 2020 and started the season really well. But a series of unfortunate circumstances hit me last year."
He doesn't provide further details, saying simply "it's hard to talk about that" and that things were not working well for him from just before the pandemic began to when racing began to resume. "But," he concludes, "you have to keep the faith and believe in what you're doing."
Having moved on to AG2R this year, he has been in the thick of the battle in this year's Tour.
"It's by far the hardest race I've ever done, and ever will do," he said. "Mentally it's very draining, you have to stay alert, concentrating, really make sure you don't make any mistakes. The Tour is a lot more unforgiving than the Giro or Vuelta, that was sore.
"The Giro was bad in 2018 when I crashed, but it always hurts a lot and it's basically bodily harm. The Ventoux and yesterday in the time trial on the other hand was pretty horrible. For me in this Tour de France, handling it mentally has been the biggest challenge.
"My mentality yesterday was simply 'never give up' or crash. It's the same today, then on top of that just be careful on the Champs-Elysées. And then Voila, finished."
As for comparing his Madonna di Campiglio win in the 2020 Giro d'Italia with this year's Tignes, they were "completely different. Doing well in the Giro last year I got very emotional because people believed me. I felt I was on the ropes. This Tour win – it's just a shock, a joy, it's incredible, more spectacular than the Giro.
"The stage was ridiculously hard. The KOM guys like Mike Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) trading punches all the way. Every single climb was like riding in the front of the GC group or the last day of the Dauphine. I really felt it the next days, but it was all worth it.
"Then there third week was fairly simple. I played it conservative and tried to hold on through the Portet and Luz Ardiden when it was full on."
He is fortunate, he says, to be in a team like AG2R with a rich understanding of Grand Tour stage racing and who are able to give him all the support he needs.
"They know how to work on the GC thing a bit more, the directors understand the pressure around it," he argued. Compatriot Cadel Evans, the former Tour winner, was also sending texts to teammate Michael Schar to pass on advice.
Fourth can in no way be seen as 'not finishing on the podium' for him. As he puts it "Would you have bet money on me coming fourth in the Tour? I don't think so. So it's not a 'loss' at all.
"The yellow jersey was a long way off, another level and another game. I hope one day I can wear the maillot jaune, but I would have to progress in the same way as I did this year to get there. You never know."
The Tour has clearly been a major rollercoaster of an event, from thinking he was going to have to leave the race on day one to finishing fourth with a stage win, on day 21. His next objective he says is simply to "take a hell of a break, drink some wine and enjoy being with my friends. I've been racing from the early French events onwards, a big program, so I'm taking a month or so off."
Contrary to rumours, the Vuelta a España is not featuring on his current plans, with the Deutschland Tour and possibly Il Lombardia on the program. But there is no stress, he says, and whatever comes from here will be a cherry on a very large 2021 Tour de France-shaped cake.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.