Ben O'Connor | Into Deep Water
It’s Stage 19 of the 2018 Giro d’Italia, and, one of Cycling's most dramatic days in the last decade is playing out. On the Colle delle Finestre, the Giro’s highest point, Team Sky are setting a furious pace in an attempt for their leader Chris Froome to take back the three minutes he’s lost over the first 18 days.
As the race snakes its way up the hellish gravel climb, there are enormous time gaps opening up between groups. The best rider in the race until this point, Simon Yates, loses nearly 15 minutes on this climb.
In the third group on the road is Ben O’Connor, a 22-year-old hailing from West Australia, who’s riding his first three-week Grand Tour. 12th overall at the beginning of the stage, O'Connor had been outperforming several seasoned veterans and was on another good day today.
But on the descent from Sestriere, the day’s second-to-last climb, O’Connor runs wide on a descent and hits a gravel section. He falls hard, and breaks his collarbone.
Predicting Ben O’Connor to be fighting at the forefront of the Giro d’Italia would have been brave a few months beforehand. This was only his second season at the World Tour level. His only prior wins had been a stage in the Tour Of Austria and the GC at the New Zealand Cycle Classic.
A win during the Tour Of The Alps, the main Giro tune-up race, was a sign of things to come. The Alpine tour is held in mid-April, three weeks before the Giro starts. O’Connor came into the race with low expectations; a second-year pro, his role had initially been to support his teammate on Team Dimension Data, Louis Meintjes.
“Ok we’re supporting Louis, and I’ll be with him on the final mountains. Maybe if one of those cheeky late moves go, I can be part of it… It was a surprise to be good there; I remember going in and being super unsure.”
Having been placed 15th overall at the start of Stage 3, O’Connor was at the front of the race all day, breaking away with Thibaut Pinot and Domenico Pozzovivo. That group was caught on the final descent, but on the flat section to the finish line, O’Connor rolled the dice with 7km to go and broke away.
It turns out his team had been noticing O’Connor’s progression too, much to his surprise.
“I remember Alex [Alex Sans Vega, one of the team Directeur Sportifs] telling me ‘This race, I really think you can win a stage’… I kind of half-believed him. It was the first big race where someone had said you can really do well, so you don’t really believe it.”
The move to win that stage was fearless; an all-or-nothing gamble, which paid off. It showed he wasn’t out of his depth in this race, surrounded by the sport's elite. Or as he puts it, he was just doing what he needs to do to win.
“I can’t sprint! If I’m ever going to win, it has to be a longer-range move. I know it’s well liked if you do that, and people call you brave, ‘oh, you had the balls to try’. But that’s the only way I can try, or I’m never going to win a stage.”
It was more of the same heading into the Giro. O’Connor's role had been a) supporting Meintjes, and b) fact-finding; how would he respond to a Grand Tour? Any result, any elite showing, was going to be a bonus.
“You think ‘oh maybe I can give it a go’ but it’s the Giro! Like fuck. You’re not going to be good in the Giro after three weeks, the first time you’ve done a Grand Tour, you just won’t be. Maybe I could get in a break one day, and try to pull something off. But it’s always ‘maybe, maybe’.”
It can’t be underestimated how big an achievement it is to be riding with the elite group at a Grand Tour in your first attempt. In the final standings of this year’s race, you get down to Fausto Masnada in 26th place before you find another rider in their first Grand Tour. These are not races for young men; they’re predicated on experience, on endurance and strength accumulated by years as a pro. That's what made O’Connor’s performance incredible, and surreal.
Stage 6, finishing atop Mt Etna, was the first major shakedown of the race’s GC contenders. Who's good? Who's here to play? Ben O’Connor. Asked what his first big wow-moment of the Giro was, he answers almost immediately.
“Etna. Etna; for sure. It’s a big climb; it’s a long climb. You get to lava fields, with like 8km to go, and you look back, feeling ok. But there are only like 15 guys left in that front group. That was probably the first big moment, and then you see Dumoulin attack… Holey Moley, I’m actually like… here. Well, here-ish.”
It was a race made by those moments; those penny drop realisations that’s he’s here at the hardest race in the world and climbing with the best.
“The next one was on Gran Sasso when Froomey was getting dropped. Like what? How? It’s kind of hard to comprehend when you’re just grappling on the end of the group, and next minute he’s not there. They’re those kinds of moments where it sinks in", he says.
"With the Tifosi on the side of the road and massive banks of snow; they’re all like little dreams that when you go to sleep you think about. For it all to actually happen, it’s just on another level.”
Few climbs in cycling typify madness like the Monte Zoncolan. The 10.1km kilometer climb averages a leg breaking 11.9%, making it one of the hardest climbs in cycling. With its cauldron-like atmosphere thanks to the fans that pack the roadside, it’s the centerpiece of any Giro it features in and features prominently in the rider’s minds.
“The Zoncolan is mythic; everything is kind of put on it, and your mind always drifts to it. That was probably the only day I felt, super crazy nervous. Every other day is kind of day-by-day… I exceeded what I thought was possible, so every day I wasn’t stressed, I was like ‘wow’.”
The Zoncolan was one of several surreal moments for a first-timer still adjusting to the idea this was all happening. This year’s race started in Israel, a highly controversial decision from RCS, the organizing body of the Giro. Between that, the cloud surrounding winner Chris Froome, regarding his adverse analytical finding; it was quite the introduction for anyone riding their first Giro.
The 2018 Giro was a quick Giro too; relentless in pace, thanks to a large field of contenders fighting for the overall win, and a peloton more than happy to race full gas, especially if they caught a big favourite on a bad day.
“It was just obscene. I’ve never been to a race where it was just on for so long. I thought Grand Tours had a lot of easy, mediocre days, where you rest and recover. But that is not the case… Italian roads definitely set themselves up to be raced that way; they’re so narrow, and you have to be in the right spot at the right time."
Performing in a three-week race isn’t about having one superb day. It’s about fighting every day; that’s what separates those suited to shorter races from those who can win a Grand Tour. Enormous fluctuations in form made this Giro memorable. Riders were destroying the field one day, and out the rear of the peloton on the next. That plague never affected O’Connor.
“I thought there would be that one day where I’d just explode completely. I guess that’s a good thing, it means you have that repeatability, that endurance factor… If you look in a pure numbers sense, I don’t think it was too crazy special, my riding. But it’s that repeatability; doing it after five hours, or after doing multiple climbs.”
The riders that win Grand Tours are the ones that don’t lose huge amounts of time; the ones that can hang tough on their bad days. That’s something O’Connor showed he can do, and it's promising for the future.
“I was still sitting 13th on the Zoncolan Stage, and getting into that last week. I remember on the third last climb, I was feeling awful; I was sure I was getting dropped. Igor Anton, [O’Connor’s teammate from Dimension Data] was with me, and I said ‘I’m done’. Then you get to the top and descend down, and you feel a bit better on the next climb, and then the Zoncolan.”
O’Connor travelled to Germany for surgery on his collarbone after the race - a messy break means he’ll be spending a fair amount of time recovering.
“There’s no rushed comeback, no Zwift-crazy Mat Hayman thing going on”, he says, referring to the now infamous training schedule of the 2016 Paris-Roubaix winner. “I can be on the indoor trainer... But if I don’t race until the end of July, into August, I have a lot of time.”
In the days after the race, Dimension Data announced they'd signed O’Connor onto a new deal. Now signed on until the end of 2020, he’s one of the building blocks in the team’s immediate future. It’s an environment he’s comfortable in, thanks to a high level of support, and a team that understands his development.
“There was no pressure at all [in the race] and that’s what’s great about Dimension Data. They knew I’d be good, but they didn’t know I’d be good after three weeks. I had no pressure to fill in Louis’ role. It was always day-by-day” he says, clearly aware of the nurturing environment that’s contributing to his success.
“It’s where I wanted to stay. The opportunities the team’s already been able to give me, and the chances to race; it’s pretty hard to give that up.”
The recovery time has also given him time to ponder what he’s achieved in the past month.
“I’m beyond proud; you can’t forget that. I’ll always have that soft spot, that big disappointment because, in the end, I’m fairly confident I’d have been able to finish eighth or seventh by the last day. That’s always going to be a sucker-punch; that little kick in the guts. But I can be pretty bloody proud to have raced the Giro d’Italia, and not been out of my depth.
He’s a 22-year-old, in his second year as a pro; he has time to return, chase even better results. Crashing out doesn’t change what he accomplished over the first three-quarters of the race, nor does it change the fact he’ll be featuring at the front of Giro for years to come.
“I remember the first day in Tel Aviv, the noise from the side of the road… I loved it. I can look back at it as some of my best cycling memories. In general, the Giro’s been the best experience I’ve had on the bike. Right now, it’s hard to enjoy, but I can’t forget that.”
See you back at the social club,