Three weeks is a very long time to stare on the writing on the wall. All yr Ben O’Connor’s total existence had revolved across the Tour de France however now, on the very opening weekend of the race, he knew his podium problem was already floundering.
After dropping clumps of seconds in Bilbao and San Sebastián, O’Connor may guess what the rest of his Tour had in retailer. That sinking feeling was borne out by the losses he incurred throughout the race’s week one foray into the Pyrenees. Every time he climbed aboard the AG2R Citroën bus after these early setbacks, he was already fast-tracking his method by means of the grieving course of.
Final yr, O’Connor’s Tour problem was ruined by a crash on stage 2 in Denmark, however he continued in preventing a dropping battle in opposition to his accidents for greater than every week earlier than finally, belatedly pulling out. This outing, he skipped denial and went straight to anger.
“Initially, I used to be actually offended the primary couple of occasions it occurred – simply not ok,” O’Connor tells Cyclingnews. “Then finally you get used to it, however you’re nonetheless wanting mood, I might say. I believe the boys knew that and so they have been good with me. Then finally I acquired used to it, kind of. However there’s nonetheless all the time just a little flicker of a flame that wasn’t capable of be quenched.”
In 2022, AG2R administration had regarded to persuade O’Connor by means of his ordeal, however, because the Netflix digicam demonstrated, Julien Jurdie’s well-intentioned urging had in all probability served solely to exacerbate the rider’s personal sense of frustration. Mercifully, the Australian was afforded just a little extra privateness for the mourning interval final July, even when this newest Tour setback was altogether extra disappointing.
“2022 was very totally different as a result of I used to be injured, so I sort of needed to write that off. I ought to have simply deserted earlier. That may have made me really feel higher about the entire thing,” O’Connor says. “2023 was simply disappointing as a result of I didn’t obtain what I wished to. From a GC perspective, I wasn’t even shut. I felt off on the race. I used to be a bit sick, and it took a very long time for that to clear after the Tour de France. One thing simply wasn’t proper.”
And but, as O’Connor’s time losses mounted up throughout the opening week, a curious factor occurred: he discovered himself starting to benefit from the Tour. Sure, the race itself continued to vex him, however because the podium slid additional and additional out of view, the kaleidoscopic human pageant alongside the roadside started to sharpen into focus. Typically it helps to keep in mind that it’s by no means solely in regards to the bike.
On O’Connor’s debut in 2021, when he positioned fourth general in Paris, COVID-19 restrictions made for a moderately muted environment, whereas the depressing situations within the Alps additionally served to discourage the crowds. “I received the stage at Tignes and that was unbelievable, one thing I’ll always remember, however it wasn’t the Tour like I had imagined it,” he says, whereas his second look, in fact, was an train in ache administration and little extra. Now, for the primary time, he felt capable of soak within the environment. At the same time as he picked his method by means of the ruins of a damaged dream, he may respect that there have been worse methods to make a residing.
“I loved the precise Tour de France itself greater than 2021, simply not from the outcomes perspective,” O’Connor explains. “The environment was ridiculous the entire method by means of. I don’t know if that was due to this Netflix sequence or whether or not this was only a regular Tour de France and I simply hadn’t skilled it earlier than, however it was an eye-opener. That’s one thing I received’t take as a right, that feeling of being within the largest race on the earth.”
In time, that feeling translated itself into performances. O’Connor positioned third at Issoire in week two, after making the break on arguably probably the most intense day of the Tour, and once more at Poligny, two days from Paris. In between, he was most outstanding on the Col de la Loze stage, driving strongly to tee up teammate Felix Gall’s eventual victory. “It’s ironic how I used to be a bit shit for lots of it however then I discovered my finest for in all probability the three hardest days,” O’Connor smiles. “Bizarre.”
It was reassurance, as if it have been wanted, of his powers of endurance, however O’Connor nonetheless completed the Tour empty-handed, a distant seventeenth general. “You could be blissful that you simply raced properly on these days, however in the long run, I nonetheless misplaced,” he says. “Successful a stage would have saved my Tour, however I didn’t get something from that perspective. It leaves you wanting.”
There was some comfort, thoughts, from the truth that Gall’s victory saved AG2R’s Tour, whereas the Austrian additionally weighed in with a haul of WorldTour factors with eighth place general. Somewhat than really feel overshadowed by Gall’s show, O’Connor’s overriding emotion was aid. He made some extent of interrupting his teammate’s flash interview in Courchevel to wrap him in a bear hug of congratulations.
“I’m so glad he was there,” O’Connor says. “Look, we’re a French group, and in case you don’t carry out on the Tour, it doesn’t look superb in any respect. It positively doesn’t really feel superb both, so I used to be glad he was there shifting tremendous properly, as a result of if not we’d have been in a little bit of bother.
“Working for him was very easy. I had my likelihood, and I fluffed it with the Bilbao stage. If I used to be ok, I might for positive be seeking to journey for myself, however I wasn’t. It’s a must to be sincere. That is what biking is about, it’s about sacrifice at occasions.”
By most accounts, the sacrifices required to compete at biking’s prime stage are rising yr on yr to nearly unsustainable ranges. Then once more, the commentary is hardly distinctive to the twenty first century peloton. Very like veteran riders complaining about neo-pros missing respect, each period in biking historical past has been marked by wonderment on the common rising requirements and concern at the way to preserve tempo with that progress.
New phenomenon or not, nevertheless, it’s definitely true that being a professional rider – and, specifically, being a GC contender – is a way of life selection that calls for a most excessive stage of dedication. In current seasons, some notable names have walked away from the sport at a strikingly younger age, citing waning enthusiasm, particularly when confronted with diminishing returns on their appreciable investments of time and labour.
O’Connor, for his half, accepts that his efforts – all these days at altitude, all that point away from family and friends – may not essentially translate to success. That highwire act is solely a part of the discount, and he has no complaints.
“I get pleasure from it when it really works out,” he says. “It’s shit when it doesn’t work out, since you really feel such as you sacrificed a variety of various things for nothing. You hung out away for nothing, or perhaps you didn’t exit to the restaurant some evening, and in the long run, it was for nothing – that’s what you are feeling like when it goes mistaken. However when it goes proper, you’re stoked, and you may have fun afterwards. All of it makes up for it and you may neglect in regards to the more durable moments. All of it is sensible.
“You solely need to remind your self to get pleasure from it while you’re going poorly, and I believe the Tour was an vital one for me in that regard. Even when the efficiency wasn’t superb, it’s a life reminiscence I’m going to have. That’s the sort of factor you should bear in mind and to not take as a right. Everybody says, ‘we’re all going to burn out,’ however it’s about what you’re mentally ready to deal with your self – and likewise, we resolve to do it ourselves.”
In an analogous method, O’Connor has no qualms about carrying the load of group management. It was, in spite of everything, one thing he actively sought out when he joined AG2R from NTT on the finish of 2020, buoyed by a trendy victory at Madonna di Campiglio at that Autumn’s Giro d’Italia.
When outcomes began arriving persistently in 2021, his duties grew. Now coming into his fourth yr on the group, rebranded this winter as Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale, O’Connor insists he has by no means felt inhibited by the pressures of his position.
“I actually get pleasure from it, and the one time I haven’t carried out is once I’ve been sick,” he says. “If you happen to have been simply underperforming basically, then I believe the management position would actually take a success, since you would really feel such as you’re not ok and also you don’t deserve the boys sacrificing themselves for you.
“While you come down in poor health, it feels extra prefer it’s utterly out of your fingers, however you continue to really feel a variety of guilt. You recognize you’ve put a variety of effort in, and the boys are attempting that will help you, however you simply can’t get it finished. However that’s extra irritating than something.
“You bear the accountability for it, however that doesn’t imply I don’t adore it. I believe I’m bodily able to doing it. If you happen to didn’t have that self-belief, you wouldn’t actually be a great chief.”
When O’Connor secured fourth place on the 2021 Tour, he spoke of a must show himself once more by replicating or bettering that consequence. Circumstances – a torn glute muscle in 2022 and sickness this yr – have restricted him the previous two Julys, however his physique of labor throughout the previous two seasons has certainly allayed any nagging worry that his debut Tour was an aberration. Inserting eighth on final yr’s Vuelta a España after a restricted build-up confirmed his aptitude for three-week racing, whereas back-to-back podium finishes on the Dauphiné hardly took place by likelihood.
“I used to be prime ten in each stage race I did final yr, so which means I used to be preventing with the perfect each time. There’s no doubting that,” he says.
“I don’t go into races nervous that I’m not ok. I believe I can carry out with the perfect underneath just about any circumstance, besides punchy technical programs. I’m not a worn-out stone. I nonetheless really feel like I’m younger sufficient, even in an age of very gifted younger guys, I don’t suppose I’m behind them. I sort of really feel I’ve reached a stage and I’m nonetheless solely 27.”
By O’Connor’s reckoning, solely two riders are definitively past his attain, specifically the 2 males who’ve shared the final 4 Excursions between them. Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard, he concedes, are “out of this world,” a minimum of in June and July, however he considers himself among the many choose cadre racing for the place simply behind them. “You all the time take into consideration that spot,” he says.
It stays to be seen, thoughts, if the Tour would be the centrepiece of O’Connor’s season in 2024. His personal choice can be to return to the Giro d’Italia, the place he so impressed in his Grand Tour debut in 2018 earlier than crashing out within the last week. His fellow Western Australian Jai Hindley’s general victory in 2022, in the meantime, may also have inspired him to contemplate the probabilities supplied by the corsa rosa, however he’s conscious, too, that July is his group’s raison d’être.
No agency plans for O’Connor’s 2024 schedule have been unveiled on the presentation of the revamped Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale final week, although the emergence of Gall and the arrival of sprinter Sam Bennett may provide him an opportunity to angle his marketing campaign barely in a different way. For now, the one certainty is that he’s desperate to deal with two Grand Excursions in 2024.
“I want to do a change. I’d like to do the Giro however I’m on a French group and the Tour is tremendous vital,” he says. “I’m positively going to do two Grand Excursions subsequent yr, however I’m unsure which of them. I’d like to do the Giro once more, that’s for positive, however the Tour is the Tour…”
Wherever O’Connor races in 2024, it will likely be with the ambition of ending on the rostrum. Regardless of the hegemony of Jumbo-Visma and UAE Group Emirates, who stuffed eight of the 9 podium spots on provide at Grand Excursions in 2023, he doesn’t really feel his prospects are restricted by not racing for a kind of groups.
“You all the time suppose the grass is greener on the opposite aspect, however you additionally signal a contract and that’s the place you might be,” he says. “My group was actually, actually good coming into the Tour this yr. I simply didn’t carry out and that was the shitty factor about it – I didn’t simply let myself down, I let the entire group down.”
One change is definite in the beginning of 2024, thoughts. After racing the Tour Down Underneath final January, O’Connor will skip the race this time round, and he additionally made a acutely aware choice to restrict his time at residence in Perth throughout the low season to a fortnight. The majority of his coaching for the brand new marketing campaign will happen round his European base of Andorra. The wintry situations are a part of the enchantment.
“When it will get a bit grim or snowy or chilly in early December, these quick daytime hours really convey me pleasure. It’s good to really feel cosy,” O’Connor says. “Having a double summer time could be fairly tough in your physique, it will get pressured by the warmth. Whereas when you will have a winter, your physique modifications a bit with the season. Personally, I actually like that change. I believe it’s vital, and you’re feeling it in your bones as properly.”
Winter and summer time, like victory and defeat, are all a part of the cycle. The wheel retains turning.