Peloton Watch
  Ben O'Connor looking to continue early 2016 success in Europe with World Tour Academy  
  March 14th 2016  
  Ben O'Connor on his way to bronze in the under 23 time trial. © PelotonWatch  
  Having only taken up cycling two years ago following a love of watching the Tour de France and a desire to look as cool as his best mate and his dad, Ben O'Connor's path in to one of Australia's top up and coming riders has been a quick one.

His 2016 season started with a bronze medal in the under 23 time trial at the Australian Championships in January and ninth in the road race after playing a supporting role to winner Chris Hamilton. Before taking his form to New Zealand for the New Zealand Cycle Classic, one of only two stage races on the Oceania Tour.

After keeping himself out of trouble on the opening three stages gradually moving up the standings he claimed a dominant win on the queen stage by 30 seconds and assumed the race lead with one stage to go. Despite rivals throwing everything they had at him on the final day O'Connor held on to take his first ever general classification win.

A month later O'Connor infiltrated the break on the opening day of the Tour de Taiwan. Setting himself up as the leading contender for overall success taking the lead on stage three of the five day race. The disappointment form the loss of the yellow jersey on the final day after riders from an initial large break held off was tempered by the fact teammate Robbie Hucker claimed the stage and the overall title.

With two podium finishes from two UCI races in 2016 O'Connor now heads to Europe with the Jayco-AIS World Tour Academy as he looks to continue his development starting with some hard classics racing in Belgium and the Netherlands. From there O'Connor hopes to compete at the Tour de l'Avenir later in the year with an eye on signing with a World Tour team in the future.

Only started cycling two years ago what made you take up the sport?

I used to love watching the Tour de France every year when it came on, but essentially what started the idea was some form of jealousy towards my best mate, as he and his dad had road bikes and used to go out on weekends, I just loved the look, they were just cool. What actually started me get a bike myself was a present from the parents, which I transformed into a form of cross training when I was doing at the time 'serious' running at school. I used to just go out on a Sunday and go full tilt for the classic 40km river loop in Perth!

What were your ambitions heading in to the National Championships in January?

I usually am quite ambitious, but I did go into the TT aiming for the win as that was the area I probably put the most focus into, and the road race for at least a podium. The TT podium was still pleasing, and with the road race, I didn't feel great on the day, so I was happy to work for Chris so that he could get the job done… Which he did!

Claimed bronze in the time trial how did you find the course and what did it mean to stand on the podium?

It's a tough and very fair course. It is constantly rolling, but not only that, you need to put the power down at the right places in the course. It suited me well, but in the end I fell short, leaving more work to be done! It was great to step onto the podium, especially so early in the year to really get the 'ball rolling', not only for myself, but also for Avanti Isowhey Sports.

Comparing 3rd in the time trial and 9th in the road race to 17th in the TT and 40th in the road race in 2015 happy with the improvements made over the 12 months?

I am very pleased with the improvements. Those results from last year though do not tell the whole picture, as I actually became ill just prior to the race, but nevertheless I would never have gone anywhere near the results I did this year!

Just over a week after Nationals raced New Zealand Cycle Classic with your form was chasing the overall win your ambition heading in?

Yes it was. Andrew-Christie-Johnson told me he believed I could definitely win the tour if I just managed myself well post nationals. I just then had to believe I had it within myself to do so.

Solo win on the penultimate stage how did it feel to take your first UCI win?

That was something I have been thinking and sleeping on for a long time now. To actually win a UCI stage, especially a hilltop finish on the queen stage, made me truly believe in myself, and I cannot thank Andrew and the whole team for putting faith in me on that day to get the win. It was great!

Far from a procession on the final day with the other teams putting in attack after attack how did the final stage play out for you?

Well we allowed a smallish break to go up the road, which is a lot more difficult to control than you may think with five man teams. When we arrived into the hills, the attacks started from [Michael] Vink and [James] Oram mainly. As we got to each hill this basically just repeated itself until there was a really sneaky and I think unfair attack as we tried to get bidons from the team car. This then isolated just Mark O'Brien and I to defend. Mark was just working as a policeman and was actually in the virtual yellow at one point not far from the finish. But as that move stalled, the remaining peloton came together with about two kilometres to go, and that was that in the defence. It was my first time in a yellow jersey, so guess the stress probably got to me more than it should, but there were definitely too many gaps to close on that day!

What did it mean to take the overall victory at the New Zealand Cycle Classic?

Initially it was a sense of relief to get through that last day. It was my first GC win of any tour I've done including the NRS, so I was proud that I had done the job for Avanti Isowhey as Andrew believed I could, and obviously personally thrilled to win the race. It was a huge confidence boost, and just one stepping stone in my gradual development a rider.

Ben O'Connor (centre) after New Zealand Cycle Classic win. Dylan Newberry (left) and Ryan Christensen (right). © NZ Cycle Classic

Part of a break on the opening day of the Tour de Taiwan was this always the plan? Break stayed away putting you in a strong position to challenge for the overall.

It wasn't really the plan no. I was just to follow the large dangerous moves whilst Neil Van der Ploeg and Anthony Giacoppo saved themselves for the final bunch sprint. When Andrew realised that the move had a chance of staying away, I was able to work with the others as I believed I could most likely out climb them, and a head start against the Iranians is something everyone wants have leading into the mountains.

Started the final day in yellow but a big break went away including teammate Robbie Hucker can you explain what happened on the final stage?

With five man teams again it is extremely difficult to control a stage, especially a mountain stage such as it was. We had Robbie and Chris who both climb brilliantly, and if they managed to get into the break, they would have no need to work with it, and could sit on until the final climbs were they could try going for the stage and even GC. So the day started with torrential rain, and with that a large group moved up the road with Robbie in it. We were happy to let it go, and just had to wait until some others took up the chase. We had to bring the gap down a little before the climbs though so we could play the double-edged sword. If Robbie could climb well enough, he would win the stage and GC; whilst if the gap was close enough, I would still be able to hold yellow and win the Tour, without us having to ride that much.

Hucker and Francisco Mancebo held on from the break with Hucker taking the win and the overall as you slipped to third. On the one hand must be disappointing to lose the overall but on the other your second GC podium of the year and teammate took the overall?

Yes it was initially a little disappointing as I had held the jersey for three days and did believe I could win the tour. But to hand it over to a Robbie makes it a happy bearing, as he rode brilliantly to win both the stage and GC. Third overall, best young rider and winning teams classification... It was like I said before, another step in my progression as a cyclist, and I am still only young, so there are many more tours to come in the future. Cycling is a team sport, and we left it up to the race to decide who was going to win, we just had to make sure it was one of us!

Heading off to Europe now to race with Jayco-AIS WTA how important a step is it for your career?

It is just another stage in development. The fact of living away from home, and inducing yourself into another completely different style of racing will be a challenge for sure. This is what you have to do as a professional rider so it will be important for me to take it all in with an open mind, progressing skills and achieving consistent results.

What are you most looking forward to about racing in Europe and what do you think the biggest challenges will be?

The chance to race in a whole new environment does excite me, and I cannot wait for the more mountainous tours and classics later in the year. I think the challenges around Belgium racing will be interesting to say the least, yet I think the most challenging aspect will be missing both family and mates back home. They mean a lot, and although in the very connected world we have, it's still not the same as enjoying their company and having a few laughs.

At the end of the block of racing what do you hope to have achieved? Not just results but in terms of development as well.

I really do hope to have improved that general bunch skill, positioning and bike handling when in Belgium and the relative flat lands, where I will take results when I can. With the more hilly or mountainous tours however I do want to try to continue the podium results there, especially in something like Tour de l'Avenir. There is also that independence side of things with living away from home; cooking, washing, and general organisation. I think I can get a lot out of it. I hope to come back to Avanti Isowhey Sports as a more rounded, skilful and stronger rider than before, and progress onto the top stage of the World Tour when the time is right.
 © 2016