It was an epic journey, the story of a rising star of the sport written by the pumping legs of Ben O'Connor on the cold, wet roads of the Alps. The last 24 hours of O'Connor's Tour de France reveal a lot about the resilience of the young Australian's character and the calibre of rider he is.
24 hours ago, a tired O'Connor (AG2R-Citroen) was like many others after the finish of Stage 8 of the Tour de France, wet, cold, and looking from behind at a dominant ride by Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates). Nonetheless, as many riders saw simply another stage to negotiate before a chance to reassess on the first rest day, O'Connor saw an opportunity on the very next day after that harrowing stage.
"I had a shocking start, but anything is possible in this year’s Tour de France," said O'Connor. "I want to make sure I stay aggressive and have my eyes open, as you see today, the break can win, and it’s one thing I don’t want to forget. There’s nothing better than celebrating at the finish."
As the rain again tumbled and the opportunists looked to slip away into the early breakaway, O'Connor was one of the riders to take up the challenge, jumping in a move with still 120 kilometres to race. Others attacked, but the West Australian forged his way across to be at the front of the race, and with his gap building he was moving into a dangerous position on the general classification.
"I wasn’t meant to be in the break but it was a big group and I just crossed to it," said O'Connor after the stage. "I was just waiting, I didn’t really know what to do. I heard we had three, four, five minutes and I knew I had a great chance to gain time on the GC. On a long day like this, I always knew I could win in the end."
Over the toughest categorised climb to date in this year's Tour, the Col du Pre, countryman Lucas Hamilton (Team BikeExchange) and the current king of the mountains jersey holder, Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious), fell away, O'Connor was left with just the Colombian mountain goats in Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic) and Sergio Higuita (EF Education-Nippo).
The Colombian pair weren't keen to contribute to O'Connor's bid for the yellow jersey or the stage win, using near-team tactics at times and eventually dropping O'Connor on the descent from the Col de Roselend, but the Australian fought back with grit and caught them again before the final climb of the day a 21.5-kilometre monster to a ski resort in Tignes.
"It was a mad stage. Conditions were atrocious," said O'Connor. "Maybe I should be descending a bit better next time, that would have saved a lot of energy."
“I was blowing pretty hard on Tignes. I was scared that Tadej was going to explode from behind and catch me when it got hard, but I knew if stayed steady and didn’t cramp then I could win the stage. As soon as you think, ‘I can win a stage of the Tour de France’, all sorts of things happen to your mind, your lungs, your heart. It can make your heart stop, it definitely stopped mine just before!”
O'Connor was conspicuous in his good habits throughout the race, eating and drinking regularly, wearing the right clothing and keeping himself in good condition which allowed him to maintain the strength to keep his pace high throughout the final climb.
From there, it was O'Connor and his strength to the fore as he dug deep to keep his very solid pace throughout the near hour-long ascent of the climb to take the stage win by over five minutes. After keeping the peloton at bay for much of the final climb, O'Connor's lead was eaten into a bit at the end with a late attack from race leader Pogačar ensuring that it wouldn't be the stage and the yellow jersey for the West Australian, but he still sits in a very strong second position, 2'01 behind Pogačar and 3'17 ahead of third-placed Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo).
“It was always the dream. Just to be here in the first place was the first dream," said O'Connor. "To do this today, I think it’s testament to everyone who has put faith in me over the years… my fiancée, my family, my best mates back in Australia, my friends in Andorra, my friends in Girona, it’s been a wild ride. It’s mind-blowing.
“It’s so fulfilling, there’s so much joy. I managed to control myself now compared to when I crossed the line. I’m just loving every single moment. I’m so happy for AG2R-Citroen, they had so much faith in me. It’s been so clear how much happiness it’s brought to me and the team… and now a win."
O'Connor was given a one-year contract with the French team, and after a season of strong results leading in, was given a leadership role at the Tour de France and a new three-year deal. To be a foreign rider leading a French team isn't an honour accorded to many, but O'Connor paid back that investment many times over with his legendary ride on Stage 9.
The rest of the Tour de France will hopefully offer a lot more chances for O'Connor who now has a great chance at finishing high up on the overall standings. For the moment, recognising the momentous achievement is enough, a truly great moment in the Australian history of the Tour de France.
The Tour de France will take a well-earned rest day, before returning with an expected sprint stage, 191 kilometre stage from Albertville to Valence. Watch from Tuesday evening at 2030 AEST on SBS, SBS OnDemand and the SKODA Tour Tracker for all the action from what has been a tumultuos Tour de France.