Why I know I can podium at the Giro d'Italia, by Ben O'Connor

As part of Rouleur’s In My Words series, Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale’s Ben O’Connor writes openly about cycling’s current competitive balance, fulfilling his potential and aiming for the podium at the upcoming Giro d’Italia

I keep hearing that cycling isn’t fair at the moment, that the same few riders and teams are winning all of the races. But sport is never fair and level. Imagine being a tennis player in the last 20 years and you’ve had to play with Federer, Djokovic and Nadal? Or Formula One where Mercedes took the piss for six years, outclassing everyone, and then Red Bull started walking away with it all. Then there’s football: someone rolls into Man City with a ton of cash and all of a sudden they’re the best team in the world.

To say sport is fair is not true, and cycling is the least fair sport in the world – there are so many things that can affect how you perform. It’s not fair that someone bins it in front of you in the middle of the pack causing you to abandon. It’s not fair that a TT was dry for three hours and then it pisses down when you set off. It’s not fair that the forecast changes and there’s a crosswind instead of a headwind and you lose a ton of time.

It’s important to remember that sport goes in circles. Quick-Step used to win every Classic; now they don’t. After their Rabobank days, Jumbo had their fair share of average times; now they win all the time - but that doesn’t mean I need to join Visma to be successful myself. You have to accept the fact that in sport, some people will be the kings for a short time, and others for a longer period, and right now cycling is blessed with greats: Tadej, Jonas, Van der Poel. What can the rest of us do? Deal with it, work our arses off, work to find the limit of our physical capacities, and strive to be the best athletes possible. Moaning that things aren’t fair won’t get us anywhere.

I’ve always had a pretty pragmatic approach to cycling because I just fell into it. Growing up in Perth, it’s so accessible to ride, and there’s a huge bunch-ride culture there. It’s insane the amount of people on racing bikes for fitness and leisure. One thing led to another and here I am, now living in Europe for eight years. Being a pro here is something me and my wife love and cherish, and we’re having a hell of a time, but I know when it’s all over and the dust settles, we’ll move back to Perth because it’s the best place in the world. I love my job, I’m striving to be the best version of myself, but I also know this is just a moment in my life. When I go back to Australia, my life won’t revolve around cycling. It’s kinda funny to say that given that I ride for a French team and there’s not many people who love this sport as much as they do. If cycling didn’t exist, I have no idea what a lot of French riders and staff would do with their life.Ben O'Connor

(Photo: Zac Williams/SWPix)

Me, on the other hand, I can switch off from bike racing. I bloody love my cricket, for example. I was gutted this year as I was given a season pass to watch the Perth Scorchers in the Big Bash Twenty20 League but it was the one January/February when I wasn’t in Australia. I was like, are you kidding me? I’ve got to add though that my other interests don’t mean I’m not motivated to get better and better as a cyclist.

I think I first really came to people’s attention at the 2021 Tour, and most assume that winning a stage there and finishing fourth was my breakthrough moment. It was massive, of course, but actually that just confirmed what I felt at the Dauphiné a month before when I finished fifth on La Plagne behind Richie Porte, Miguel Ángel López and Primož. I thought, ‘jeez, this is huge’. It was the first time I really felt that I did have it to be up there with the big boys in the big races. And then in the Tour, when I finished in the front group of GC guys in Andorra on stage 15, it was like, ‘holy moly, this is big news’. And then the next day on the Col du Portet, I was the next best guy after Pogi, Jonas and Richard Carapaz. I remember saying to myself, ‘holy shit, this is real, I can fight with the best guys’. Finishing fourth in that Tour was fucking huge and was a revelation of knowing that I can do a good GC over three weeks.

In 2022 I made a big step in that I was consistently a GC guy in every race, and to put together a whole season of GC results was pretty cool. Last year was frustrating as I got sick at the Tour, but by then I’d already morphed from a lost Aussie neo-pro to someone who was now knuckling down and performing when it mattered. The great thing about this season is that I can feel that I’ve not stopped physically developing, and I’m more certain than ever of the best methods to get the best out of myself. That’s basically hitting me over the head with a hammer, by the way. Base miles don’t do it for me. Make me go hard and suffer.

I won the main mountain stage at the UAE Tour and finished fifth at Tirreno-Adriatico at the start of the season, and in both races I saw a lot of proof that I’m getting better than ever, such as really high power numbers on high kilojoules days. My time trialling is also improving a lot. I’ve won stages in the Giro and the Tour and in WorldTour stage races, but the next box to tick is to win the GC at a WorldTour stage race like the Dauphiné. I know I can do it.

Ben O'Connor

(Photo: Zac Williams/SWPix)

I think I am a decent athlete, a good rider, and if I perform like I believe I can do, I think I can also get a podium in a Grand Tour. I was aiming for that in the Tour last year but I got sick and crooked and that dream went down the pipeline. But that always happens in a Grand Tour - there are always people who are going to succumb to illness or crashes, you’re ticking people off, and you’ve just got to hope it’s not you. I don’t care whether it’s the Giro, Tour or the Vuelta, if you can finish on the podium in one of them, you can do it in all three. OK, the Tour is a bit more complicated just because of the huge size of the thing, but physically it requires a similar effort to the others.

I think this year’s Giro is a very fair and open route: there are super long time trials, big bunch sprints, big, long climbs, and there aren’t going to be many breakaway days. Pogi is obviously favourite - he’s something stupid like 1/20 to win - but like I was saying, things happen in sport. If he’s sick for 10 minutes on a mountain stage, bang, the race is a different story. And he does have his off days. So too does Remco, and Jonas. We have to remind ourselves that these guys have been beaten before and can be beaten again. Winning a big WorldTour stage race is one box to tick, and getting a podium in a Grand Tour is another one.

My objective in the Giro is pretty clear: I’m going there to be on the podium.

- Ben

*Cover image by Sean Hardy

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