Aussie Focus

The high-pressure life of a Tour de France contender

Ahead of the Tour de France, SBS Cycling Central caught up with some of Australia's top prospects for the famous yellow jersey at the Tour de France to find out what goes into the preparation for what is simultaneously one of the biggest and hardest sporting spectacle in the world.

The life of a Tour de France contender isn't an easy one, a prestigious role that can be lucrative but one that has its own challenges even more pronounced than the life of most professional cyclists, already an elite subset of the population.

In the years before the sport became properly professionalised, it would come down to how much each rider trained but these days, every rider is full-time and single-mindedly dedicated in training. Being a winner at the Tour de France then relies on being the best in the sport over three weeks of competition, with the key focuses each year the high mountains of the Alps and the Pyrenees, and the time trials in the flatlands.

Though a lot more goes into it, climbing is governed by power to weight ratio - generally in the number of Watts you can put out per kilo - and the ability to maintain a high pace for long periods of time. Time trials are more about absolute power and aerodynamics, the challenge for general classification contenders is to marry those different specialities into a highly specialised athleticism, that is what it takes at a base level to win the Tour de France.

It's not something you are born with the ability to do, there are genetic pre-dispositions of course, but the bulk of the ability to put in epic performances day after day is sourced from years and years of accumulated training. When you see a rider with their arms aloft at the finish, there's often an urge to place it down to the happenstance or particular conditions of that day's competition, but the countless hours of training done in preparation are what determines the winner far more than anything else.

The 2021 Tour de France will see a number of young Australians attempt to join the ranks of the vaunted heroes of yesteryear at the top of the sport. Just a year after finishing third at the Tour de France, 36-year-old Richie Porte of Team INEOS Grenadiers will be back to try and better that result, but the host of young Aussies joining him will be taking on leadership roles at the Tour de France for the first time.

Ben O'Connor (AG2R-Citroen) is in a unique situation, going in at the head of a French team at the Tour de France, a role that invites speculation and increased attention from helming a local team at one of the biggest cultural events within the country. 

“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 whose 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."

O'Connor is in the happy position of having secured his future with AG2R-Citroen for the next three seasons, no longer having to worry about his livelihood for the near future after having performed well in 2021, and taking a more relaxed mindset into the biggest race of his career.

“Far less stress, I’m also really happy," said O'Connor of his reaction to securing a new deal. "You believe in yourself and the performance and what you’re working towards each day. You’ve found your footing, not only the job you’re doing but only a spot in the spot having earned some respect. That’s comforting now.

“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."

O'Connor came into the year as a rider who would show flashes of his tremendous ability winning big races and mixing it with the top athletes, but those performances came a bit too far apart to string together the results required to realise his potential. The 2021 season has been an epiphany for O'Connor, getting to a more stable place needed to be a consistent threat to win races against the best in the world. 

“I think it was realising that potential and where you could get to," said O'Connor about the change in his outlook. "The body’s strong, it can do this, but never really back it up. Every now and then, but not really. A bit like Nick Kyrios, every now and then play a great game, then be out first round of the Aussie Open. It’s nice that it’s taken that next evolution, not just for me but for my family and the fiancée."

Jack Haig, riding with team Bahrain Victorious, echoed O'Connor's thoughts, of not just his own single-minded focus, but that of his wife, Ana, who he credits with supporting him at times when the necessary 'selfishness' demanded by a relentless approach to training, nutrition, health, and preparation takes him away from normal household duties. 

"Cycling's not that team sport, where if you play soccer or football you go to the club and have food made for you there, all your training there, all the resources you need in that one place," explained Haig. "I think in cycling your home life and how your partner at home and your family has a massive impact on the performance you can do in races. It's something that I've been very lucky with, my partner has been very supportive of what I do and we've made a lot of sacrifices to do this sport.

"Athletes... in certain environments were incredibly selfish people, but it's the reality of the sport and sometimes you have to make those sacrifices to achieve what you want to achieve."

A recent change for the Haig family has been the arrival of he and his partner's first child, the wailing mandate of a baby's needs set against the rigours of a professional athlete's lifestyle at times.

"It's difficult - adjusting to having a baby - because you're used to being the centre of attention as the athlete in the family," said Haig. "Having everything looked after for you, at least I was very lucky with my partner in that respect. Now, there's something more important than me in the family and we're having to adjust and take some more time but it's been quite rewarding."

The focus of Haig's and O'Connor's seasons is rapidly approaching, the Tour de France, with all the drama and life-altering moments of one of the biggest spectacles in world sport. 

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.

Watch the FIFA World Cup, Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a España, Dakar Rally, World Athletics / ISU Championships (and more) via SBS On Demand – your free live streaming and catch-up service.
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7 min read
Published 22 June 2021 at 3:19pm
By Jamie Finch-Penninger