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Volta a Catalunya stage 3: Ben O’Connor attacks to victory on key mountain stage to grab lead

Ag2r-Citroën climber jumps early in decisive mountain stage to fend off hard-chasing GC rivals in first win of 2022.

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Ben O’Connor kicked to victory Wednesday to win stage three of the Volta a Catalunya with a bold attack on the final climb.

The Ag2r-Citroën rider attacked near the bottom of the snowbound La Molina, and held off a peloton to take victory six seconds ahead of a sizable peloton led home by Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) in second and Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic) in third.

It is the Australian’s first win of the season, which was interrupted earlier this month when illness forced him to abandon Paris-Nice.

“It’s been a little bit hard this last month because I’ve been very sick,” said O’Connor at the finish. “So to come back now and win again is amazing. Every year I set myself a goal to win, and it’s nice to get it done early in the year. I’ve been very confident this week because I know that my form is there.”

He launched his attack 8.5km from the finish, countering a move from Henri Vandenabeele (DSM). There was no response from the other GC favorites, and soon after catching Vandenabeele, O’Connor soloed the final 7.3km to take victory.

“I didn’t expect to be solo. I was hoping some guys would come with me, but in the end I just had to go myself, and I was lucky to hang on,” he said.

Also read: Ben O’Connor soloes to mountain stage at 2021 Tour de France

The victory made it three in a row for Australia riders at the Spanish WorldTour race.

Heading into another mountain top finish tomorrow at Boi Taüll, he has a lead of 10 seconds ahead of Ayuso in second, 12 seconds on Quintana in third, and 16 seconds several other contenders, including Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe), Giulio Ciconne (Trek-Segafredo) and João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates)

“It’s another climb that suits me,” he said of Boi Taüll. “I think that I can hold my own on the big mountains. I just have to be smart tomorrow to follow who attacks. I don’t know what was happening behind me, but I think it’s up to other teams to make the race hard.”

Also read: How to watch Volta a Catalunya 

What was happening behind was a series of unsuccessful attacks from multiple riders, including Ayuso, Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost), Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) and Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates), causing a stop-start rhythm that allowed O’Connor to maintain a lead of 20 seconds for most of the climb.

Only during the steep final kilometer did his lead look in real danger as the riders in the peloton began to accelerate under the red kite, but O’Connor managed to hold on to win for the first time in 2022.

Simon Yates cannot follow as illness start to ravage bunch

The peloton raced under fair weather but riders continue to abandon due to health concerns. (Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images)

Most of the GC favorites finished in the peloton, but one notable absentee was Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco), wh fell out of the peloton 7km from the finish and ultimately lost more than 10 minutes.

Other favorites were also forced to abandon, as sickness continues to sweep through the peloton.

Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers) did not start the day, and Fabio Masnada (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) abandoned shortly after the start, then Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma) abandoned 68km into the stage after riding gingerly alongside the  medical car.

Also read: No podium sweep repeat at Ineos

Just minutes after Dumoulin’s abandonment, Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco) was caught on camera being sick having dropped out the back of the peloton, although he battled on in an attempt to finish.

Four riders who weren’t feeling compromised were Casper Pedersen (DSM), Simone Petilli (Intermatche-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux), Mikel Bizkarra (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Ander Okamika (Burgos-BH), who formed the day’s break after several attempts from other riders failed.

Okamika was first to the top of Mont-Louis (the first of the day’s three category one climbs) ahead of Bizkarra and Pedersen, and by the start of the next climb, Collada de Toses, their lead over the peloton was 3:45.

Okamika again took maximum points at the summit, meaning he became the new leader in the King of the Mountains classification.

Also read: Here’s your go-to guide for the Volta a Catalunya

Work from Movistar and Bora-Hansgrohe was enough to bring that gap down to just over two minutes by the top of the climb, but not quick enough to cause any splits in the peloton, which remained mostly intact.

Jumbo-Visma took control of the peloton on the descent, and set a fast enough pace to bring the break to within one minute by the foot of La Molina.

The break split up as soon as the final climb began, with Bizkarra proving to be the strongest of the four, but his Vandenabeele soon overtook him after launching his attack.

But all this was a mere phoney war ahead of the real thing, sparked by O’Connor’s stage-winning attack.

That he was able to maintain that lead all the way to the top suggests he’s in fine form, and will take some beating this week.

“It’s a tricky race, and always in Barcelona [for the final stage] it’s super-hard,” were O’Connor’s parting thoughts. “But I’ll do my best, and I’m confident I can hold the lead.”

Results will be available once stage has completed.

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