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O'Connor intent on deflecting pressure to 'go one better' in 2022 Tour de France

Ben O'Connor rode to fourth overall at the 2021 Tour de France
Ben O'Connor rode to fourth overall at the 2021 Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images)

If Ben O'Connor (AG2R-Citroën) currently has one overriding attitude towards his 2022 Tour de France plans, it could arguably be best summed up in a single phrase,  "Don't put a number on it."

The 26-year-old's unexpected but deserved fourth place overall in his debut Tour de France last year has led many to assume that he automatically will be gunning for a podium in the same race in 2022.

But in fact, as he tells Cyclingnews in a pre-season interview during his team training camp in Spain, that's not exactly the case.

"There's going to be all that pressure and 'oh yeah, you'll be going for the podium' - but why do I have to be going for the podium?" he asks rhetorically.

"It might feel like a logical step for me to try and finish third, but actually that attitude isn't realistic. Because in the Tour, anything can happen. You have to go in there with a really open mind, knowing that you can finish in a very similar position, whether that's sixth, fourth, third or 10th, but knowing also that it's all up in the air.

"You shouldn't have an exact number in mind about where you want to finish. You can only really do that if you've confirmed you're in great shape in the races beforehand. They are actually more important in a way because while the Tour is the Tour, it's the races before which will show you how well you're going."

It's quite likely O'Connor's brutal first week of the 2021 Tour, where he ended with 10 stitches in one forearm after a stage 1 crash, has underlined for the Australian how the best of plans can come undone in an instant each July.

O'Connor's refusal to obsess over a particular result and just keep going day-by-day certainly stood him in good stead last summer. That was even if the omens in the Critérium du Dauphiné - where he placed in the top five on the two final mountain stages and eighth overall - were extremely promising for July.

Yet that avoidance of unnecessary pressure actually forms something of a strategy for O'Connor throughout the year, not just when it comes to the Tour.

In 2022, for example, he's deliberately not doing a cut-and-paste version of his 2021 race calendar. That's partly because, he reasons, "then it's too easy to compare results between one year and the next and if you're off the mark then maybe you get a little bit overstressed. So I don't think it's right to try to replicate absolutely everything."

Another reason for mixing it up is there's also the "fun factor" to bear in mind, he adds, and enjoying the races you're doing "otherwise you kind of miss the point".

"There has to be a balance between enjoying racing and just doing it. OK, it's your job and you have personal ambitions but one of those ambitions has to to be to cross a finish line with a bit of personal happiness in there, too."

Although the three key races of his 2021 season at Paris-Nice, the Critérium du Dauphiné, and the Tour are once again landmark events in his 2022 calendar, this year he'll be introducing the Volta a Catalunya as part of his spring campaign. Then, in the autumn, there'll probably be a start at the Vuelta a España as well.

"This is a French team, so Paris-Nice, the Dauphiné and the Tour are always going to be three big, big objectives," he reasons. On top of which, he points out, the Dauphiné is held mainly in the Savoie, AG2R-Citroën's home region.

"But in any case, I really like that early season racing, even if Paris-Nice is a bit like Russian roulette in the first couple of days. And if you survive those, you should have the motivation and mentality to be able to get into the top 10 overall.

"Then the Volta a Catalunya is close to my home in Andorra, and it's quite a simple race - hard, but basically coming down to some big mountain climbs and whoever's got the strongest legs. I like that kind of race because it's not so much about positioning and stress, which is a nice change because a lot of the other races are a lot about that."

Given his preferences to keep in-race stress to a minimum, it's probably not surprising that O'Connor describes his relationship with Paris-Nice as "interesting". On the other hand, he calls the Dauphiné "one of my favourite races of the whole year. Then the Tour de France is there, too - voilà."

Yet for all the heightened Tour de France expectations around O'Connor and the fact he'll no longer be able to fly under the radar as he did in 2021, he is certainly not viewing the 2022 Tour with total trepidation.

The route is not a bad one for him, he says, and as a lightweight climber it's critical he can count on some sterling support from the sizable cohort of Classic specialists in AG2R Citroën for the tough northern French and Danish first-week stages. There's also his personal attitude of 'give it a go and see what happens' to help keep him from overly worrying beforehand.

"I think the route looks OK, the cobbled stages in the first week will be pretty shitty but that's what they've decided to do and you just tackle it and give it a go," he says.

"I know I can have a team around me to have confidence in, and for those sorts of cobbled stages, you couldn't find better guys really than I had last year - Micky Schär, Oliver Naesen, Greg Van Avermaet. Those are three boys you can rely on totally.

"Plus there are some good climbing stages for me and I had very little preparation last year for the time trialling too, so I think my time trialling there is going to improve a lot."

Ben O'Connor

Ben O'Connor celebrates with his AG2R-Citroën teammates at the completion of the Tour de France in Paris (Image credit: Yves Perret / www.ypmedias.com)

Probably one of the biggest ingredients in any recipe for success, though, is handling the pressure of heightened expectations, O'Connor recognises. Or as he puts it, "there's no other race as stressful as the Tour except maybe the first couple of days of Paris-Nice. So you have to minimize the stress as much as possible because otherwise, you're never going to get through it. That's going to be key."

His own strategies for doing so, he says, are not so much "texting or scrolling on my phone, I'll call people up to talk. Or just deep dive into reading about different kinds of wine. Or watch ski movies. It's nice to see other people do other professional sport while you're doing it, too."

While he is adamant he is not "not even thinking about the Champs Élysées right now," he does have his eye on lower-pressure projects for 2022, such as going for a stage win in the Vuelta a España in the autumn. 

"Winning a Grand Tour stage in the Giro in 2020, the Tour in 2021 and then the Vuelta in 2022 - that could be cool."

As if a little overwhelmed by his own enthusiasm for such lofty plans, he then briefly describes the idea of taking his third Grand Tour stage as "maybe unrealistic". But then his natural optimism returns even more strongly to present the other side of the argument.

"But why not, either? There's no pressure at the Vuelta. I can try riding for stages the way I want to do them, maybe for myself or to help a teammate who's on form for a punchy finish or if they're going for GC or trying their luck in a little sprint. After the Tour, in any case, for us, the rest of the races of the season will be fairly light-hearted in comparison."

O'Connor clearly may have no intention, then, of being chained to a particular goal and having his season labelled a failure or success as a result of that. But it's equally clear he's yet to set any limits on what he thinks he can do in Grand Tours, either. After his performances of 2021, nobody could say the omens for 2022 are anything but promising. Just don't put a number on it.

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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 IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.