Ben O’Connor on winning a Tour stage: ‘It’ll make your heart stop’
Young Australian climber, Ben O’Connor (AG2R-Citroën), rode himself back into overall contention with his stage 9 victory after getting into the breakaway.
“It’s mind-blowing,” O’Connor said after the stage. “It’s what you dream of, it’s so fulfilling and there’s so much joy. I’ve managed to control myself now, compared to when I crossed the line.
“I’m just loving every single moment. I’m so happy for AG2R-Citroën, they’ve had so much faith in me this year. It’s been so clear how much happiness it’s brought to me and the team, and now also a win. It’s special.”
The young Australian climber started his first Tour de France as a key player in a stage-hunting lineup for the French team. The race did not get off to a good start, however, seven out of the eight AG2R-Citroën riders finding themselves caught up in the stage 1 crashes, O’Connor requiring 10 stitches in his arm. He was pretty anonymous until Saturday’s first mountain stage when he finished 18th with the main GC group, moving up to 14th overall.
O’Connor didn’t plan on getting into the breakaway on Sunday’s stage 9, but he was part of a large group that finally broke the elastic after the second climb. The breakaway split again on the hors-category Col du Pré, with six riders going on the attack, including O’Connor, Lucas Hamilton (BikeExchange), Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation), Sergio Higuita (EF Education-Nippo), Nairo Quintana (Arkéa Samsic) and Wout Poels (Bahrain-Victorious) in the polkadots jersey.
The gap to the peloton continued to grow, and by the time O’Connor, Quintana and Higuita were alone on the penultimate climb, the Australian was virtual race leader, having started the day with a deficit of over eight minutes. His dream of taking the yellow jersey was not to come true, but the stage win was still there for the taking.
“I actually wasn’t meant to be in the break,” O’Connor said. “But there was a big group and I just crossed to it and was just waiting. I didn’t really know what to do, I didn’t know if I should play cool but when I heard we had three minutes, four minutes, five minutes – it’s a great opportunity both to gain time on the GC and then I knew on a long day like this I could always win at the end.”
The 25-year-old had to chase back on during a couple of the descents, but he stayed calm and took no risks in getting back to the front. On the final climb to Montée de Tignes, Quintana fell away on the lower slopes and Higuita didn’t last much longer. So, with the next group on the road about four minutes further back, O’Connor had 17 km to consolidate his lead in the pouring rain.
“I was blowing pretty hard on [the climb to] Tignes. It was a mad stage, conditions were atrocious. Maybe I should be descending a little better next time – that would have saved a lot of energy.”
When he went solo, O’Connor still had about 6:45 on the Pogačar group, but with so much left of the climb, he was concerned about the strength behind him.
“I was actually scared that Tadej was going to explode from behind and chase me down when the road got hard. But I heard the time gaps and I knew for a long time that if I stayed steady and didn’t cramp, I could win the stage.”
In the end, O’Connor raised his arms in victory 5:07 before the arrival of runner-up Mattia Cattaneo (Deceuninck-QuickStep), while Pogačar finished almost a minute later still in sixth. This result sees the Australian move up to second overall, two minutes behind the yellow jersey and more than three minutes ahead of third-place Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo).
“I had faith the whole time and it was just about making sure I didn’t panic. Because as soon as you think ‘I’m going to win a stage in the Tour de France’ all sorts of things happen to your mind, your lungs, your heart. It’ll make your heart stop – it definitely made my heart stop just before.
“It’s always a dream. Just to be here in the first place is already the first dream. To achieve this today – it’s a testament to everyone who’s put faith in me over the years, my fiancée, my parents, my best mates back in Australian, my friends in Andorra and Girona, it’s been a wild ride.”