Cycling

ROOKIE AUSSIE ROCKETS TO TOUR GLORY

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WINNING a stage – especially in the mountains – on your first Tour de France is a young cyclists’ dream, and it’s happened for a new Australian star, writes JOHN TREVORROW.

BEN O’Connor took the biggest win of his short career at the stage 9 summit finish in Tignes becoming the first West Australian to win an individual stage in the Tour de France.

“It’s mind-blowing,” O’Connor said. “It’s what you dream of – it’s so fulfilling and there’s so much joy. I’ve managed to control myself now – compared to when I crossed the line.

It was a brilliant performance by any measure, more so given his limited experience and the challenging circumstances. O’Connor, 25,  riding his first Tour de France, was involved in a massive crash on day one requiring 10 stitches in his arm. The Australian now jumps up to second overall, 2:01 down on Tadej Pogačar, with all the other contenders more than five minutes in arrears.

For a Tour rookie, this is amazing territory. 

It was during last year’s Giro d’Italia that O’Connor really came onto the radar of other teams. His South African Dimension Data squad looked like folding at the end of the year and his chances of getting a new contract in a very tight market were pretty low. Then he put up two very impressive performances running second in a tough stage 16 and then following it up the very next day with a brilliant win. French team AG2R threw out a lifeline, a basic one-year contract. This year he has been so impressive the team extended his deal by three years just before the Tour

“I’m just loving every single moment. I’m so happy for my team AG2R-Citroën, they’ve had so much faith in me this year. It’s been so clear how much happiness it’s brought to me and the team, and now also a win. It’s special,” O’Connor said.

“I actually wasn’t meant to be in the break – but there was a big group and I just crossed to it and was just waiting. I didn’t really know what to do, I didn’t know if I should play cool but when I heard we had three minutes, four minutes, five minutes – it’s a great opportunity both to gain time on the GC and then I knew on a long day like this I could always win at the end. 

“I was blowing pretty hard on Tignes. It was a mad stage. Conditions were atrocious – maybe I should be descending a little better next time – that would have saved a lot of energy,” he joked.

O’Connor was referring to the time he lost on the penultimate descent when he dropped behind Colombian duo Sergio Higuita (EF Education-Nippo) and new mountains classification leader Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic). But he soon caught them as they approached the final 21 km climb to the ski resort of Tignes. Quintana has won the Giro and the Vuelta and finished on the podium three times in the Tour and young Higuata, the current Colombian champion, has won a stage in the Vuelta. But it was super impressive the way O’Connor went straight to the front of these renowned climbers and put them to the sword. O’Connor is 1.88 cm and weighs in at 67 kgs while both the Colombians would be at least 10 kg lighter.

“I was actually scared that Tadej was going to explode from behind and chase me down when the road got hard. But I heard the time gaps and I knew for a long time that if I stayed steady and didn’t cramp, I could win the stage,” he said. 

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“I had faith the whole time and it was just about making sure I didn’t panic. Because as soon as you think ‘I’m going to win a stage in the Tour de France’ all sorts of things happen to your mind, your lungs, your heart. It’ll make your heart stop – it definitely made my heart stop just before.

“It’s always a dream. Just to be here in the first place is already the first dream. To achieve this today – it’s a testament to everyone who’s put faith in me over the years, my fiancé, my parents, my best mates back in Australian, my friends in Andorra and Girona, it’s been a wild ride.”

Stage 8 saw Belgian Dylan Teuns (Bahrain Victorious) take the flowers as the sole survivor of the breakaway but it was Pogacar that delivered a devastating blow to all the overall contenders riding clear from his rivals with more than 30 kms to travel. He gained more than four minutes on all of the serious challengers and unless something drastic happens to the young Slovenian they will all be looking at the lower steps of the podium. 

The battle for the maillot verte, the green jersey is getting very interesting. Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck Quickstep) has impressed by making the time cut comfortably in both Alpine stages although Aussie Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange) and Italian Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) have closed the gap considerably with the Italian champion putting up one of the great performances for a sprinter to take third in the stage 9 mountain finish. Cavendish now leads Matthews by 38 points with Colbrelli nine points further back.

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Author: John Trevorrow

JOHN TREVORROW is a multiple Australian champion road racer and Olympian who has been doing media commentary at the Tour de France for more than 20 years.

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