When he first joined AG2R Citroën Team, Ben O’Connor had a one-year contract. He finished fourth in his Tour de France debut last July… and he now knows he’ll be with the French team through to the end of 2024 – and he’s the main GC hope.
A video interview by Rob Arnold
The AG2R Citroën Team has enjoyed considerable success in recent years, with riders finishing second in the Tour de France on two occasions, and there have been plenty of other conquests along the way. Still, when Ben O’Connor took the leader’s jersey in the recent Volta a Catalunya, it was the first time the French team had led a WorldTour stage race since March 2014.
“That was a long time ago, as you probably remember,” O’Connor says of the victory in Paris-Nice by Carlos Betancur.
A lot has changed in the eight years since. Betancur retired from racing at the end of 2020. And the team’s two TDF runners-up – Jean-Christophe Péraud (2014) and Romain Bardet (2016) – have moved on… the former MTB racer has retired while Bardet is in his second season at Team DSM.
There have been significant changes since Bardet’s departure at the end of 2020. After years of chasing GC in Le Tour, the idea was to shift focus and rebuild for the Classics with the arrival of riders like Greg Van Avermaet at the start of 2021.
AG2R also picked up O’Connor, a climber of repute who had won a late mountain stage of the Giro d’Italia and hinted at having ambitions to be a GC rider. When he first signed on with the French team it was a one-year deal, a toe-in-the-water to see how the West Australian would cope in a different environment.
As it happened, he prospered. Despite a significant setback in stage one of his first Tour de France, a crash that earned him 10 stitches to mend a wound on his forearm, he bounced back in fine style. He won stage nine on a day of miserable weather and jumped up to second on GC.
You know the rest of the story. He finished his fifth Grand Tour in fourth place on GC… and AG2R duly extended his contract to the end of 2024.
At the age of 25, he was growing in confidence and even outlined his ambitions during discussions with the team.
“I asked to try and be a GC racer,” he says during another long YouTube interview with RIDE Media. “I could have just stayed as an opportunistic breakaway kind of guy, but I dream of being able to do this in bike races and actually win the whole race rather than just the little stories that are part of the race.”
The stage win at La Molina, and the chance to wear a WorldTour leader’s jersey at the Volta a Catalunya, was another step in a career that continues to flourish.
“It was good,” he says of the experience. “I was super happy with how it went but I was a little bit disappointed by how the Boí Taüll went, the final big mountain stage – where I had the [leader’s] jersey and then I lost it on the climb.
“I think I made a bit of a mistake, and it also wasn’t my best day, so I was a little disappointed but it was the first time I was in that position.”
He took the setback in his stride and rounded out the seven-stage Volta in sixth place overall.
“I think it’s good for the team, to know that it’s like a step which we can do,” O’Connor explains of the one day stint as GC leader. “The boys took it on really well and, after the race, they were really proud and they actually just wanted to do it again because it gave them such a clear objective, rather than racing for breakaways or opportunities.
“I think it shows maybe another direction which the team can head in again maybe in the future, if I cannot blow it again.”
He can now laugh at the memory of the bad “one and a half kilometres” on Boí Taüll, not because he’s being smug, rather because it happened and there’s nothing he can now do about it. Instead, it seems, his policy is to use it as a lesson, an experience, and do better next time he’s in a leadership position.
What has become clear over the 16 months he has so far spent at AG2R Citroën Team is that the management understands what a talented rider O’Connor is. Making him an even greater asset is his affable personality and relaxed leadership style, but don’t be fooled: there’s a lot of ambition hidden behind the coy smile and happy-go-lucky façade.
“It was a nice step for the team and also for me,” he says of the Catalunya experience. “It kind of shows where I can be in these stage races now.”
Between now and 1 July there are another couple of stage races on his program – the Tour de Romandie at the end of April, and the Critérium du Dauphiné near his team’s HQ in the Savoie in June.
He admits that time trials are a bit of a weakness and that showed in Romandie last year when he dropped from a podium position to sixth on GC after the TT of the final stage. But that too was a lesson for a rider who seems to enjoy the learning experiences he’s had as a young, well-supported GC racer.
“Eventually there’ll be a ceiling,” he says, “where I can’t improve any more but I know – or at least I feel, personally – that there is always a ceiling that’s been rising. There’s always been: ‘This next bit, I can try and grab…’ So, I’ll also be really interested to see how much further it can keep developing and improving.”
– By Rob Arnold
– Watch the full interview on RIDE Media’s YouTube channel to learn more about Ben O’Connor. –