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Vuelta a Espana

Vuelta a España: Ben O’Connor ‘pretty keen’ for first summit finish

Australian relishing chance to test form on final climb.

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Ben O’Connor was in upbeat form at the start of stage 6 in Bilbao on Thursday, appearing to be raring to go on a stage that will conclude atop the race’s first big summit finish.

The Australian is one of the key riders to watch in this year’s Vuelta a España. Having taken fourth at the 2021 Tour de France and won stages in both that race and the 2020 Giro d’Italia, he has already proven his ability in the biggest races.

“Today’s going to be good, hopefully. I’m pretty keen for it,” he said. “I think it is an interesting mountain. I don’t really know how selective it will be at the end, but it is definitely hard enough.”

O’Connor left this year’s Tour de France due to injury and, having also recovered from post-race COVID-19, has refocused his season on being good at the Vuelta a España.

“Yeah, a little bit,” he said when asked if he was heading into the unknown with a summit finish. “But you already saw from a couple of days who is kind of moving well enough. In the end you just look at who is at the front of the race [laughs], and then you do your best and you see if there is a chance for yourself or not.”

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The 26-year-old will want a strong showing, both for his morale and also to move up the general classification. He lost time on the opening day’s team time trial, with his AG2R-Citroën team finishing back in 13th place. And while he has remained with the other general classification contenders since then, he is already 1:08 behind the best-placed of those GC rivals, Primož Roglič.

The latter willingly gave up the red jersey yesterday, his Jumbo-Visma team allowing the break to stay clear to the finish. As a result, Roglič slipped to fifth, 4:09 behind the new leader Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ).

It’s a big time buffer for the Frenchman but given the difficulty of the finishing climb, O’Connor was asked if Roglič or another of the big guns could be in red on Thursday evening.

“I would be surprised if Rudy loses that much time, but maybe,” he said. “It depends on how it is. Maybe Ineos, they have a lot of different cards. But I don’t really know who is actually going for them. It is a little bit complicated, I guess, from that end.

“Pavel [Sivakov] looked pretty good the other day, to be honest. For my own eyes he looked a little bit stronger than [Richard] Carapaz, but we will find out later this afternoon.”

The stage will indeed tell a lot about who is where in terms of form. Still, there is another question mark about the day. That is, will the first-ever use of the day’s Ascensión al Pico Jano climb catch any riders out?

O’Connor hasn’t seen it before, and he says he isn’t alone in that. But he doesn’t feel a reconnaissance was necessarily vital, either.

“What do I know [about it]? Nothing. I doubt anyone has really ridden it, bar one or two Spanish riders,” he said. “It is the same as any other mountain, it is still eight percent for a couple of kilometers, then seven percent at the finish. It doesn’t really change where it is, it is always going to be the same.”

Form is what matters in this first big showdown in the race.