Ben O'Connor: the humble Australian living a Tour de France dream

Get to know the Australian, after he won a memorable stage nine into the ski resort of Tignes

Ben O'Connor
(Image credit: Getty)

Ben O'Connor is enjoying the second rest-day at the Tour de France. "I'm not thinking, I'm laying down, I'm soaking it up," he says. "My parents are here in Andorra too so I'll go say hello. I may even have a nap after this call. And I never nap."

He's got a new book alongside him too should he want to engage his brain, although it's not the book he wanted to be reading right now. "I left a really good book in one of the last hotels. That was such a bummer."

It's the only downside of a whirlwind two weeks for the O'Connor. Scrap that, 10 days. 

After stage seven of the Tour, the AG2R Citroën rider was 28th on GC, almost nine minutes back on yellow and five minutes short of Tadej Pogačar. A day later, it would be a gap of eight minutes to the Slovenian. Those pre-race murmurs in some corners of O'Connor being a potential dark-horse were looking rather unfounded.

But then stage nine happened, and O'Connor, 25, announced himself to the world how he had always dreamed. He infiltrated the day's breakaway and won in Tignes with a staggering margin of more than five minutes, elevating himself to second overall. Ahead of the resumption of the race on stage 16, he's fifth overall, 26 seconds off a podium.

"The 16-year-old me wouldn't have understood anything about cycling and what that day meant, but he would have known that just to be here at the Tour de France is wild," he tells Cycling Weekly, acknowledging that he didn't race a bike until he was 17.

"I mean, just to be a sportsperson and an athlete is enough. I always knew I had a calling to be an athlete in some kind of sport - and it happened to be cycling, I guess.

"The word to describe these last days? Proud, I guess. Proud to have made it here, proud with what I've done, and proud that I'm not just a sheep. It's nice when you are part of the race, actually doing something in it."

O'Connor is having a debut Tour de France that very few experience. He's pinching himself a lot. "It's just one of the most special moments," he refers to his victory in the Alps. "To be a Tour de France stage winner... it doesn't get any bigger than that in this sport.

"When I watched this race when I was younger, there was Froomey, Contador, Nibali, all these top, top guys at the front of the race who everyone cared about, and then now I'm one of those guys in their position. People are seeing me where they once where. It's one of the greatest things I've achieved so far."

There's an aura about the Tour de France that emboldens riders. The bunting, the loud caravan, the hub of anticipation and the fans - both those on the roadside and the millions around the world.

Does O'Connor feel in touch with the spirit of the Tour, at least in a figurative sense? "Look at the Olympics and you've got [Usain] Bolt, [Michael] Phelps, everything hangs off them. They are iconic. The Tour is the same but it doesn't hang off the riders, I don't think.

"It's the event itself that makes it special, not so much the people in it. We are the party piece, but the Tour itself and its stature, it taking place in the holidays, it being a celebration of France and the summer. You really feel that."

The enormity of the setting is why he feels inclined to put on a good show. Of his rivals for a podium spot - first place is gone, "we all know how good Pogačar is right now, when he goes we're just hanging on"  - he is the one most likely to ignite a stage.

Ben O'Connor wins stage nine of the Tour de France 2021

(Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Rigoberto Urán and Wilco Kelderman are steady but not flashy; Richard Carapaz has tried to attack but inevitably gets pulled back; Jonas Vingegaard and O'Connor are the unknown packages.

"I like the idea of being seen and not being known as a follow-up," he says, explaining everything you need to know about the type of bike rider he intends on being. "Just being there and not doing anything is not something I want to be.

"I look to take an advantage, any second I can, whenever I can. Every bit of time adds up, and ultimately you never know if tomorrow's going to be great or bad.

"My mentality is about maximising the time I can get, but also not being too stupid, not doing stupid moves and calculating. Whether that's the right approach or not I don't know, but that's how I race."

The final week begins with three successive mountain stages, including two consecutive summit finishes on Wednesday and Thursday. Unlike last week when time gaps were minimal, the general classification will be shaken and reordered in the coming days.

"I feel like I belong here for sure but also I do like the idea of just hanging on," he adds. "I believe that my win in Tignes put me back in a position on GC that I should have been in anyway. I have belief in my physical ability.

"With the mountain finishes coming up, it's a bit more tricky but I've got to be ready to jump when I think there is a moment, when the others are looking at each other."

Cadel Evans became the first Australian to win the Tour 10 years ago, and Richie Porte's third place last year made him only the second rider from Down Under to finish on the podium. O'Connor could be about to join the duo.

"I feel like I should have finished in the top-10 of a Grand Tour before but haven't. To go and finish on the podium at my first Tour de France... that'd be pretty wild."