O'Connor again hung tough in the face of enormous pressure on the final two climbs of the Tour de France, moving up the general classification standings as accomplished stars of the sport dropped likes flies around him.
Already on the famous climb of the Col du Tourmalet, there was significant pressure at the front of the race, as INEOS Grenadiers drove the pace had on the famous climb. That set experienced campaigner Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo) adrift from the back of the field, the man sitting fourth overall leaving an opportunity for O'Connor in fifth to move up the rankings by day's end.
A torturous final ascent of Luz Ardiden loomed, with its picturesque switchbacks pleasant on television screens by only offering pain to riders attempting to surmount the steep slopes. Race leader and eventual stage winner Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) made his move with just over three kilometres left until the top of the climb, attacking clear with a small group able to follow.
O'Connor couldn't respond to the defending Tour champion, but sensibly maintained his own pace and formed an impromptu alliance with his closest rival on the general classification, Wilco Kelderman (BORA-hansgrohe), who started the day sixth overall. The pair crossed the line together for eighth and ninth on the stage, 34 seconds behind the race winner.
The Australian crossed the line and then was asked to reflect on where he stands in terms of riding the most sought-after prize in cycling, the Tour de France.
“I know it suits me," said O'Connor. "Riding hard each day and dragging myself as far as I can up each mountain. I like this kind of racing. You’ve seen me suffering and maybe not looking the most special looking rider but I’m still sitting fourth and it feels special to me.
With Tour de France success comes fame and extra opportunity, but also extra added expectation of performance at the top races. O'Connor was asked if he thought his ride in this year's Tour de France would change things for him.
"Yeah, maybe. I’m still going to be exactly the same bloke, that won’t change," said O'Connor. "I think aspects of the racing scene will change, but I’m still Ben O’Connor and I’m not going to be turning into a bad bloke any time soon.”
The Fremantle flyer is now just one time trial and two flat stages away from a historic finish in Paris. If he can hold into his current position he will join an elite club in cycling, one of just three Australians to finish in the top four or better of the Tour de France, joining 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans and last year's podium finisher Richie Porte.
O'Connor has repaid his French team's faith after receiving the honour of leading a home team in their biggest event of the year, delivering a stage win and then backing it up with a series of elite performances in the mountains over three weeks of competition. He currently sits eight minutes and 18 seconds behind the race leader, with two minutes and 27 seconds to make up on Richard Carapaz (INEOS Grenadiers) in the unlikely scenario that he can vault his way onto the final podium in Paris.
A bigger concern for O'Connor is that he is just 32 seconds ahead of Kelderman, who finished 7 seconds ahead of the West Australian in the previous time trial on Stage 5, one that was considered a down performance for the Dutch rider who is normally very strong in the race against the clock.
That course was 27.2 kilometres, Stage 20 will be 30.8 kilometres over a similarly flat course and O'Connor will have his work cut out to hold off Kelderman and keep his fourth overall on the standings.
The Tour de France continues with a sprint stage on Stage 19, a largely flat route over 207 kilometres from Mourenx to Libourne. Watch the race on SBS and SBS OnDemand from 2030 AEST, with the race coverage starting earlier on the SKODA Tour Tracker at 2005 AEST.