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Critérium du Dauphiné: Can Ben O’Connor keep climbing up the ranks?

The AG2R-Citroën rider targets podium at the Critérium du Dauphiné and confirmation at the Tour de France that last year was no fluke.

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Ben O’Connor was one of the revelations of 2021, with a stage win and a fourth overall at the Tour de France that shot him to prominence.

The challenge in the coming weeks is to confirm that his breakthrough season last year was no fluke.

The Australian lines up Sunday with AG2R-Citroën at the Critérium du Dauphiné with nothing to prove and everything to gain.

“I used to hope to become a general classification rider. Now I am a general classification rider,” O’Connor said. “I’m just maturing, I’m still developing physically and my level is rising naturally. I am 26 years old and the years of hard work are starting to pay off. My body is adapting to the demands of these races and is responding better and better to very ambitious goals. I am also becoming more confident.”

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The eight-stage Dauphiné will be an opportunity for O’Connor not only to position himself for the Tour, but to chase some short-term gains.

The lumpy profile with heavy climbing and a time trial offers many opportunities in the final tuneup before the Tour in July.

O’Connor is shooting for nothing less than overall victory.

“The time has come to go for a podium in a major WorldTour event,” he said. “It would be my first and I know that it is now possible for me to win these types of races. I have some ideas in mind but, for example, I am not sure that it is necessary to push on the Sancy on stage 3. Clearly, it is a challenge but the last climb is not steep enough to make a big difference.

“On the other hand, the time trial will be crucial,” he said. “I haven’t done many this year and I am eager to see where I stand in this respect. I believe that the days when climbers were inevitably bad on flat roads are over. I can also do well in time trials.”

O’Connor is already proving that 2021 was no fluke.

So far in 2022, in he’s won twice — a stage at the Volta a Catalunya and the one-day Tour du Jura — and hit fifth overall at the Tour de Romandie in May.

The Australian is hoping to use his successes from last year’s Tour to build across the Dauphiné and ride into his second start at the Tour with even higher ambitions.

The recent Giro victory from fellow Perth resident Jai Hindley is only raising expectations.

“My Tour adventure last year was extraordinary and I couldn’t even begin to imagine what happened. To win a stage and finish fourth overall in Paris is something huge. And I did it!

“But of course, you always want to do better. That’s why you become an athlete and why you have to invest so much in this job,” he said. “So I have changed my view compared to last year and I feel capable of aiming for the top this summer.

“It was also encouraging to see my friend Jai Hindley win the Giro. He is also from Perth and we have known each other for a long time. When I saw him win, I told myself I too can do it.”