Tour de France stage winner Ben O’Connor laughs when asked if Tadej Pogačar is again the man to beat in the fight for the yellow jersey this year.
“I think it's pretty clear that he is,” O’Connor tells Rouleur of the two-time and reigning title champion. “It's his race to lose, let's be honest. What else do you say? The way he does every race, and in not just any race.”
O’Connor (AG2R Citroën) is the new face of Australia’s Tour de France title ambitions, succeeding Richie Porte, who in the final season of his career has declared his business with it done, and Cadel Evans.
The 26-year-old with good reason has backed himself for a shot at the podium this year. He marked a career breakthrough on race debut last season when he won stage nine to Tignes with a lone attack from the breakaway, and finished fourth overall behind Pogačar, Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers).
At the Critérium du Dauphiné earlier in June, he placed third behind Pogačar’s nemesis Primož Roglič and his team-mate Vingegaard.
The more you talk to people though the clearer it is that Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) has imprinted his prodigious ability on the minds of rivals like a farmer sears the skin of cattle with a hot iron brand.
“In Tirreno he was... no one was even close to him,” O’Connor continues.
“In Flanders it was only, realistically, [Mathieu] van der Poel that was close to him, otherwise it was kind of him that did all the work there.
“I mean he does it on all terrains, in different situations. In Strade, when he did that mad solo ride. So yeah, 100 per cent it's his to lose!”
O'Connor has started the 2022 in top form (Getty)
Pogačar’s rivals, and past Tour champions alike, are stumped when asked how to beat him.
Evans, who is Australia’s only yellow jersey winner and someone O’Connor hopes to emulate at the Tour if not this year, then in the future, becomes exasperated when asked what he would do to unseat the 23-year-old if he were facing him today.
“Phwoar. You’d have to put all the weight and pressure on him and try and follow,” Evans says. “The onus is going to fall more and more on them [UAE Team Emirates].”
O’Connor and the likes of Jack Haig, who is also slated for the 2022 Tour, as well as recently crowned Giro d’Italia champion Jai Hindley are starting to, and in Hindley’s case have, hit their long-touted stride as the nation’s next Grand Tour contenders. The spotlight is likely to be on them for a while too, with pundits predicting that because of Australia’s strict border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented even citizens from exiting and entering the country, that the next generation, unable to travel and race abroad during that time, is consequently behind.
“Ben will go to Le Tour with a different mindset knowing that he can do a top five GC but also the competitors will look at him differently,” says Evans.
“So, he might find sometimes they’ll let him through on the way to the start of a climb, or the rouleurs will let him through because they know he’s good but it’s not like the GC contenders will give him much leeway on the climbs. I can’t imagine they’ll let him go in a breakaway again.”
AG2R Citroën will announce its Tour squad on June 23, however, O’Connor’s selection even before his podium result at the Dauphiné was all but set.
“French team, obligatory,” he says.
O’Connor agrees with Evans that he will have to approach the Tour differently this season compared to last when he became only the fourth Australian to finish top five on general classification.
“I think that last year if I hadn't had such a bad crash on the first day I still would have been there with the top guys. I strongly, strongly believe that,” O’Connor says.
“It worked out how it did. It came out in the wash, and I reckon you finished where you deserved to finish in the Tour to be honest, last year.”
When we speak over the phone days before the Dauphiné, O’Connor is sitting on a time trial bike at his new place, which is bigger than his previous 60 square metre apartment that he says was getting a bit small. O’Connor hasn’t raced a lot of time trials this season and with two included in the Tour route is working on it behind the scenes.
Improving his time trial has been a key working point for the Australian (Getty)
The climber from Western Australia would have taken confidence from his result at the Dauphiné as he believed going in that his effort there would inform where he could finish in the race for the yellow jersey. That’s the podium, if you subscribe to the common conception that the Dauphiné is a litmus test for the Tour, albeit one Pogačar didn’t sit.
And, having been encouraged by the performance of his contemporary Hindley at the Giro, O’Connor believes even more so now that joining Evans and Porte as the only Australians to have finished the Tour on the podium in Paris is possible.
“I definitely know I can be better than what I am but still always improving from what it was last year also, so, I have zero complaints,” O’Connor says.
“And it's also cool, like, you get a new contract, then that's what you're told to do: ‘You're the new GC guy.’ Alright, OK.
“But the fact you can actually then do it straight away, rather than getting a bit nervous and letting that put you down that's another thing I've been pretty happy with because it hasn't killed me inside, the stress about it. I've actually relished it.”
O’Connor isn’t as colloquial as Hindley. There’s no ‘socks on centipede’ references when he is asked if he can podium at the Tour. He is warm, flexible and generous with his time and seems to be a deep thinker. When we talk about his results this season, including at the Volta a Catalunya where he won stage three to La Molina and wore the leader’s jersey for a day thereafter, he critiques his performances in fine, self-analytical detail.
“Catalunya, to be in the leader's jersey was a new thing for me and I kind of fucked up a little bit," he says.
“I won in La Molina that was close to here, close to Andorra, so I've done it a fair few times and that was really cool but the next day I really thought I could have done a better job. But could have, would have, is always the thing we go back to.
“I just made a bit of a mistake at the bottom of the climb where I followed one of the guys from Arkéa. I was just a bit too keen and felt a bit too good and it bit my arse at the top of the climb, so a bit of hindsight would have been useful for me at the time. More patience.”
Patience is what it might take to beat Pogačar. O’Connor, like Evans, says the onus will be on the Slovenian’s consistently improving team to ride at the Tour.
“You think about how Tadej is, it's kind of all up to them because what else do you do? They pace and he goes off,” says O’Connor.
“I can't say look Aurélien [Paret-Peintre], you line it out, I go and then Pogačar just blasts me over the top, you know, it doesn't really work like that at the moment, it doesn't really work that well with him at the moment.
“When you have the best guy in the world it's up to you to make sure he wins and hopefully in the end it can go with us because a lot of people will be worried to work with him.”
O'Connor will lead the Ag2r team in a GC bid for the Tour (Getty)
Unlike last year, O’Connor knows what to expect from the Tour, the noise that makes your ears ring, the supreme level of the peloton, and the support you need on and off the bike from teammates, to keep your head on, your legs turning and prevail. O’Connor hasn’t raced a lot this season with those slated to support him in France but the likes of Oliver Naesen, Michael Schär and Greg Van Avermaet did such a great job last year that he’s not worried.
“You have the whole team but really in particular Oli, Greg, and Micky, they really look after me and they've done it before. Micky in particular with Cadel, with Richie, he's done it also,” O’Connor says.
“That was a great way to stay calm and you just switch off and follow them to be honest. You try not to do things solo, you just wait, and you look for them, and that's your one objective for the day. My objective for the stage to Carcassonne is just to follow Oli all day and that's it, rather than saying, ‘Okay you have to make the front echelon.’ If you follow Oli, I will be in the front echelon. So that's the better way to do it, for me.”