It’s been nearly a decade since Australia celebrated its first-ever Tour de France victory with Cadel Evans clad in yellow standing atop the podium along the Champs-Élysées. Subsequently, Evans would race five more grand tours including two more in France. However, other than a third-place at the 2013 Giro d’Italia, he would never again reach another grand tour podium before retiring after his namesake race in 2015.
In the wake of Evans retirement, the eyes — and hopes — of a nation have turned to Tasmanian Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo). But after seven cracks as a team leader dating back to the 2015 Giro d’Italia, Porte’s tenure as grand tour contender has been mired in disappointment and is surely coming to an end. Three DNF’s including two dramatic departures due to crashes in the previous two Tour’s tend to cloud his sole bright spot of a fifth-place showing at the race in 2016.
Currently, at this year’s Tour, Porte once again finds himself out of general classification contention with time losses mounting daily. So with Porte on the ropes, just who could be next in line to give Australia reason to fall back in love with pro cycling?
Perhaps Ben O’Connor?
Fresh off a sixth-place finish at the Tour of Austria, thanks in large part to a sensational second-place ride on the Stage 4 mountaintop finish up the Großglockner to Fuscher Törl, and an eighth-place result in the youth classification at the Giro a month prior, the 23-year-old is starting to come into his own.
“It was a bit of a confidence boost because the first half of the year didn’t go to plan,” O’Connor said after the final stage in Austria on Sunday. “Bit of a shame to not be able to win the race, because that’s what I thought I could do. In the end, I guess it’s good signs I can feel back to normal.”
The Perth native is happy to back on track after crashing out of the Giro last year with a broken collarbone on Stage 19 just as he was sitting third on the youth classification behind Ecuadoran Richard Carapaz (Movistar) and eventual white jersey winner Miguel Ángel López (Astana) of Colombia.
“I’ve had a lot of inconsistencies since that crash and not being to get back up to that kind of shape,” admitted O’Connor. “On the Großglockner was the first time I was able to move a full mountaintop finish. Normally I can only follow. To make the race is something I am pretty proud of — I just want to do it again.”
According to O’Connor, who has a stage win from the 2017 Tour of Austria as well as Tour of the Alps last year, the infamous Großglockner was a good litmus test of his continuing evolution as a pro rider.
“Maybe the mental side, trying to get the right rhythm and maybe the just right kind of habits,” he admitted. “I was a little bit too stressed perhaps, and also on other days, I was way too relaxed. I feel like I’ve started to get the balance [right].”
Like Porte, O’Connor is a fellow alum of the Australian UCI Continental team originally run by Andrew Christie-Johnston (ACJ) and Steve Price since 2001. After 17 years, the co-founders of Praties decided to merge with Mobius to form Team BridgeLane with ACJ taking a less hands-on approach while Price has completely stepped away from the sport.
Aside from Porte and O’Connor, Praties-turned-Genesys-turned-Avanti-turned-IsoWhey-turned-Bennelong-turned-BridgeLane churned out a string of current WorldTour riders, including fellow Aussies Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin), Will Clarke (Trek-Segafredo), Chris Hamilton (Team Sunweb), and Jack Haig (Mitchelton-Scott), as well as Kiwi Patrick Bevin (CCC Team).
“Ben is in the midst of a four-year contract, he still has this year and next,” said ACJ, who served as O’Connor’s sports director while the New Zealand Cycle Classic winner rode with Avanti-IsoWhey for one year before joining Dimension Data in 2017.
“I think by next year he will be ready to step up. He showed that in last year’s Giro coming [third] on the young riders jersey and nearly through the Grand Tour before crashing out three days before the finish”
While racing for Avanti, O’Connor finished third on GC behind eventual Ineos rider Tao Geoghegan Hart and QuickStep’s Enric Mas, then riding for Klein Constantia, at Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc (UCI 2.2), a French stage race ACJ believes provides a perfect benchmark for GC hopefuls.
“That’s what gave him his contract with Dimension Data,” he explained. “It was off the back of that result. It’s only a 2.2 in Europe, but it’s in the Alps and if you have a look at the results there over many years … anyone that’s done well there has normally gone on and had a good career and often a GC-type career.
“In 2016, Ben did it and the winner was Enric Mas, who is now considered the new Spanish GC hope for QuickStep and a top-five or six at the moment [during the first week] at the Tour de France. Ben was third and Tao was second, so you can see the type of company he was mixing with.
“You could tell when he did that race he was going to be capable of doing grand tours in the future.”
Christie-Johnston cites O’Connor’s overall inexperience, due to the fact he did not take up the sport until Year 11 as a teenager in Western Australia, as his only limiting factors at the moment.
“He’s only 23, so he still has a lot to learn,” he said. “[Egan] Bernal is just a massive talent at such a young age. Ben will probably take a few more years to catch up. But back on that Mont Blanc race, Bernal won it in 2017 and he signed [with Ineos] that next year as well.
“Again, it has been a very good breeding ground,” ACJ continued. “It’s savage. It’s like the hardest Tour de France stages condensed into four or five days. It’s not as long as a grand tour, but it’s brutal.”
Despite O’Connor’s perceived upward trajectory, he is in no rush to test his legs on the grandest stage in the sport. Instead, he is bound for the Tour of Pologne and a series of one-day races to as he put it — “try and learn how to win” — before possibly heading to La Vuelta to race support for South African team-mate Louis Meintjes next month.
“Tour de France was never really the plan,” he said. “Don’t think I’m ready for it yet. Maybe I can finish it, but I don’t think I'm ready for the full thing. It’s something I'd love to try and aim to do next year or the year after. I’ll have my eyes on that eventually one day.”
“In theory, last year’s [Giro] performance should have been this year and this year should have been my first Giro in terms of how it all played out,” said O’Connor.
“Seems I took a step backward somehow. I've kind of taken back to a level playing field now.
“I just want to race my bike.”