After cancer, a young rider finds his way back in Utah

Two years on from cancer, Bontrager's O'Leary takes control of the best Utah rider's jersey on day one of the tour

OGDEN, Utah (VN) — Connor O’Leary joked with his U.S. National teammates that he had cancer. It was 2010. He was racing bikes in Europe with the under-23 U.S. team, was tired, and noticed a bump on his testicle. Must be cancer.

“I was kind of joking with the guys,” he told VeloNews Tuesday. “We didn’t know how serious it was. But then I got home, and decided I better get it checked out.” As it turns out, O’Leary, now 21 and riding for Bontrager-Livestrong, actually had cancer.

“It was the day before I was supposed to leave for nationals. I went from going to nationals to seeing doctors, figuring out surgeries and chemotherapy and that type of stuff,” he said.

He soldiered through a six-month chemotherapy regime, and underwent a round of surgeries. Two weeks prior to the planned end of his treatment, he suffered blood clots in his heart and lungs.

He tried to spin through the early bouts with chemo. “But then it took me down,” he said. After six months off his bike completely, he began training again in 2011. O’Leary, who grew up in the Salt Lake area, would Nordic ski to build his upper body strength, and he eventually started racing again. But it was a far cry from the peloton he was used to. This is a rider who, at 14 and in his first race, competed in a national event in Park City, and stood on the podium.

No such luck here.

“It was a local race and I got dropped in 15 minutes,” O’Leary said. “It was tough. It just tore me down. To go from racing in Europe to not even being able to finish a race. I was mentally frustrated, but I decided that I’d work hard at it and get back into it.”

On Tuesday, he finished 61st in the opening stage of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, a little ways north of his home in Salt Lake City, and is now the best-placed Utah rider in the race, earning him a blue jersey. The irony of riding for a team that supports the fight against cancer isn’t lost on him. And It’s fitting he’s racing in Utah.

After his diagnosis, he came to this race and watched the prologue shove off.

“I went and watched the prologue, and was wishing and wanting to be there,” he said.

And now, he’s here. “It’s fun to be at your home race and race the roads you’ve been riding your whole life,” he said.

There are only four riders vying for the best Utah rider. But that’s no matter for O’Leary. “A jersey is a jersey,” he said.