'Giro d'Italia climbs play into my ballpark' says resurgent Ben O'Connor

After previously describing himself as the ‘dumbest guy in the race,’ Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale’s Australian is on the up and gunning for podium

Clock08:52, Saturday 11th May 2024
Ben O'Connor's Giro d'Italia has turned around since he struggled to the top of Santuario di Oropa on stage 2

© Getty Images

Ben O'Connor's Giro d'Italia has turned around since he struggled to the top of Santuario di Oropa on stage 2

Speaking to GCN at the start of stage 6 in Viareggio, Ben O’Connor was just 24 hours out from the first individual time trial of this year’s Giro d’Italia and sitting in 11th place overall. But already, the Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale leader gave the impression of a rider who was only just getting started in Italy.

Although it had been a disappointing Grande Partenza for the 28-year-old, with his podium ambitions dealt an early blow on the first summit finish of the race, O’Connor was under no two minds that the most important days of the Giro were still to come.

"Day one, I wasn't on my absolute best, but there's going to be minutes shed between other stages. I think this time trial will also be huge gaps,” O’Connor predicted. “I've seen it: some of the times will be close, but I think between other guys, there'll be enormous gaps.”

His premonition was right. A day later, race leader Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) produced an indomitable performance to extend his advantage over the rest of the field to 2:36.

O’Connor’s time trial was blemished by a mechanical, but even so, he drew some personal successes from his stage 7 performance.

“Physically, I’m really happy how my effort went,” the Australian said in a statement released by the team on Friday evening. “We paced it perfectly and I maximised my potential. I did drop my chain at a pretty average moment. I stopped and a mechanic helped me to put my chain back up. I lost easily 20-30 seconds there.

“Without that mechanical, I probably would have been 7th or 8th.”

Even with the dropped chain accounted for, O’Connor enjoyed a dependable outing on his time trial bike over the 40km in the Umbria region. Finishing the course in 11th place, the Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale rider moved up seven places on the general classification to end the day in fourth place overall. His gap to third-placed Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) now standing at 47 seconds, O’Connor has plenty of reason to feel optimistic heading into the second summit finish of the race on Saturday.

In the Giro d’Italia, time gaps are often found in peaks and troughs, as the momentum passes between riders and teams. Thomas might have extended his lead on O’Connor by 7 seconds, but it was the Australian and not the Welshman who could end the day with a smile on his face. After the dropped chain, O’Connor had ridden the tough final climb into Perugia in the third-fastest time, gaining 45 seconds between the last intermediate checkpoint and the finish line over the spluttering Welshman. The recovery gave us a hint of what is to come on the mountain stages.

Looking at the race ahead, O’Connor says that the Giro is “a long story”. He’s focused on nailing a consistent three-week performance.

“Even stage 20, you know, with this Bassano del Grappa climb, if you just have a bit of an off day, you can lose a lot,” he noted. “If you're in the wrong group, and then it's all up to you to ride, you can also be in trouble, so it's really one of those races where it's really gonna be just finished when you get to Rome, to be honest.”

This relaxed, analytical attitude is a stark contrast from the fluster and frustration we’d seen from O’Connor earlier in the race. At the team bus on that day, shortly after the finish of stage 2 to Santuario di Oropa, the Australian was still reeling from an ill-fated pursuit of Pogačar that had left his gasket blown on the upper slopes of the climb.

Read more: Ben O’Connor: I was the dumbest guy in the Giro d'Italia

“I was brave. I always wanted to try and follow Pog, but I was probably the dumbest guy in the race,” a self-critical O’Connor told GCN on Sunday afternoon.

Asked whether he still stood by those words four days on, the Australian was characteristically honest, but with the sensibility that only time allows.

“Ah, I think it's still true, but yeah, it's past now,” he answered. “Yeah, I just have to focus on every other day coming up. I did lose some time there, but I'll gain time in other places, hopefully, and can be at my best.”

The Australian had called himself the second-strongest rider in the bike race on Sunday, magnifying his disappointment at having flown too close to the sun and melted his waxy wings. Reflecting on that particular comment, O’Connor seemed less willing to assert himself. He pointed to the difficulties that a tough opening weekend brought to all riders, not just him.

“Maybe that was a bit of an overestimation. I was very good, but in the end I wasn't. So you can't really guesstimate if you were that good.

“I think a lot of guys were a bit on the limit in general the first two days. I don't know if it was just freshness or the load that we've been doing in training, it's hard really to say, but there were quite a few guys that were panting quite a bit,” he said.

With a fresh mind heading into the second weekend, O’Connor looks to be a rider in the ascendency as he eyes up the mountaintop finish atop Prati di Tivo on Saturday afternoon.

‘Prati di Tivo is a lot harder than the Oropa’

Standing at 14.6km in length and with a 6.8% average gradient, the summit finish that awaits the peloton on Saturday is a different beast than the relatively short ascent to Santuario di Oropa. It is a climb that has a resurgent O’Connor optimistic both for this weekend and for the rest of the Giro.

“Saturday is a much harder stage than the Oropa finish in general,” he said, tipping the breakaway to contest the stage win. “The climb is much longer than Oropa. Oropa went by really quickly whilst this is much longer and much more steady as well. It’s a bit more train-like in the end.

“I’ve never done it, but these kinds of climbs tend to suit me quite well and I think there’s only really long climbs between now and the end of the Giro. Normally that kind of stuff plays into my ballpark.”

Read more: Giro d’Italia stage 8 preview: Does Tadej Pogačar’s lead make a breakaway win inevitable?

A former winner of mountain stages at both the Giro and Tour de France, O’Connor can also take confidence from his Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale team’s flying start to 2024. The French WorldTeam have already taken 13 wins in a bounce-back year and although O’Connor batted away the suggestion of their team launching an ambush on Saturday’s stage, he did not rule out the possibility later in the race.

It is a prospect that will have fans of the Australian licking their lips.

“I think it will be something to look at but I think it’s something to look at much later,” he said. “You really need to let the dust settle and I think there’s no bad time to do that kind of stuff when there’s a lot of fatigue.

“Hopefully we can do it later in the race because I think that would be pretty cool.”

For everything you need to know about the 2024 Giro d'Italia, from the history of the race to this year's route and start list, be sure to check out our dedicated race hub.

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