Ben O’Connor won’t let a Tour top five change him
On a wet day in the Alps a little less than two weeks ago, West Australian Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citröen) rode to the biggest victory of his career. On the road to Tignes, the 25-year-old surged clear of a thinning breakaway and finished stage 9 of the Tour de France more than five minutes ahead of his nearest rival. With that stellar ride O’Connor moved up to second overall in his debut appearance at the world’s biggest bike race.
A couple days later O’Connor struggled on the Tour’s double visit to Mont Ventoux, sliding down to fifth overall, and he dropped to sixth for a single day after stage 14. But after a dogged few days in the Pyrenees, O’Connor now sits fourth overall with three stages remaining in the 2021 Tour.
On Wednesday’s stage 17, as the race ended atop the gruelling Col du Portet, O’Connor was in touch with the best climbers until race leader Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) burst away with around 8 km to go, taking Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) with him.
O’Connor fought hard to finish fifth, 1:26 behind stage winner Pogačar. Crucially, he finished ahead of those immediately behind him on GC: Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) in sixth and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana-Premier Tech) in seventh.
Thursday’s stage 18 proved even more successful. Again, O’Connor stuck with the very best until Pogačar, Vingegaard, and Carapaz once again surged clear. O’Connor reached the ski resort of Luz Ardiden in eighth place, 34 seconds down on Pogačar, but again ahead of Kelderman and Lusenko.
Best of all, Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-First), who’d started the day just ahead of O’Connor on GC, cracked badly and lost more than eight minutes. O’Connor was up to fourth overall.
“I didn’t feel as good as I did yesterday, but I was able to get through and to be sitting fourth is even better,” O’Connor said at the finish. “It’s a good day for me and for the team.
“I think the last week of a Grand Tour suits me quite well. I didn’t feel super great compared to yesterday, but I was able to still get through. And me and Wilco are exactly the same, so I guess it’s a bit of a fight in the TT on Saturday and we’ll see who’s going to be fourth or fifth.”
As O’Connor notes, that stage 20 individual time trial will be crucial. Coming after Friday’s sprinter-friendly stage 19, the 30.8 km ITT is mainly flat and will suit the more powerful time trialists.
Kelderman is the big danger for O’Connor. The Dutchman sits just 32 seconds behind and is the more-fancied time trialist of the two. Indeed, of the nine time trials the pair have both contested, Kelderman has finished ahead of O’Connor on eight occasions.
With Carapaz 2:27 ahead of O’Connor in third, and Enric Mas (Movistar) 1:21 behind Kelderman in sixth, O’Connor will almost certainly finish the Tour in fourth or fifth.
Wherever O’Connor finishes up come Paris, it will have been a wonderful Tour debut for the young Australian. Taking a stage win already ensured the race was a success for he and his French team; finishing inside the top five overall will be a wonderful bonus.
These past three weeks have been career-defining for O’Connor. He’d won bike races before – not least a stage of last year’s Giro – but his exploits at the Tour have taken things to another level. And with another three years on his contract after 2021, O’Connor’s future looks bright and full of opportunities. He’s keen not to let his success change him as a person though.
“I’m still going to be exactly the same bloke and that won’t change,” O’Connor said after stage 18. “That’s the main aspect I want to keep. Maybe other aspects of the racing scene will change but for me as a person, I’m still Ben O’Connor. I’m not going to be turning into a bad bloke any time soon.”