Ben O’Connor’s raw talent was revealed to the world seven years ago, in the Tasmanian wilderness. It was stage two of the Tour of Tasmania, the most gruelling domestic race in Australia, featuring a 120km day from Strathgordon, near Lake Pedder. A breakaway went early, and it featured an unknown youthful face. As the stage continued, the 18-year-old clung on alongside more experienced pro Wesley Sulzberger. On the sprint into New Norfolk, Sulzberger got the better of his breakaway companion. But it was clear that day that O’Connor would not settle for second place for long.
That heroic stint in the breakaway in October 2014 was particularly remarkable because O’Connor had only taken up competitive cycling 10 months earlier. “It’s been a pretty big progression since then,” he laughed at the time. “I used to be a cross-country runner, but I always watched Tour de France on television and found it fascinating so I just gave it a go.”
In torrid conditions in the French Alps on Sunday, almost seven years later and half a world away from Tasmania’s Midlands, O’Connor won his debut stage at the Tour de France. He once again joined an early breakaway, although this one slightly larger in size, with over 40 riders. Once again, he didn’t look back.
Even an attack from Colombian climbers Nairo Quintana and Sergio Higuita could not distance O’Connor, who managed to bridge a 35-second gap the pair had established. On the final climb, the West Australian attacked solo with 17km to go. In the last 100m, O’Connor allowed himself to sit up, thump his chest and salute the sky in celebration.
Taking the stage win by over five minutes, he catapulted himself into second overall, behind only yellow jersey wearer Tadej Pogačar. Cycling magazine Rouleur, in its daily Tour round-up, observed: “We thought we’d seen the ride of the Tour on stage eight when Tadej Pogačar put everyone to the sword. Ben O’Connor had other ideas.”
O’Connor’s win makes him just the second Australian to clinch a mountain-top finish in the Tour’s 108-edition history. But it so easily might not have been. Last year, the 25-year-old was out of contract and facing a straitened job market in the pro peloton. On stage 16 of the 2020 Giro d’Italia, O’Connor had a mountain-top victory in sight only to be caught by Slovenian Jan Tratnik in the final half-kilometre. It was a heart-breaking moment for the climber from Subiaco.
The next day, O’Connor found redemption: again making the breakaway but, second time lucky, holding on for his maiden Grand Tour stage win. The win earned O’Connor a contract with French team AG2R Citroën and a debut start in the Tour this year.
His victory in the Alps showed similar perseverance. O’Connor began the Tour as AG2R’s protected rider, aiming for the yellow jersey. But after being caught up in a nasty crash on the opening stage, O’Connor found himself two minutes down on general classification after just one day. He lost more time on stage two, in stage five’s individual time trial and Saturday’s eighth stage. Heading into Sunday, O’Connor was more than eight minutes behind Pogačar in the overall standings – it seemed his general classification hopes had been dashed. Twenty-four hours later, O’Connor is suddenly a genuine podium prospect.
The stage win and major time gain are rays of sunshine in what has otherwise been an overcast Tour de France for Australian riders. Sprint star Caleb Ewan was sent home with a broken collarbone after just three days, before he had even managed a stage win. Olympic road race prospect Jack Haig was also forced to abandon after a crash on the same stage. Puncheur Michael Matthews has not yet managed a stage win, unable to outsprint world champion Julian Alaphilippe on stage one, while Riche Porte’s Ineos Grenadiers have struggled to match Pogačar.
For Australian fans, all that will be forgotten if O’Connor can navigate the mountains ahead and finish on the podium in Paris in just under two weeks’ time. Reigning Tour winner Pogačar looks a class above everyone else, but anything can happen in the Pyrenees. Even if O’Connor slips down the rankings prior to reaching the Champs-Élysées, his brilliant maiden Tour victory will be remembered for years to come.
Since Cadel Evans won the Tour a decade ago, Australian cycling observers have watched closely as a new generation of climbers offered yellow jersey hope. Haig, O’Connor, BikeExchange’s Lucas Hamilton, Jai Hindley (who finished second at last year’s Giro), Robert Stannard and Sebastian Berwick have all been scrutinised for the potential to win a Grand Tour. There is a wide gulf between winning a stage and winning the yellow jersey. But on Sunday, O’Connor showed that he has the climbing ability to match it with the best in the world – and triumph.
“It’s been a wild ride,” he said after the stage win. “It’s mind-blowing.” Not bad for a cross-country runner who liked watching the Tour on SBS and thought he’d give it a go himself.