Among the Giro d’Italia surprises, the performance of Giro debutant Ben O’Connor would have been easy to overlook. The 22-year-old, riding his first-ever Grand Tour for Dimension Data, was hovering around the top 10 until the final week, which is an exceptional performance.
What made the ride all the more astonishing is that the Western Australian, from Perth, only started racing at 18. “The school I was at was really keen on sport and I was a decent cross-country runner. But my mate had a bike and I thought it looked cool and I got an aluminium Giant for my birthday and started to go out with him and get dropped,” explained O’Connor.
He may have got dropped early on, but that stopped in short order. “There was a criterium in town and my mate – Johnny – suggested I should enter. So I entered the Cat A event, for some reason, and I won it in a stinking hot 40-degree day. Then I entered a road race on a really nice circuit and I won that too.”
You wouldn’t have to be a genius talent scout to suspect that you were looking at some kind of genetic freak of nature.
“Neither my mum or dad rode, but they liked sports,” explains O’Connor, who quickly found himself on the Australian under-23 squad, having never raced as a junior or on the track.
After a stint racing in Belgium with the national squad, O’Connor discovered that he was better suited to the IsoWhey Sports team. O’Connor finished third in the prestigious Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc and followed that up with 16th in the ‘challenging’ Tour of Qinghai Lake as a 19-year-old.
“Some of the performances I saw there were…from another planet” muses O’Connor. At this point, Dimension Data came calling.
It all seems to have happened so very quickly. Start riding at 18, sign a World Tour contract at 20, win your first pro race in the Tour of Austria in your rookie season, win another race in the Tour of Alps in 2018 and end up nudging the top 10 in the Giro d’Italia at 22 before crashing out on stage 19.
Isn’t it all a bit too fast? A bit too easy?
Of course not.
“The first year was a bit chaotic, a bit of a shambles,” says O’Connor of his life in the pro ranks. “I moved into a flat in Lucca, where the team is based, but it was lonely.
“There were a few guys in the team in Lucca, but I didn’t know them, maybe my communication skills weren’t there, but I just didn’t want to go and ask them round or whatever. It was pretty dark at times.
“The flat was on the top floor of this building, no air con and so, so hot. I’d go for a cold shower, get out the shower, wait till I was really cold, then lie on top of the bed and hope that I got to sleep within five minutes, otherwise I had no chance.”
O’Connor laughs as he recounts this bizarre tale, but at the time it was far from funny. When his girlfriend came to visit, he opted to rent an Air BnB rather than inflict his sweatbox flat on her.
And all the time, he was learning the trade: “Tyler (Farrar) was a big help that first year. He was past his peak, but that guy tried so hard to do the job, whatever it was that day and he was always so upbeat.
“I’d be watching him ride himself into the ground and think, ‘Right, well, if Tyler’s doing it, I’m doing it,’ he was a good mentor like that. It was hard though, that step up to World Tour. My first Tour of Catalonia, was amazing. Trying to hold your place in the bunch was so hard and it wasn’t even using elbows or anything, just guys slipping into gaps and before you know it you’re at the back. I don’t think I ever made it into the top 30 wheels once.”
Given O’Connor’s inexperience, that shouldn’t be surprising, though his sport director Alex Sans Vega has noticed a huge improvement in the last 12 months. Alas, O’Connor’s skills rather let him down in the Giro when he crashed on the descent of Sestriere on stage 19.
“I was following Davide Formolo and he nearly crashed, but I ran a little bit wider onto the gravel and went down. I was lucky my leg didn’t hit the crash barrier. When I got up I thought I had dislocated my shoulder, but it was fractured.”
Instead of heading to Rome in the top-10 overall in his first Grand Tour, O’Connor was out and heading for an operating table. “It was massively disappointing, obviously, but up to that point it had been incredible. For a first Grand Tour experience it was unforgettable – the fans on the Zoncolan and Finestre, riding in the front group: amazing.”
In spite of interest from other teams, O’Connor has opted to stay with Dimension Data for another two years, a believer in team owner Doug Ryder’s vision of mobilising Africa, getting as many people as possible on bikes on a continent where transport links are often rudimentary and income levels preclude widespread car ownership.
Recuperating at his Girona base with his girlfriend and buoyed up by his visiting parents, O’Connor was already planning the rest of his season.
“I’ll try to get back for the Tour of Poland and the Canadian races but I’d love to ride the Tour of Lombardy, I’ve been reading about that race and hearing a lot about it too, it appeals to me.
“It’d be great to go back to Italy and race with the same form I had at the Giro.”
Given his performance at the Giro, we shouldn’t be surprised if the young Australian surprises in his first outing in the Classic ‘delle foglie morte.’ Why the hell not?