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Vuelta a Espana

Vuelta a España: Ben O’Connor ‘saved’ bad day on first summit finish

AG2R-Citroën loses two riders after Jaakko Hanninen and Andrea Vendrame test positive for COVID-19.

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Ben O’Connor (AG2R-Citroën) is still feeling pretty hopeful about his general classification hopes at the Vuelta a España, despite losing time on the first summit finish.

The Australian punctured over the penultimate climb and was forced to chase back on before the final ascent of the Pico Jano. He was in the group of favorites when Remco Evenepoel surged clear and dropped all but Enric Mas and rolled in with Primož Roglič and others at 1:23 behind the Belgian.

O’Connor believes that the way the day was ridden played perfectly into Evenepoel’s hands. There will be plenty more climbing to come for the peloton over the next two-and-a-bit there will be opportunities to make that time back up.

“It was pretty grim. I had probably the worst-timed puncture you can imagine, so I had to do a lot of work beforehand [the climb]. I felt pretty good, but then obviously I didn’t feel very good quite soon after. But I managed to save a bad day, more or less,” O’Connor said.

“Primož obviously didn’t have a good one. Neither did Sepp Kuss. Neither did a lot of boys, I think. I think it suited Remco really perfectly because it wasn’t super hard all day and then it was very explosive, and he could do his thing. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the race goes, but it is the first mountain-top finish. I think that really doesn’t mean too much in the big scheme of things.”

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While O’Connor is still fairly open-minded about his prospects, despite losing time on the Pico Jano, his team has taken a big hit overnight with two of its riders leaving the race after testing positive for COVID-19.

Jaakko Hanninen and Andrea Vendrame returned positive tests following a regular antigen test, which the team has been performing every three days. They are the third and fourth riders to test positive and withdraw from the race, following the positive tests of Daan Hoole (Trek-Segafredo) on Wednesday and Jan Hirt (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) on Thursday.

It means that O’Connor has just five riders around to support him.

“It’s a pain in the arse is what it is. I wouldn’t say the boys are very sick but they are not really allowed to start, to continue racing. It kind of sucks, and it is really frustrating. It puts a team down when we really didn’t need that,” O’Connor said.

“In the Tour de France, our team had six positives, which is just a bit of a joke. But what else can you do? There is nothing you can do about it, really, to be honest. You just have to hope that you either don’t test positive when we are testing or you just avoid it. There is just no real answer to it. You just focus on today, tomorrow, the day after, and that’s about it.”