Ben O’Connor, the latest rider to have his pain wrongly fetishised

As Ben O'Connor withdraws from the Tour de France, we ask: is he a victim of cycling's glorification of pain and suffering?

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There are 70 kilometres left of the Tour’s first big mountain stage. A TV camera lingers on Ben O’Connor, who pedals gently alongside the team car, clearly feeling the effects of the bad luck he’s been subject to since the Tour de France began. He is offered a bidon and some food, but O’Connor is focused on communicating something about his hip with a lot of head-shaking and articulately drooped shoulders. He looks like a rider about to abandon, but a little while later, we return to the Australian, still on his bike as he gestures angrily to banish the TV moto.

He went on to finish the stage with the focus transferring to his teammate, and just 24 hours later, O’Connor’s Tour de France was over.

Professional cyclists are a rare breed – that’s what we’ve come to believe, and rightly so. These men and women ride on through extreme and persistent pain, through road rash, dislocated shoulders and even sometimes (not advised) broken bones.

At the Tour de France so far we’ve watched handful of emotional stories unfold, from the resurgent sprint victories in Denmark to Simon Clarke’s tearful underdog win over the cobbles, and Bob Jungels’ comeback following years affected by endofibrosis. Elsewhere, Primož Roglič has raced on after re-setting his own dislocated shoulder (not for the first time in his career), Aleksandr Vlasov has struggled on laden with bandages, and also affected by an earlier crash, O’Connor was racing the time cut on the first Alpine finish.

But is there something broken in our perspective? There’s an expectation that a rider can and should carry on even if they’re literally falling apart, even if they have to be lifted on and off their bike each day, like Geraint Thomas after fracturing his pelvis in 2013 or Lawson Craddock’s heroic and foolhardy ride through extensive injuries in 2018.

Lawson Craddock (EF-Drapac) had the first fall of the 2018 race, suffering a fractured shoulder blade and eventually crossing the line alone, 7:50 behind the stage winner. He made it all the way to Paris.

Earlier this week, the news that Daniel Oss was found to have fractured a cervical vertebra (top of the spine) after finishing the Roubaix stage was greeted not with dumbfounded shock, but a shrug of respect; ‘that’s cycling!’

A rider’s struggle can only be justified by thickly wrapped bandages or some other evidence of serious physical injury. Muscle strain? You’re just not trying hard enough.

Take it from someone who took up cycling after being diagnosed with chronic nerve pain: questioning a rider’s mental strength and fortitude, and comparing them with how others deal with their injuries, visible or otherwise, is unnecessary, unfair and frankly disrespectful. 

While plenty of cycling fans and journalists will have crashed their bike at some point, none of us can truly appreciate exactly what’s being experienced by the likes of O’Connor, who came to the Tour this year as AG2R-Citroën’s GC leader after finishing fourth overall in 2021 and third at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné. The Australian has been subject to some light criticism in the past couple of days, seen visibly struggling, but without obvious injury. And frankly, who could blame him for some mental turmoil on top of that, which would be equally as valid.

“I’ve got no road rash, it’s literally just a muscular injury, so it might not look all dramatic,” he told CyclingNews ahead of Sunday’s stage 9. “You might say it looks soft, but it’s a muscular injury, I can do nothing about it, you know?

“I’m pretty much pedalling with one leg. So, yeah, it looks a little bit grim, and looks like I’ve lost my head. But really, I just actually can’t push.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to recreate the conversation at the AG2R car on Sunday afternoon, but after whatever cajoling or reassurance he received, O’Connor managed to finish the stage about half an hour after his teammate, ready to celebrate an inspiring victory.

Thank goodness for Jungels, whose resurgent win will help to take his Australian teammate’s mind off his now terminally damaged Tour ambitions, not to mention the doubts about his form.

Arguably, O’Connor should probably have gone home several days ago. If not after his stage 2 crash and subsequent time loss, then after the repeated assaults on his body that further crashes provide, not least the glute tear on Saturday’s stage into Lausanne. Mental strength and resilience are necessary traits for professional athletes, and if there’s a chance of recovery and an opportunity to take it, like at a Grand Tour, then persistence comes without question. But where’s the limit?

Concussion protocols are fairly new in cycling, like most major sports, and perhaps we need to take this mindset and stretch it a little further; put it to O’Connor that there’s absolutely no shame in climbing off, ‘Mate, go home, rest and prepare to smash the Vuelta.’

The Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, World Championships – it’s understandable that finishing one of these events, or just being able to get to the next day’s start line, is a matter of pride, hope and resilience from which fans and fellow riders draw inspiration, but the limits are blurred.

Cycling is a sport that so often fetishises suffering, and suffering of a certain kind only. We expect far too much from a group of athletes pushing their bodies and minds beyond imaginable limits, at least in part for our entertainment. It’s time to give them a damn break.

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