Interview: Ben O’Connor on his epic Tour stage win and defending second on GC

The young Australian will go all in to defend second overall at the Tour de France – a position he never thought he'd find himself in.

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Ten days ago, when Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroën) crashed on stage 1 of his debut Tour de France, he thought his race was over. But with 10 stitches in his arm, the 25-year-old West Australian carried on through the race’s chaotic opening week and by stage 7 he was starting to feel good again.

A couple days after that, O’Connor fought his way into a big breakaway on a cold and wet stage 9 in the Alps. He’d later attack from that breakaway and ride away to win the stage solo by more than five minutes. It wasn’t just the biggest victory of his career; he’d also rocketed himself up to second overall, more than three minutes ahead of most of his GC rivals. For a time it looked like he might even finish the day in yellow.

The morning after that barnstorming victory, on the Tour’s first rest day, O’Connor caught up with CyclingTips from Tignes to chat about his win and his plan to fight for the final podium come Paris.

CyclingTips: How did you pull up after yesterday?

Ben O’Connor: I think everyone’s pretty cooked. Everyone’s pretty glad for the rest day and so am I. So I’m going to just try and enjoy it as much as possible and not think too much if possible as well.

Are you guys heading out for a cruisy ride this morning?

Yeah, we’ll just cruise down to Val d’Isère I think and see the scenes, see the mountains. Last time I was there I was actually skiing with my family and some friends and stuff. So it’d be nice to look at it again in summer.

Has it sunk in yet what you were able to achieve yesterday?

I think so. I know it’s the top and there’s nothing really else more I can dream of like that. It’s rare and it’s something that I might not be able to ever do again. I actually feel relaxed … it’s not as if there was a weight, but I’ve realised something and now you can … you don’t relax but you don’t feel like you’re then chasing anything else, which is kind of great for the next two weeks or week and a bit, because you just go in with a free spirit and you know, do your best every single day.

I always wanted to win a stage and I knew I could coming into the Tour de France, but it’s pretty unlikely. So the fact it came out yesterday, especially with the way the day was – pretty filthy – is pretty stunning.

How long would you say it’s been a goal of yours to win a stage of the Tour?

Actually, not very long. [The dream] was first just starting the Tour de France. That was always the dream in the first place. To think further than that – it would only be realistic if you ever got to the Tour. I kind of think short-term a lot of the time so I never have these crazy aspirations.

Lots of people were asking me yesterday “Do you think about a yellow jersey? Are you disappointed?” And I was like “No, it wasn’t up to me to decide.” I wasn’t even thinking about that at all. You had a stage win in your hands and it was about enjoying that, not worrying about something else.

You said you came in to the Tour feeling confident that you could win a stage. When did you start to believe that? When did you start to think that you had the ability to do that?

I mean, the way Dauphiné went I for sure knew to go into the Tour with an aggressive mindset [O’Connor finished eighth at the Dauphiné and was climbing with the best on the final two stages – ed.] I wanted to make the most of a jump from the GC group and win a stage like that. And then, yeah, on the first day here at the Tour de France I thought I was out for sure. I thought I’d broken my shoulder or my scapula and it was just a really bad muscle bruising thing going on.

So yeah, it kind of, took my hopes and it hurt, but then we hit the super long 250 km stage [stage 7 – ed.] and I felt better again and then I believed it and was ready to try. But I didn’t think it would be yesterday. I thought the break was going to win but I didn’t think I was going to do it because I thought it was too risky. But in the end the risk pays off sometimes and yeah, I find myself in a really nice position now.

Yeah, not only have you got a stage win, but you’re second on GC with that really nice buffer over a lot of the GC guys. I assume you and the team have talked about a possible GC tilt from here?

Yeah, for sure. I was always actually going to try [for GC] and I wanted to see if I could get to the top 10 by the end [in] Paris. The way that this race has been, because it’s been madness – the time gaps are ridiculous, the crashes and the stress … It’s a course that, when I first saw it … I think a lot of guys didn’t think it’d be as hard as it has been. But it’s been super hard!

Yeah for sure, you look at [GC] now, but there’s no stress. I’m not worried. I’m not panicking. Maybe Vincent [Lavenu, general manager] is stressing. I mean, I know he is stressing, but for me personally it doesn’t affect me because, you know, you go to Ventoux [on stage 11 – ed.] and you do the best climb you can, and that’s kind of all you can do. I never came to the Tour wanting to … sure, you always want to do as best you can but I never dreamt of being on the podium or ever being second overall. So you just relish it.

What do you think will be the key stages from here on out? You mentioned Mont Ventoux. What else?

Ventoux and the Andorra stage. The Andorra stage [stage 15 – ed.] is super-hard and if you blow on the Col de Beixilis it’s not so nice – it’s really steep and you can lose some time there. But Ventoux for sure will be the biggest of them all. Obviously any of the Pyrenean stages but Ventoux in particular. Maybe just because it’s the closest thing and I just think kind of day by day.

There’s also always danger when you go between Nîmes and Carcassonne [stage 13 – ed.] – it’s windy around there; it can be tricky. But yeah, it’s just about doing your best every day, hey? But Ventoux is the closest thing to think about.

I know you’re thinking day by day but do you feel like you’re confident that you can be on the podium come Paris? Or are you just not even thinking about that at the moment?

I haven’t dreamt or thought about or envisaged it. But I know that with the [GC] guys that are there, we’re all kind of a similar level. [Richard] Carapaz is looking super-strong but everyone else is the guys I’ve raced with in Romandie and Dauphiné. We’re all kind of more or less the same on our days. For sure some guys will do better one day and not the other day but, you know, you’re in the ballpark. And the fact that you have this lead really does give you such a nice buffer in case you do have a bad day because I might have a great day when we get to Andorra or in the Pyrenees.

So, yeah, it’s just a really nice feeling that they kind of have to chase you and I just don’t need to … I’m not panicking. Maybe it seems a bit more stressful with them chasing you but once again I’ve found myself in a position I didn’t really think of so it shouldn’t be a stressor.

So do you just try to defend that position? You’ve made a name for yourself by being an aggressive rider and getting ahead by attacking. Do you now just sit back and go “It’s up to you guys now?”

Yeah, for sure. I mean, I’m not going to be following Tadej [Pogačar] when he goes, that’s for sure. I mean, you can’t, first of all, and secondly, you’re going to be struggling. But the other guys, yeah, it’s a matter of following. I’ve grabbed the stage win by being super aggressive. You don’t need to then hunt and search for more. I think it’s now about being super smart and dieseling your way as much as possible and making sure that when they do look at each other and they’re all like, “Well, who’s going ride?” then you just keep going on.

And you’re always going to be with other guys. Everyone’s got their own intention, whether it’s eighth or sixth or third. Everyone fights for their spot so you’re always going to find allies and you’re always going to find opponents if you get left by yourself. So that’s the main thing, actually: don’t get left by yourself.

Do you think the team will rally around you now?

Yeah, for sure. I think Vincent has been in this position before with Romain [Bardet] and he’ll be pretty keen to try and keep it [Bardet finished on the podium for AG2R-La Mondiale at the 2016 and 2017 Tours de France – ed.] And I think there’s no reason not to try and go all-in and give it a go.

Again, it’s not often you can find yourself in this position in the biggest race in the world. So if you can put yourself at the front of race, it looks great for everyone. Not just me, not just my teammates, but also for all the sponsors, all the staff, and brings courage and hope to everyone in the team.

And a lot of people back home in Australia as well. There’s a lot of people that were up late last night watching your ride who were well stoked.

Yeah, it’s a bit crazy. My brothers and sisters have been doing interviews and even my mates. My best mate at home he lives in Esperance and he was on TV. I just don’t understand. It’s kind of funny. *laughing*

As you say, you don’t get to be in this position very often. So lap up every second of it, I reckon!

Yeah. I’m going to try and chill as much today as I can.

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