The Australian uses a rhetorical question to accurately sum up the magnitude of his decisive run in July, in such an exceptionally difficult Tour de France, finishing fourth overall is clearly a result that didn’t exactly land in his knees.When he was hired by AG2R Citroën in 2021, he says, he was not hired with this particular mission in mind.
As O’Connor told a small group of media, he was not hired as a GC rider in early 2021 by his new team, but rather to be “aggressive like I was at the Giro d’Italia. Italia in 2020 ”.
During the Tour, O’Connor not only delivered well beyond expectations, he also scored a spectacular solo stage victory at Tignes. He managed to bounce back from the disastrous first stage of AG2R, when he was one of seven of their eight riders to crash. In O’Connor’s case, very tough.
Caught in the mass pile-up 45 kilometers from the finish, O’Connor walked away with a deep injury to his right forearm that required ten stitches and a severely sagging shoulder. Despite a strong initial pessimism about his chances of continuing, he fought.
“I couldn’t move my arm. I couldn’t get up and move my shoulder. I thought my race was over, I was 100% sure I had broken my shoulder. It was a pretty horrible feeling, that day one of my first Tour de France, I was going to be DNF, ”he said.
“It would have been very sad after all my hope and the support of my friends and family. “
Luckily, a hospital check-up revealed he could keep going, and O’Connor, after hitting rock bottom, started to bounce back. His most notable progress was of course in the Alps where, in addition to the stage victory, he gained 27 places in two days, including his victorious breakaway of the 9th stage in Tignes, taking second place overall. Suddenly, that question about whether he would put in the money to finish fourth in Paris didn’t sound so rhetorical anymore.
“I had already fallen into this GC role earlier in my career in the Tour des Alpes [in 2018], telling me I had to be there. But I was too young and inconstant to finish it. So here, maybe it was believing in my abilities and facing the race rather than trying to hold on every day.
“I lost it in 2019, but then I regained my confidence in 2020 and started the season really well. But a series of unfortunate circumstances hit me last year. “
He doesn’t provide more details, simply saying “it’s hard to talk about” and that things were not working out well for him right before the pandemic started until the racing started to resume. “But,” he concludes, “you have to keep the faith and believe in what you are doing. “
Switched to AG2R this year, he was at the heart of this year’s Tour battle.
“It is by far the most difficult race I have ever done and will ever do,” he said. “Mentally it’s very exhausting, you have to stay alert, focused, really be careful not to make mistakes. The Tour is much more ruthless than the Giro or the Vuelta, it was painful.
“The Giro was bad in 2018 when I crashed, but it still hurts a lot and it’s mostly bodily injuries. Le Ventoux and yesterday in the time trial on the other hand was pretty horrible. For me in this Tour de France, managing it mentally was the biggest challenge.
“My mentality yesterday was to just never give up or crash. It’s the same today, then on top of that, be careful on the Champs-Elysées. And then there you go. “
As for comparing her victory for Madonna di Campiglio in the Giro d’Italia 2020 with that of Tignes this year, they were “completely different. By doing well in the Giro last year, I was very moved because people believed me. I felt like I was on the ropes. This victory on the Tour is just a shock, a joy, it’s incredible, more spectacular than the Giro.
“The stage was ridiculously difficult. KOM guys like Mike Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) were trading punches all the way. Each climb was like riding at the top of the GC group or the last day of the Dauphiné, I really felt it the following days, but it was worth it.
“Then the third week was pretty straightforward. I played it conservative and tried to hold out through Portet and Luz Ardiden when it was full. “
He is fortunate, he says, to be on a team like AG2R with a rich understanding of Grand Tour stage races and who is able to give him all the support he needs.
“They know how to work a little more on GC, the directors understand the pressure around it,” he argued. Fellow Cadel Evans, the former Tour winner, was also texting teammate Michael Schar to pass on advice.
Fourth can in no way be considered as “not finishing on the podium” for him. As he says “Would you have bet money on my fourth place in the Tour?” I do not think so. So it’s not a “waste” at all.
“The yellow jersey was far away, another level and another game. I hope that one day I can wear the yellow jersey, but I would have to progress as I did this year to get there. We never know. “
The Tour was clearly a big rollercoaster of an event, from the thought that he was going to have to leave the race on day one in fourth place with a stage win on day 21. His next goal, he said. , is simply to ‘take one hell of a break, drink some wine and enjoy being with my friends. I have run since the first French events, a big program, so I take about a month off. “
Contrary to rumors, the Vuelta a España is not in its current plans, with the Deutschland Tour and possibly Il Lombardia on the program. But there is no stress, he says, and whatever comes out of it will be the icing on a very big cake in the shape of the 2021 Tour de France.