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Tour de France

Ben O’Connor out of Tour de France as Vuelta a España becomes new focus

Crash injuries prove too much for Australian to continue

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Ben O’Connor finished an unexpected fourth overall in last year’s Tour de France, but his goal of improving on that won’t happen this year.

Already licking his wounds as a result of crashes on stage 2 and stage 8, O’Connor and his Ag2r Citroën team have decided that he won’t continue in this year’s race.

“Since his crash, Ben has suffered,” said the team’s doctor Dr. Serge Niamke in a release on Monday. “The vibrations during the cobblestone stage did not facilitate his recovery and his second crash on Saturday during the eighth stage further aggravated the pain.”

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O’Connor suffered a muscular lesion of the right gluteus medius in his stage 2 crash, an injury that has given him considerable issues since then.

He tried to press on and initially had hoped to still be a factor in the general classification, but has shed time since then. The Australian was 23 minutes and 12 seconds back overall at the end of Saturday’s stage; 24 hours later his deficit had grown to almost 50 minutes after another demoralizing day in the saddle.

“These very chronic sharp pains that I get make it pretty impossible for me to continue,” he explained on Monday.

“I have been fighting this glute injury for a couple of days, but it got even worse yesterday. So … I think it was the stage to Lausanne. I pulled my glute muscle so I am more or less riding with one leg. These very chronic sharp pains that I get make it pretty impossible for me to continue the race.”

The regret of O’Connor’s withdrawal is compounded by his own pre-race expectations. His effervescent performance in last year’s Tour was followed by a number of strong performances this year, culminating in a powerful final two days in the Critérium du Dauphiné which saw him end that race third overall.

He started the Tour convinced he could improve on his 2021 result; instead he’s leaving the race before the halfway point.

“I’m obviously upset. It’s the Tour de France, it’s the biggest race of the year,” the 26-year-old said. “It’s the race that we all aim for, it’s the one that we prepare all year, and we clearly came here with big objectives.

“I hope I have taken all the bad luck with me, and they can fight and bring some more success because we have such a good crew here.”

His withdrawal is a disappointment for the team too, not least because Ag2r Citroën is a French squad with French sponsors which is always fired up to perform in the home grand tour.

Setting an important new goal

General manager Vincent Lavenu was on an emotional high last year, believing that in the Australian he had a serious GC contender. He too is very disappointed at O’Conner’s bad luck this time around.

“Given Ben’s physical condition, it was obvious that he should not start the next stage in order to preserve his physical integrity,” Lavenu said. “We felt that he has been chasing the last few days for the team, driven by the desire not to disappoint us.

“The fact that we felt that he should stop and rebuild himself physically and mentally, relieved him. He will be able to approach the second part of the season calmly with the Vuelta a Espana as his objective.”

O’Connor agrees with this goal, saying that the Spanish grand tour has already moved into his focus. “Our heads turn pretty quickly to La Vuelta,” he said. “I hope there I can fulfill the role that I dreamt of here at the Tour de France, but actually this time in La Vuelta.”

He can take encouragement from seeing his teammate Bob Jungels triumph on Sunday. Jungels has had years in the wilderness, winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège with an impressive solo move in 2018 but being held back since then by issues which turned out to be iliac artery endofibrosis.

Jungels had surgery last year and finally, in this year’s Tour, has returned to his old level.

Barring unforeseen complications, O’Connor should be back up to full speed sooner than it took Jungels. Still, he’s got a real life example of how things can turn around and why it is important to keep the faith.

“On Sunday, I was so happy for Bob. It was complicated for me. But to see him win after so many problems going on for him, it was absolutely beautiful,” he said. “It really put a massive smile on my face. When I was back in the grupetto with Oli, we were just shocked and happy.”

O’Connor will use that motivation to carry him forward from this point. Leaving the Tour is hard, but being back to his best in the Vuelta would help soften the blow.