O’Connor made a breakthrough at the 2018 Giro d’Italia, but it ended with a broken collarbone two days away from home and he then struggled for consistency, but now that has changed. His search for a contract in the midst of the pandemic led him to AG2R, where he landed on his feet and put together a series of performances that made this tour a very exciting proposition. To Ben. Hello from the Tour de France. It sounds special. It’s the top, I guess – like the FIFA World Cup, or the Australian Rules Grand Final at home. It is one of those great moments in life.
There is a certain personal satisfaction, but I also think of the people around me – my fiancee, my parents. People give up a lot so that you can get here, and if you do make it to this top it makes a lot of people proud, not just me. I think that’s one of the special things about being an athlete and being successful as an athlete.
It also has an impact in Australia. The general public does not really know bicycle races, but they do know the Tour de France. It certainly was for me. I was not from a family of bike freaks or a region of bike freaks. I grew up with football, my parents being British. Cycling was just as the Tour de France hit SBS late at night. Do I remember a lot? No. I think I remember looking at Lance, but that was it. We used to look at the pretty French landscapes – not the sprints or the climbs but the castles and the people on the side of the road. Even when Cadel won in 2011, you watched it, but it wasn’t crazy. I don’t remember being in the playground and someone shouting “Oh my god, Cadel won the Tour! “.
So I can’t say that I had a big childhood dream of doing the Tour, but I’m still thrilled to be here, though the enormity of it might not have me. quite achieved. I arrived in Brest on Wednesday evening after a long, crazy trip. I live in Andorra so my fiancee and I, with Jack Haig in the back, went to Barcelona to catch a flight to Paris, then across the top of France to Brest. We left at 1pm and didn’t come back until after 10pm. The problem was we were driving along the highway and got stuck behind some sort of group of amateur cyclists. It was super weird. They had a police escort and two tracking cars, but it was just a group ride, just guys on bikes. It was quite ironic, to say to yourself “well, in fact, we are trying to go to the Tour de France…! It was a bit of karma, I guess, for us, blocking all roads for everyone for the next three weeks.
I’m excited to go. Things have been going well for me lately. It’s fair to say I’ve had a bit of a weird career so far. I definitely blew hot and cold. There has always been an obstacle. There have been many times when I have shown that I am a strong rider, but there has always been a key in the works somewhere, be it an accident, illness or whatever. I’ve had a tough 18 months, but I know a lot of guys who’ve had a lot worse times, and it’s important to keep things in perspective. It’s not so much about managing my own expectations as it is about meeting the expectations I had of myself some time ago, which then brings relief, which then brings less stress. I’m not normally a very tense guy, but I think trying to stay less hectic has helped me a lot.
Part of the turnaround was the new team. I know what it might have been like – this strange Australian arriving in a France team for no reason – but it wasn’t like that at all. I have never been a stranger. They were always super nice – every one of them. Even the really French guys – I think of guys like Benoît Cosnefroy and Nans Peters – were super nice and went to great lengths with me.
I don’t speak much French and the management doesn’t really speak English, but I kinda like the fact that I had the chance to gradually learn how to get by. I can’t understand every word, but I can get the context, and with the requests and instructions, it’s pretty straightforward to understand. Some guys think it’s intimidating but I don’t agree. If you come here and only speak English, it’s pretty selfish. They have shown you respect and commitment, and you aren’t helping yourself if you don’t show the same in return.
I have a weakness for stereotypes. Maybe it’s because my parents are thugs and people have a stereotype of the Liverpool accent and all that. I know people have preconceived ideas about the French teams, but it’s so nice to have this openness and respect on both sides.
So what do I hope to gain from this Tour de France?
Goal number one: arrive in Paris. I really want to finish the race. To be honest, I have no doubt that I can do it, from a physical point of view. It’s just a matter of avoiding disaster, and if disaster strikes, keep doing your best.
Goal number two: try this GC thing. I think I am strong enough to do it. I know I’m not Geraint Thomas or Primož Roglič, I’m not trying to win the Tour de France, but I can be up there or around. I don’t dwell on it too much, and I certainly don’t give any numbers on anything, but I want to do my best overall.
There is a plan C: steps. There are always stages. If something goes wrong the first week, there are still two weeks left, and I know I’m in shape to win mountain breakaways.
While waiting to start, I can’t help but think of my Grand Tour debut at the Giro three years ago, when I crashed two days from the end. I still see it as this huge missed opportunity. I’ve always regretted not having this result on the charts – maybe last year would have been less stressful to find a team, for example.
But I don’t want to see it as a regret. I’m really happy with the way things are going right now, so I can honestly say I wouldn’t change much. Now let’s take a tour of the Tour de France.