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O'Connor: Winning the Volta a Catalunya would be a major step forward for me

LA MOLINA SPAIN MARCH 23 Ben Alexander Oconnor of Australia and AG2R Citren Team celebrates winning the green leader jersey on the podium ceremony after the 101st Volta Ciclista a Catalunya 2022 Stage 3 a 1611km stage from Perpignan to La Molina 1691m VoltaCatalunya101 WorldTour on March 23 2022 in La Molina Spain Photo by David RamosGetty Images
Ben O'Connor (AG2R Citroën) celebrates the stage 3 win and leader's jersey at La Molina (Image credit: David RamosGetty Images)

After his spectacular mountain-top win at La Molina on stage 3 of the Volta a Catalunya, new race leader Ben O'Connor has set his next target of trying to defend the overall through to Barcelona on Sunday to clinch what would be the AG2R Citroën rider's first-ever outright stage race victory.

As O'Connor told a small group of reporters, including Cyclingnews, afterwards, "taking the overall would be the next big step in my career. It would be a real dream come true for me."

O'Connor has taken stage wins in two of the three Grand Tours he has raced and took a landmark fourth place overall in the Tour de France last year. He's currently the third Australian to win in as many days in the Volta a Catalunya this year, after Michael Matthews and Kayden Groves (both of BikeExchange-Jacyo). But he has never won a stage race overall to date.

The GC battle though remains a very close one, too, given O'Connor currently leads the GC by 10 seconds over his nearest rival, Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates).

Former race winner Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) lies in third place at 12 seconds, while almost 30 riders are at less than a minute, meaning there are still numerous possible favourites still in the GC game.

The obvious place for them to attack is on Thursday's Queen stage in the Pyrenees, finishing at the summit finish of Boí Taüll, but O'Connor said he felt confident of defending his lead there.

"It's a climb that suits me well and definitely something I can deal with," O'Connor argued. "Hardest at the bottom, then a respite in the middle. I'll have to be careful I follow the right moves.

"But I've got a good gap, and I'm sure the team will protect me as best they can. The boys are strong. They know how to look after me."

O'Connor's victory, in any case, represents a notable bounce-back after he had to quit Paris-Nice having fallen ill midway through. The withdrawal came at a point where he had got through the toughest stages for a climber, having faultlessly handled the crosswinds and splits of the opening days.

"I was very sad after that," he said. "I'd done well with the echelons and thought I was looking at a top five to 10th place overall. But I feel OK now, and I'll try and win this race."

As for his decision to blast off with some eight kilometres to go, as a resident of nearby Andorra, O'Connor said knowing the climb as wildly irregular as La Molina was a definite advantage.

"I knew it eased off near the summit so I knew where to go," he said. "Although I was really struggling at the end, I had that gap and I got the win and the jersey.

"I've done the climb a few times, when I used to ride from Andorra to Girona every now and then, and I've driven over it a lot, so I knew it well, but I wasn't expecting to get away alone. I was hoping some other guys would come with me.

"I don't know if they were scared or worried, but I just kept going and did my best."

Whether O'Connor will become the first Australian to win the race outright since Richie Porte six years ago remains to be seen.

History is certainly on his side, however: of the six previous winners in La Molina, four (Joaquim Rodríguez in 2014, Alejandro Valverde in 2017 and 2018, and Miguel Angel López in 2019) have gone on to take the Volta a Catalunya outright.

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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.