This feature was originally published in June 2022 in Rouleur Issue 112, support our independent journalism by subscribing here
The hazards in a professional bike race are usually clearly communicated: the immoveable physical ones are flagged up in the roadbook or by marshals standing in front of them: the impermanent ones are relayed on the fly over race radio. Watch out for this corner where the wind changes direction, or that gravelly, off-camber bend, the directeur sportif intones into the race radio. If only you could anticipate a fan gurning at the camera, standing in the road holding an “Allez Opi-Omi” banner, as easily.
That was all it took to cause the most significant crash of the 2021 Tour de France, on the race’s opening day, leaving a quarter of the bunch on the deck at the top of the Côte de Saint-Rivoal in Brittany. As team cars gingerly edged their way past the broken bikes and bodies, Ag2r-Citroën Team directeur sportif, Julien Jurdie, came across Ben O’Connor. The Australian’s right wrist was dripping blood and he feared his shoulder was broken. The debutant had been gouged by a flying chainring and walloped from behind by riders unable to slow down in time. Bienvenue au Tour. O’Connor couldn’t appreciate it then but this was the race that would change his life, in spite of the inauspicious start.
O’Connor had already spent his fledgling years mixing flashes of brilliance with fractured bones, positioning issues and other teething problems while on precarious one-year deals. This looked like yet another test from cycling’s Fates. “I saw his character and his trust in the team there,” says Jurdie. “We passed on the message: ‘don’t give up, get back to the bunch and go all out to the line, and we’ll do the medical check-ups afterwards. It’s the first stage of the Tour de France, you don’t know what can happen over the next three weeks. Don’t abandon.’ He got it loud and clear.”
His manager expected him to be six minutes down at the finish in Landerneau; he was stunned to see that he only lost 1:49 to winner, Julian Alaphilippe. “That’s your first victory,” Jurdie told O’Connor afterwards. To him, that stage was symbolic. “It was the way Ben fought not just that day, but also for the next four or five, because his injuries didn’t just go away,” says Jurdie. “Physically, all the riders, apart from the champions, are on a similar level. Mentally is where great riders make the difference, and I think he’s very strong in the head.
The slender climber lined up in Cluses for stage 9, the race’s second day in the Alps, eight minutes down on race leader Tadej Pogačar. Off the radar, he was ready to determine his own destiny and be the protagonist in the fairytale story of last year’s Tour de France. “There has to be someone who steps up. It just doesn’t always have to be the person you expect,” says O’Connor. Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
He wasn’t meant to be in the breakaway on that rain-lashed stage to Tignes or to be targeting GC, but then he wasn’t even supposed to be a cyclist. Growing up in suburban Perth, the capital of Western Australia, the teenage O’Connor was a gifted all-rounder, at the front of local long-distance running races and batting for his school cricket team alongside future Test stars.
O’Connor only started bike racing in 2013 at the age of 17, spurred on by a friend who initially wouldn’t ride with him because he wasn’t skillful enough yet. His natural ability quickly shone through. “It was trying to find a sport that would work for me. It didn’t really matter which one it was: whether it was cricket, football, running or cycling, I just had to be an athlete,” he says, stretching out long legs, clad in regulation pro cyclist chinos, which seem to take up two thirds of his body, in his living room in Andorra
His father is a senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and he appreciates the good fortune to come from a well-off background: he was supported for sporting success and was able to see different parts of the world on holiday. O’Connor went to university, but quit his finance and sport science course after a year. The siren call of the peloton was more seductive than seminars on the elasticity of demand. He learned the ropes rapidly on the Australian domestic scene, joining leading outfit Avanti IsoWhey Sport, a team which had given a leg-up to the likes of Richie Porte and Jack Haig.
By 2017, he was racing on the WorldTour for Team Dimension Data, but had a lot of catching up to do. “I used to get nervous without really knowing I was nervous,” he says. He would overthink possible racing scenarios and get sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate. His positioning left a lot to be desired and he was too skinny. O’Connor realised he was lacking balance in his life. “Being a person as well as a bike rider,” he says. “A lot of young people get caught and miss that kind of thing, I definitely did, too. I was just a bike rider in my neo-pro year and I struggled there.”
Throughout his career, attacking has been the answer. He relishes racing from the front, and all but one of his seven victories have come in a solo breakaway: “I feel that the positive attribute I take away from cycling is a pretty good engine… I find it hard to wait and I have that much patience in general life,” he says. “Give it a go and it pays off, and you look like a champion. Get caught with 100 metres to go, you still look like a champion. You’re also paid to race your bike, not to just sit and tick results and happy figures. So, I always prefer to [try to] win.”
His approach has roots in a disappointing finish to his first Grand Tour, the 2018 Giro d’Italia. After a fortnight following the contenders’ group, a moment’s inattention saw him crash and break his collarbone, 48 hours from the finish, when he was sitting in 12th overall and just 40 seconds from the top ten. From there, he resolved to eliminate the what-ifs and never miss an opportunity when in form.
That race epitomised his first few seasons: stage wins at the Tour of Austria and the Tour of the Alps mixed with finishes on the fringes of Grand Tours and WorldTour races. Yet he was caught in a cycle of one-year contracts, striving to prove himself. At the 2020 Giro d’Italia, held in October of a Covid-affected year, he and Team Dimension Data were in the same boat: racing for their future. In the race’s third week, he tearfully won a maiden Grand Tour stage on Madonna di Campiglio after finishing second the day before, a result that belied how close he had come to abandoning the race earlier with stomach problems. He subsequently signed a deal with AG2R-Citroën. (Fracturing his collarbone a month later was not part of the plan, but his physical capacity was clear: according to his friend, the photographer Tristan Cardew, he had done a VO2 max test the previous day that yielded physiological numbers on a par with those of Cadel Evans.)
Image: Sean Hardy
With its French core and deep Alpine roots, AG2R-Citroën is not an obvious fit for an Aussie. “You have to be able to find your feet, to acknowledge the team and the culture. You have to… not be a Francophile, but enjoy being part of that group,” O’Connor says. Though the machine-gun French sprayed around at the dinner table has him lost, it helps that O’Connor is cultured and curious about the world. He is learning the language and loves the country’s food and wine; after the 2021 Tour de France, this budding bon gourmand went on a culinary holiday around the Auvergne and Jura. In turn, the squad’s directeur sportifs are doing their best to learn English. They’ve realised that in the Australian, this underdog team has stumbled upon a contender who can continue where they left off with Romain Bardet in their evolving bid for Tour glory.
In team-building sessions at the start of 2021, the management expressed their desire to make him into someone capable of winning stage races, while keeping what Jurdie calls his esprit coursier, the racer’s instinct that saw him infiltrate the break (against team plans) on stage 9 to Tignes.
That day saw riders cover 145 kilometres in drizzle, over five climbs, including the hors-catégorie Col du Pré, the Cormet de Roselend and a finish at the top of the 21-kilometre climb to Tignes. O’Connor told his parents John and Kathie, visiting Avignon on holiday, to enjoy the sights that day as he didn’t have a shot. But as the rain fell and the advantage ballooned, his older brother frantically messaged them to get in front of a TV. The city’s famous old palace could wait a few hours: they had to see this.
“A long, drawn-out, cold, hard day that fitted my attributes the best,” reflects O’Connor, as his white cat, Nala, brushes his feet. “I was pretty much on the limit doing a threshold effort the whole time.” It ended up being survival of the fittest, alongside Nairo Quintana, Sergio Higuita, Mike Woods and Lucas Hamilton in front, racing all-out.
Like much of O’Connor’s career, even that successful day wasn’t linear. He struggled to put gloves onto his frozen hands and was then dropped going down the Cormet de Roselend, falling 35 seconds behind leaders Higuita and Quintana as they approached the climb to Tignes. O’Connor was embarrassed for descending, in his own words, like a snail. ‘What are you doing? Everyone’s watching you. You look like such a fool. You should be a bike racer,’ he thought.
After closing the gap, he expected to be flicked by his Colombian companions, but Quintana and Higuita were broken, not bluffing. After easing away, O’Connor treated the climb like a time-trial, a blessing in disguise for his eventual result in Paris. He finished five minutes ahead of his closest rival, thumping his chest as he crossed the line. That day, his Tour to that point, had been all heart.
O’Connor sobbed after rolling to a halt, overcome with emotion. “I got a lot of respect – people didn’t just take you as a one-shot thing. That was a very defining point. The whole game changed that night,” he says. He was the toast of the race, moving into second overall, 2:01 down on yellow jersey Pogačar. The original plan to hunt stages and race aggressively was hastily rewritten.
Stage 11 over Mont Ventoux, where he lost four minutes to the GC contenders and dropped to fifth, was his one bad day. But O’Connor dug in and gained a place after Rigoberto Urán’s time loss on the race’s last day in the mountains. He held the more experienced Wilco Kelderman at bay by 11 seconds to finish fourth in Paris, 10 minutes behind winner Pogačar but only five behind Jonas Vingegaard, the runner-up. “The last couple of days, I was completely fucked. It felt like hanging on by a thread,” he says. At the team’s after-race dinner, Australia’s only Tour winner, Cadel Evans, was there. O’Connor expressed his newfound appreciation for his achievements, given how draining the race had been. “And Cadel said something along the lines of: ‘You’re not far off. Those other guys are on another planet, but you’re there. Be proud of it and enjoy it.’”
As transformational as the result was, O’Connor always saw the bigger picture beyond the Tour, too. On the team bus during transfers, his head was either in a book or looking out of the window, taking in the changing landscapes and sights. “Someone asked me after I won the Tour stage what I hope it inspired in young people. It’s actually better if people just see bikes, maybe they’ll be more able to get on them,” he says. “And to use them to see the world and the nature: of the forest, the sea, whatever it is. I think that’s more important than getting on a bike to race, there’ll always be people that want to do that.”Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
He’s come up the hard way, but the 26-year-old is now in the GC contender category and has a deal with AG2R-Citroën until 2025. “It feels like I’ve now consolidated who I am as a cyclist, my rank. Now my feet are there and planted, I know I need to do one more year to really confirm it,” says O’Connor.
Targeting the Tour de France fully this year, O’Connor is realistic about his chances. “Against Tadej [Pogačar] or Primož [Roglič] on a mountain, good luck, to be honest. There’d be maybe three guys in the world who could say with some confidence ‘Yeah, I’ll have him.’ But the race is always full of opportunities, there are lots of different ways to win.” Nobody will give the Australian similar freedom to drift away up the road again. But similarly, no-one knows how he can perform with a crash-free race and more focused preparation over the next few years. At 6ft 2in, the tallest Tour contender since Bradley Wiggins is still physically maturing and working on his time-trial ability.
“For sure, I’d love to one day stand on the podium in Paris and have more of a special moment,” says O’Connor. “Fourth is ridiculous, I never ever thought I’d be able to finish there. I never dreamed of winning the yellow jersey because I always found that unrealistic. It’s pretty hard to picture yourself as the best in the world.”
“It should always be more incremental, for my own sake, and if something shocking happens, I’d take it, but that’s normally how things work out. You can only look at what Cadel Evans did: it took a long time to grind and find that top step. Maybe one day, I can do it. But for now, any other step is pretty special.”
Cover image: Sean Hardy