Ben O’Connor: The Fast Learner

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Ben O’Connor, the 22-year-old Western Australian, started 2018 with a bang, placing 7th in the GC at the Tour of the Alps, 11th in Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and 18th in Santos Tour Down Under. O’Connor has shown incredible progression, not only this season, but from the moment he started to concentrate on cycling a little over 4 years ago.

The Very Beginning

“I didn’t get into cycling until quite late I guess. It all started out of jealousy really, which was of a friend who was already riding. I asked if I could join him once I got a road bike but he never let me. I don’t know why, we were kids and maybe he just thought he was too cool. Eventually I got a road bike for my birthday, I think I was 17-years-old. I started to ride on the weekends, the only time I could, so I did an hour at a time as hard as I could.  I was more into my cricket and running if I’m honest.”

“It wasn’t until after school, when I had more time outside of the cricket and running, that someone suggested I should try riding. I did my first race and it was just a local A-grade criterium, which I remember was in ridiculous heat, over 45 degrees, but I won. After that, I joined a domestic team in Perth and did another A-grade race which I also won. I was now starting University but I also got a job in a bike shop, so I would always ride in the morning. Half-way through that year, which was 2014, I started racing the domestic league in Australia.”

Trying To Become Pro

“In 2015, that local team I was riding for in Perth became a continental team, Navitas Satalyst Racing Team. We did more domestic races and I just kept improving and started to try go in breakaways at races. But in July that year we did a big race, or in my eyes at the time it was a big race, the Tour of Qinghai Lake. I came 16th overall and it was at that point I realised maybe I could do this.”

“After a few more podiums in domestic races I got onto the Avanti team and that’s where it all kicked off, in 2016. At Avanti I decided, now we do this, now we work hard. I stopped Uni and put everything into cycling because I wanted to become a professional. I also got into the Australian National u23 set-up but that didn’t really work for me. Avanti went to Europe in June for the Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc and I finished 3rd, behind Enric Mas and Tao Geoghegan Hart. That was key result for me.”

The Dream

“Getting the offer from Team Dimension Data, it was really over-whelming. I didn’t think it would happen so fast, it was a dream. I mean, 2016 was only my first year in Europe and I only had that one decent result. There were also so many other good u23 riders so I saw it like Dimension Data were taking a huge leap of faith for me. I was really privileged that Dimension Data and Rolf Aldag had that confidence and faith in me.”

“The start with Dimension Data was all very much a blur. I started in Australia, so that just felt like racing at home still but when I did Volta Catalunya I realised, wow, these guys are really fast. I was just hanging on there but by the time I got to Dauphine I felt I managed to have things click into place.”

First Pro Win Confidence

“My first win came in July 2017 at the Tour of Austria. Winning in Austria was amazing; the team and I had always targeted that race to either win a stage or do well overall, I managed to do both. Then I did Poland and that’s where things were really starting to make sense. In Poland I was so close to making the front, I would just become detached on the last climb but I knew I could be there, I just wasn’t fully developed yet but it’s strange because I understood this, that at 21-years old I just couldn’t do it, yet.”

Neo Pro Challenges

“You think you know what you are doing but you soon feel so out of your depth at this level. I am fortunate to be in Team Dimension Data because the team has amazing idols, who are great riders but they also give me that moral support. Guys like Tyler Farrar (retired in 2017) and Igor Anton, I looked to Tyler a lot because of his temperament, he was calm but had this strength and the ability to do a job. Igor, is always happy and cheerful and he really gives his all, he also has this flow in the bunch, the way he moves is just something to watch and learn from.”

“Then also the rider-director system our team has, where you have a Sport Director that really looks after each rider. As a neo-pro you try so hard to walk in a straight-line but here, it is like the sport director is behind you, subtly tapping you on the hip showing you which way to go. In my first year that was Oli Cookson, that help was invaluable and he made sure I didn’t get lost.”

Stepping Up in 2018

“I trained well in Australia ahead of the 2018 season and with a bit more experience, we went to Down Under and had that big day with Tom-Jelte, getting him onto the podium. That was great, to be part of that and be in the situation when it split in the wind on Willunga and then playing a role in getting him back. To still go on to finish top 20 in a World Tour Race as a helper, that was nice.”

“At Catalunya I was a bit unsure how I would go because yeah, I started the season well in Australia but then I got sick, missed Oman and punctured at Strade Bianche. So, I was a bit unsure about where I was at, but to finish just outside the top 10, compared to year ago when I was getting absolutely pumped, that was where I was like wow, I can really see big, big progress here.”

Tour of the Alps

“At the Tour of Alps it jumped to a whole new level. To be racing with those top guys was the dream and then as I said, the team took a big leap of faith with me so I wanted to show them that I valued their trust in me. After winning stage 3, I said to the team I am one small piece to this puzzle we are building, everyone else makes up the full picture.

Alex Sans Vega, my sport director this year, he lives near me in Girona and has been constantly guiding me and helping me. My team coach, Trevor Court, who is always switched on, we are constantly working together and altering things. Those close relationship’s in this team is what makes the team really great, as a young rider this is what keeps you on track and focussed.”

“The team gave me support as a neo-pro at Poland and I got a top 20, which is not a huge result but for a neo-pro it means a lot. So now, to have guys like Igor riding for you at the Tour of the Alps, where the Giro contenders are present, it really means a lot. As a team we needed that confidence boost from the victory, we needed to take the race on and change the way we race, so I was really happy to be able to do that for us.”

Grand Tour Debut

“Looking to the Giro, the aim is to get Louis Meintjes into the top 10 overall. I feel I have really great shape so the fact that we could have a double-edged sword is good for us but obviously I don’t know how I am going to pull up after 3 weeks of racing and a grand tour is another level of racing. I have confidence from Alps, I am not nervous about being out-gunned so I will try my best. There are some hard mountain stages which will suit Louis and I, so hopefully we can work well together again to achieve the team goal. Taking the race on as we did in Alps, going on the attack and trying to win bike races is what I look forward to. The more we win, the more people will see our team’s purpose.”

Looking Ahead

“Post Giro, I have a bit of rest and then I am going back to Austria, and I would like to go and try win the race overall. Then I’ll go to Poland again, it’s more punchy, steep climbs, that are not so long so less suited to me but I’d like to finish top 10 at a World Tour race and I think that is entirely possible. After that I mainly have one-day races and that is another goal of mine, to make a one-day race click, because I haven’t really made the most of a one-day race before. So, I’d love to have a good showing be it at Canada or in Italy, and I’d love to finish my season at Lombardia. I have no idea what to expect there, we all know it’s one of the hardest monuments to finish but just to have good feelings there and racing well there is a goal.”