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Ben O’Connor: From dejection to redemption at the Giro d’Italia

Young Australian battled back from a fallow 2019 burdened by pressure and expectation after a breakout sophomore season to score a vital stage win and secure a new contract.

Ben O’Connor put himself firmly back on the map at this year’s Giro d’Italia after a season lost in the wilderness.

The 24-year-old Australian started the race in Italy last month on the back of 18 months of disappointment and difficulty, with his future as a pro rider unknown. The young Aussie emerged three weeks later with a stage win, a solid 20th place on GC, and a new contract in his pocket.

“I was sick at the start of the Giro, which was far from the start I wanted,” O’Connor told VeloNews. “The pressure was really on to prove to a team that I was worth still being a pro rider. Otherwise, I’ll be back to Australia. It wasn’t a great feeling to be honest.”

With O’Connor looking like he’d be out of contract at the end of the season, and with his NTT Pro Cycling team scrambling for a new sponsor after Japanese tech company NTT confirmed it would be stepping aside in 2021, O’Connor’s three weeks in Italy was a race for his career.

He duly stepped up when he needed to most with an emotional stage win at Madonna di Campiglio, a ride that proved to himself and those around him that a breakout season in 2018 wasn’t a flash in the pan.

“This team really needed this win, I really needed this win, my family and my friends also, because there’s a lot of faith that people put in you,” he said after a tearful victory from a daylong breakaway. “When you’re second, you’re so close and it’s always that [snaps fingers] – you wish you could have done it.”

As if with a second click of the fingers, a handful of days later, O’Connor confirmed he had a one-season deal with Ag2r-Citroën for 2021, guaranteeing another year of living in Europe and racing in the WorldTour as NTT Pro Cycling continues to struggle in its hunt for funding.

O’Connor stepped back into the world’s eyesight with a triumphant three weeks in Italy. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Rewind two years, and Ben O’Connor was coming toward the end of a breakout sophomore season with Team Dimension Data. The 2018 season saw him taking a stage win and seventh overall behind the likes of Chris Froome, George Bennett, and Thibaut Pinot at Tour of the Alps before riding high at the Giro d’Italia, only to crash out of stage 19 having ridden himself to within touching distance of the top-10.

After that, O’Connor faded from new Australian hope to obscurity, failing to register in 2019 and through the start of 2020. The internal and external pressure to back-up a season that had marked him as a bright young light in the peloton carried weight.

“2019 was just so average – literally nothing worked,” O’Connor said on the phone in the week after the Giro. “Having stress played a huge role. From trying to lose weight, to how you perform the training, and then when you get to the race how you deal with it, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself.”

Perth-born O’Connor struggled to settle into European life having made the long flight from Down Under while also attempting to manage the 24/7 demands of being a WorldTour cyclist.

“I could I could not lose weight at all,” he said. “At the same time, I was having similar issues deciding if I was going to live here in Andorra, or Girona, somewhere else. I didn’t know many people and still didn’t have heaps of good friends. I was just in a difficult moment of being a bit lost.”

It all started to click back into place in 2020 as the affable Australian settled into life in Girona with his Australian girlfriend and made a home in the mecca for pro cyclists from around the globe.

Just as O’Connor was hitting his groove, officials from his team confirmed it was on the hunt for a new title sponsor. However, having long had contacts and interest from management at Ag2r-La Mondiale, the stars aligned. With the French outfit rebooting its roster for 2021 and parting ways with key stage-racers Romain Bardet and Pierre Latour, they were in need of new climbers.

O’Connor got the call.

“We had something in place a couple of days before the stage win,” O’Connor said. “They were keen, and that was quite nice to feel because this year’s been shit for so many good riders. So it was a relief for them to show the faith before I won the stage.”

Suitability lifted from expectation, O’Connor delivered by motoring clear of breakaway companion Hermann Pernsteiner to take the win atop the climb Madonna di Campiglio. It was a victory that paid thanks to both his current and future team.

“It was a double win, for Ag2r and for NTT,” he said. “It showed Ag2r I’m worth the contract, it was important with everything at NTT, and it proved to Doug [Ryder, NTT Pro Cycling boss] that all that effort he put into me wasn’t just a waste of time.”

No pressure with Ag2r-Citroën

Ben O'Connor won stage 17 of the 2020 Giro d'Italia
O’Connor won’t be burdened with GC expectations at his new team. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

While O’Connor has the chops to develop into a GC rider, his new French team won’t be asking him to be a new version of Bardet, at least, not just yet.

“I think GC can probably go out the window unless I prove consistency, or fall into it like Jai [Hindley] or Tao [Geoghegan Hart] have done,” he said, referring to the unlikely top-two at this year’s Giro d’Italia.

“There’s no stress, no pressure to fill Romain’s boots, because until you prove it then you can’t ask someone to do that. If I’m at my best, I can do something, but I’m not considering it now. I’m just enjoying this last race of being back to what I should be like. Just as a normal athlete, able to fight rather than follow.”

If O’Connor continues the momentum of his Giro stage-hunting success, he could well be Ag2r-Citroën’s new lead motor before he knows it.