Ben O’Connor finished fifth on GC in his second race with the AG2R Citroën Team. RIDE Media caught up with him on the Monday after Tour du Var…
– Click the link below to watch RIDE’s interview with Ben O’Connor –
The official race title changed in 2021. What had previously been the Tour du Haut Var has become the Tour des Alpes-Maritime et du Var. Whatever title it goes by, it has never really been a headline event of the early season. These days, any professional bike race that does actually get contested seems to have a line-up stacked with talent.
“It’s just the way the racing is,” says Ben O’Connor about why the pace was so intense for the three-day French race which finished on Sunday.
“It was pretty demanding,” was O’Connor’s summary of the final stage, when he finished third behind overall winner Gianluca Brambilla and Giro d’Italia champion Tao Geoghegan Hart.
“It was probably one of those days that could have been in a Grand Tour, easily.”
With three category-one climbs over the 136km course on Sunday, it was a good chance for riders to get a gauge of their form. For O’Connor the post-race synopsis is quite simple: “It was nice,” he says, “early in the season, to be there or thereabouts with the top guys.”
There were some big names of pro cycling on the list of 117 finishers, including four Grand Tour winners and some of the stars of the Classics season. In 2021, his fifth year in the WorldTour, O’Connor has the confidence to race as a team leader and take on the best in the world.
“It’s like the perfect preparation to kick yourself into a bit of form.”
That’s exactly what he did. He’s going well and has put the woes of a silly crash on his mountain bike (and a subsequent collarbone fracture) late in November behind him.
With confidence, fitness and a bit more experience in the pro peloton, O’Connor is setting himself up for an exciting season of discovery.
In 2020, the last of his four years with the South African-registered NTT Pro Cycling Team, he won the 17th stage of the Giro d’Italia and started to make people notice his abilities.
In 2021, he expects to make his Tour de France debut so he could be forgiven if he was a little more subdued in the Tour du Var in February. But, he says, there was no hint of it being a ‘training race’. It was fast and hectic and, ultimately, rewarding for the 25-year-old from Western Australia.
Fifth on GC, the best-placed of his AG2R-Citroën team, is a solid result and it’s easy to understand why he spoke with a cheeky grin of satisfaction during our video interview the morning after the race.
He was in Girona for a day, to collect his car and his fiancée. The next day they were going to the mountains of Andorra where he will continue fine-tuning his form. The next main objective is Paris-Nice and then the steady build-up to what should be his Tour debut at the end of June.
Adaptation to the French team
Fifth on GC in the south of France is a good way to start with his new French outfit. The team swap has been a long time coming and he’s enjoying the changes. Along with the cool new kit, there’s also a new attitude, new culture and new language to adapt to, and he’s happy to have made the move.
“We had our training camp in January, and that was the first time I met most of the guys.
“The team is transitioning to be a little bit more international. There are more English speakers [this year], but the staff don’t really speak English.
“But the point of moving to AG2R Citroën isn’t for it to be easy.
“You can stay in the same circles for your whole career,” he says, before explaining how he enjoys the fresh challenges. “I think it’s really cool to be able to branch out, to meet new people, have a new culture – [and] a different way of organising how you go about races, as well. But it’s still the same mentality when you get to a race.
“The first couple of races I’ve really enjoyed the… pas stress,” he says, slipping in one word of French. “There’s been a lot less stress compared to the years before actually.”
Less pressure, perhaps, but more responsibility. At least that’s how it was over the weekend when he was nominated as the team’s GC leader for Tour du Var. He’s adapting well and is pleased to get a chance to work with a different cast of riders and staff.
“I haven’t got to race with everyone yet but guys like Benoît Cosnefroy is a super-nice guy. And, even if their English is not perfect, you can still communicate. My French is not great at all, but it takes time…”
He’s learning the language and is happy to get to mix with other ‘foreign’ riders like the Belgian pairing of Oliver Naesen and Greg Van Avermaet, Classics specialists who are fine-tuning form for the big few months ahead.
“The chance to work with some of these guys – Ollie and Greg, as well – has been a pleasure and the staff have been extremely kind.
“I’ve enjoyed my first couple of months and I’m really keen for it to continue.”
Quest for 2021: Tour de France debut
When you watch the interview, you can see O’Connor’s eyes light up at the mention of what might happen late in June, if all goes to plan. The prospect of riding the Tour de France has him buzzing with excitement.
Before he gets to talk about Le Tour though, he explains the unfortunate MTB accident and the collarbone break (and, soon afterwards, the sale of his mountain bike). But if everything goes how the team would like it to in 2021, AG2R Citroën’s only Aussie recruit will tick off an item that’s high on his to-do list: ‘race the Tour’.
“It is the pinnacle,” he says. “Most people don’t really know anything about Liège, or Romandie, or Tour de Suisse… it’s only the Tour.
“It’s one of those things, when you are a professional cyclist and you want to say, ‘I got to race the Tour.’
“It’s just one of those cool stories for when you think about it later. And if you win something there, then it’s even more amazing.”
O’Connor, a candidate for the Olympic team?
During the discussion, O’Connor mentions Greg Van Avermaet a couple of times and it’s clear that there’s admiration and respect for the 2016 Olympic road race champion. The repeat references to the Belgian prompt me to ask about the delayed Tokyo Games, and if his strengths could suit what is expected to be an extremely challenging road race circuit in Japan.
Do you put yourself in that selection category or not? “Hopefully,” he replies, quickly adding, “but still the aim is: first, the Tour.
“If there’s an opportunity,” he says about the possibility of Olympic selection, “then I would always take that. And my main aim is never going to be the Olympics.”
Huh? A professional athlete in 2021 stating that there are other events he’d rather contest than the Olympics? Yep. And his logic doesn’t include any reference to the pandemic.
O’Connor doesn’t mention COVID-19 when talking about Tokyo 2021, rather he explains how he sees the Games, in the context of his career as a pro cyclist. “I dreamt [about] the Olympics – for being an athlete – as a runner,” he says. “It feels like cheating if you’re going there as a bike rider because it’s just not legitimate.”
Maybe other riders think this way, but few actually say it. Still, Ben makes it clear that the Tour is more important to him than the Olympics. He is, after all, a pro cyclist.
“I don’t know,” he says, searching for a way to explain himself properly, “it seems a bit silly to me. Not silly, but it seems funny.
“I always assumed going to the Olympics would be as a runner or as a track and field athlete. The pinnacle is there. That’s the epitome of the Olympics. The cycling thing is super-important, for sure, but it’s not… it doesn’t have the same magnitude as what the athletics does. Or the swimming, or the gymnastics.”
I understand the sentiment. And it’s refreshing to hear someone be candid when it would probably be more prudent to play the politically correct game and gush about the Games and the glory and the usual sporting hyperbole… but not Ben. He’s dreaming of the Tour for now and anything other than that would be a bonus.
“If I have the chance to go to Tokyo,” he says, “I’d love to take it but it’s up to the Aussie team. They can decide that later.”
He thinks about it, wonders if he’s said the right thing and then concludes with a statement aimed at the selectors. “I hope that they would recognise some of the things I’ve done recently but if not then, yeah, so be it.”
– By Rob Arnold
– Click the link at the top of the page to see the full interview. –