O'Connor made the first team switch of his young career in the 2020 offseason, moving across to AG2R-Citroen from then Dimension Data. The 25-year-old had shown flashes of brilliance already, but years of less consistent performance meant that it was just a one-year deal that was signed.
Jumping ahead eight months and the agreement has played out near perfectly for both parties, with O'Connor bringing a new threat to the team on the overall standings at the big races, and the Australian discovering a new consistency with the French WorldTour squad. It's worked out so well that a new three-year deal was concluded at the end of the Criterium du Dauphine between the team and rider, with O'Connor also confirmed for a start at the Tour de France in a GC-focused role.
SBS Cycling Central caught up with O'Connor as the start of the biggest race of his career to date looms on Saturday June 26.
“It’ll be amazing, it’s almost a bit of an honour, for someone in their first year with a French team – especially with someone who’s French is poor right now," said O'Connor. "It’s just super exciting, I’ve gained trust within the team and I trust them as well."
That O'Connor has ended up in this position - chasing GC wins - wasn't by design, a happy accident after being recruited to go after stage wins in a similar manner to his performances at the 2020 Giro d'Italia where he finished runner-up then won a stage on consecutive days in the mountains. A GC focus wasn't on the agenda after years of it not working out while at Dimension Data.
"That wasn’t the expectation," said O'Connor. "The point was to not do that at all and just aim for stages like at the Giro and just be super aggressive. That was the initial aim at the start of the year.
"Aim for the Tour de France, if you get picked, you get picked, and if you do, aim for stages. At the start of the year, I didn’t really want to do it (GC focus), I’d never really been able to do a consistent run day after day. It was kind of ironic that I fell into it.
"I came into the season with bad prep (after breaking his collarbone in November) but I was racing well… at Haut Var, Paris-Nice. It wasn’t until Romandie that it clicked and that’s why Dauphine was really important, to confirm that it wasn’t just one good race."
O'Connor sixth overall at the Tour de Romandie and then an attacking eighth at the Dauphine have shown that he's one of the best climbers in the one-week WorldTour races, and while he's expecting differences at the Tour de France, it will essentially be the same riders at the race that O'Connor has faced and done well against throughout the season.
“I’m sure when I get to the Tour de France and do the first few stages I’ll be shitting myself – they’re renowned for being stressful and hard – but when you go into the race under less stress that makes a big difference," said O'Connor. “You’re racing the same guys that you do throughout the year, so I don’t see it as being too much different in that respect.
"I’m sure that when you get to the side of the roads, the people and the bit of madness will be something, but you focus on what you have to do and watching the wheels in front of you. So often that takes more of your attention than what’s happening on the outside."
The travelling circus of the Tour de France is one thing to deal with, but more than that, O'Connor wants to avoid getting stuck in the rut of just turning in also-ran performances to keep a decent spot in the standings, preferring to keep his attacking instincts to the fore as much as possible.
"A lot of GC guys who think ‘I’m happy with getting 6th, 8th whatever on the stage," said O'Connor. "For the domestiques, it’s good to get that, but you’re meant to be the best guys in the race and if you’re just between five and ten, it’s not that encouraging. It is for a time, but if it’s consistent then it’s more of ‘why didn’t you try something, gamble’.
"That’s one of the things that I want to make sure that I don’t lose sight of, that aggressive nature. I won’t though because it’s just what I do. At least you gave it a go and often it pays off. Be a little bit ballsy and just try."
If O'Connor can take that sort of attacking mentality to the Tour de France as well as his form from throughout the season to date, he'll be hard to avoid watching as he'll fill up the highlight reels as well as the results sheet.
Every moment of the 2021 Tour de France will be live on SBS, with the ŠKODA Tour Tracker app, SBS TV and the SBS Cycling Central the place to be to catch all the pulsating action from France from June 26 to July 18.