Today felt like a Giro d’Italia stage. Miserable rain, riders all over the place, and Ben O’Connor up the road.
It had more than shades of October 2020, when the Australian finished a pain-staking second on stage 16 before claiming his maiden Grand Tour stage the very next day.
Fast forward nine months, and after a new contract looked uncertain with NTT Pro Cycling scrambling for sponsors, he’s returned the faith put in him by Ag2r Citroën when they snapped him up and secured a vital win for the French team at their home race.
At the start of stage nine, O’Connor told Cycling Weekly he definitely wouldn’t make the top five in the overall come Paris barring a miracle, before questioning whether it would be worth throwing caution to the wind to try for a stage win and risking a potential GC top 10.
In the end, after making the breakaway (which had not been the plan on the bus) he gritted his teeth and perservered as he is prone to do, dropping the likes of Michael Woods and Nairo Quintana as he climbed through persistent, cold rain up to the cloudy summit of Tignes to cross the line first.
“I actually wasn’t meant to be in the break but there was a big group and I just crossed to it, I was waiting, didn’t know what to do, didn’t know whether to play it cool,” O’Connor said after the stage, reliving his day. “I heard we had five minutes, a great opportunity to gain time on the GC but I also knew I had the opportunity to win on a hard day like today. It was a mad day, the conditions were atrocious.
“On the top of the Cormet de Roselend I couldn’t feel anything in my hands, I descended like a sloth, that wasn’t a good moment. With guys like Nairo and Mike [Woods] going for the KOM it was super hard to just hold the wheel.
“Maybe these long days in the mountain I just grind on and keep going, that’s what suits me. Like at the Giro last year. I wouldn’t say I love it but it works well for me.”
What he does love is the winning feeling at the Tour de France. Wary that Tadej Pogačar would erupt once more from behind, or that he’d get overexcited in the final few kilometres, he kept calm as the realisation dawned he was about to take the win all riders chase their whole career.
“I was actually scared that Tadej was going to explode from behind and chase me when the road got hard,” O’Connor admits. “It was just about making sure I didn’t panic because as soon as you start thinking you’re going to win a stage of the Tour de France, it can make your lungs and heart stop, it definitely made mine stop.
“For sure it’s life-changing for me, it’s a dream, a far-fetched dream when you come from Australia to even think about getting to the Tour de France. To be able to say you’ve won a stage here is madness. It’s a testament to everyone who’s put their faith in me, in particular the last two years.”
O’Connor is now Pogačar’s closest rival, 2-01 behind the Slovenian, and will now try to defend his position in the overall despite being wary of what the other GC riders will be able to do in the Pyrenees in the final week.
“There are guys stronger than me that’s for sure, especially when we get to the big climbs later in the week. But I’m going to enjoy it as much as now as possible,” O’Connor explained.
“I will try my best to stay up there. I don’t think personally that I’m at the same level as Tadej, he’s at the next level above. I wasn’t too sure about racing aggressively but then I decided to and it brings rewards. Maybe it will bite me back later but I enjoy that I can now stand here with the best guys and try my best. My heart is happy and light.”
This content was originally published here.
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