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On Tuesday’s stage 16 of the Giro d’Italia, Ben O’Connor (NTT) rode to his best-ever result in a Grand Tour. In a tough, hilly stage the 24-year-old West Australian battled his way into the lead group, then rode defiantly to bridge to a late solo move from former breakaway companion Jan Tratnik (Bahrain-McLaren). The pair entered the final kilometre together where the more experienced Slovenian surged confidently away to win the stage.
Crossing the line in second place, O’Connor thumped his bars in frustration. He’d battled so hard and come so close to victory, only to be thwarted in the dying moments. Bitterly disappointed and surely exhausted, he would have been forgiven for a quiet ride the following day. Instead he went for the opposite approach.
On Wednesday’s stage 17, a true mountain stage with more than 5,000 metres of climbing, O’Connor again got in the breakaway — one of three NTT riders in a group of 19. Despite his exertions the previous day, O’Connor again remained at the front as the lead group thinned down over the course of the 203 km stage. This time though, O’Connor would be the one launching the race-winning solo move.
With 8.3 km to go, on the final ascent to Madonna di Campiglio, the rangy West Australian attacked from what remained of the break and quickly built a lead.
Despite the best efforts of Hermann Pernsteiner (Bahrain-McLaren) and Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) behind, O’Connor held firm, grinding a big gear to the line. He took one last look over his shoulder then, sure the win was his, celebrated emphatically. It was the biggest moment in his young career.
Tears flowed freely for O’Connor as he crossed the line; tears of joy, relief and a whole lot more besides.
“My tears at the end were just a bit of pride,” he said later. “Yesterday it was so close and I was just missing a bit in the end, but I think it’s easy to be inspired when the people around you need inspiration. I think our team really needed this win, I really needed this win as did my family and friends, who put a lot of faith in me.
“I’m quite emotional as a person and it just means a lot because of everything this year. I guess it’s been an incredibly tough year for a lot of people and when you have such joy what else can you do but cry?”
2020 has been a year of upheaval and uncertainty for a great many around the world. For pro cyclists, long months were spent away from racing, much of it confined to training indoors, with no real certainty of when events would return. For everyone at NTT Pro Cycling, recent months have been shrouded in even greater uncertainty.
In September, the Japanese telecommunications company announced that its sponsorship of the South African WorldTour team bearing its name would end with the 2020 season. Finding a replacement has proven tricky for team management and the team’s closure seems a distinct possibility.
In that context, what better way to show value to prospective sponsors than a gritty win at one of the world’s biggest races?
“What an amazing stage for Ben, and a brilliant stage for our team,” said team principal Doug Ryder. “This is something that we’ve worked so hard for. The team showed that even through it’s struggling times to find a new title partner, there is complete unity and that everybody’s committed to each other.”
O’Connor’s win hasn’t been the only positive for NTT at this year’s Giro. Domenico Pozzovivo, the 37-year-old Italian climber, is seemingly in the best form he’s shown for several years, and his team has ridden the front of the peloton accordingly. He sat as high as fourth overall during the second week but slipped to eighth in the stage 14 time trial. The volume of climbing on stages 18 and 20 could see him move towards his third top-five finish at his home Grand Tour.
As for O’Connor, Wednesday’s win is more than a boost for his ailing team, and more than personal relief after coming second a day earlier. It’s a timely win for a rider who’s currently without a contract for next year. It’s also a case of personal redemption after previous heartbreak at this race.
On stage 19 of the 2018 Giro, O’Connor’s first Grand Tour, the then-22-year-old was sitting 12th overall and was riding his way to a top 10 overall. He’d dropped a bunch of the riders ahead of him on GC that day, but when it came time to descend off Sestriere, disaster struck. As O’Connor himself said later that day, “I ran wide on a gritty surface and did a bit of a front flip.” He landed on his shoulder and broke his collarbone. Race over with just a few days remaining.
“I have massive regrets because it was my fault,” he told Cyclingnews, reflecting on the incident eight months later. “I’d started to get really tired the day before, and so it had become – or should have become – about trying to control my decision-making.
“I didn’t need to be greedy. I would have been eighth or ninth overall by the end of the day, at my first Grand Tour, and that kind of hurts. I felt good, but the crash happened purely because I felt good. I wanted to do more. I just wanted to progress even further. I guess it’s just that lust as an athlete – to always do your best.”
And O’Connor’s best is clearly very good. He joined the WorldTour with Dimension Data (now NTT) in 2017 and in that first season took a stage win at the Tour of Austria. In 2018 he won a stage and the best young rider classification at the Tour of the Alps — his final race before that impressive run at his debut Giro. After a quieter 2019, O’Connor started 2020 with a stage win at his first race of the year, Etoile de Besseges.
He’s now got four victories as a pro; all of them in stage races, and all of them solo victories on hilly or mountainous days. His win at the Giro is the obvious highlight — his first WorldTour win, his first Grand Tour stage win, and one that might just secure him a contract for next year. It certainly won’t hurt his team in the search for a sponsor for next year.
“You know the team situation, everyone does, and it’s not good but it’s racing like we are now which gives hope to the team,” O’Connor said after his win on Wednesday. That fighting attitude is demonstration of the grit lurking below the surface at NTT: “It’s proof that we can do it: as our bus driver says, it’s a little bit of ‘grinta’.”