Ben O’Connor’s unexpected victory on stage three of the Tour of the Alps is still sinking in for the young Dimension Data rider, as is the fact that he crossed the line solo ahead of riders that he has mainly only seen on TV at the Tour de France.
The 22-year-old took the biggest win of his short pro career in Merano, first following an early attack by Thibaut Pinot with more than 50km remaining and then, after that move had been neutralised by Chris Froome on the final descent, jumped clear with eight kilometres to go to cross the line with five-second gap.
“It was completely unreal,” O’Connor said wearing a huge smile and a slightly baggy young rider’s jersey at the start of the fourth stage in Klausen.
“It was amazing being there climbing with Pinot. I think that was pretty special because I’ve watched him on TV at the Tour de France while I was coming up through the ranks.
“And then Froome came up to me at the end to say congratulations. I am such an unknown that I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to him before. It was unreal.”
The result moved O’Connor up to eighth place in the general classification prior to Thursday’s stage, still more than 1-30 off the race lead of Pinot, but nearly three minutes ahead of team-mate Louis Meintjes who will lead Dimension Data at the Giro d’Italia in May.
However despite the current evidence of the Tour of the Alps general classification, O’Connor said that he will be going to the Giro in a domestique role for Meintjes although, of course, if the opportunity presents itself for a bit of personal glory then he will certainly take it.
Watch: Giro d’Italia route guide
“He [Meintjes] will click eventually,” O’Connor continued. “You’ve seen his expertise in the Tour de France before where he’s been in the top 10, and that’s an incredible result.
“For me I’ve done one race in Asia which was 12 or 13 days, but I’ve never raced for three weeks. It’s new territory for me.
“My aim is to be there for him in the mountain stages from day one. So that’s the aim and we’re going to try and stick to it. Maybe I’ll be able to get something out of it, but I have no big expectations for it.”
However in the longer term the Australian climber does have ambitions to develop into a GC rider, seeing the young rider’s jersey which he holds at the Tour of the Alps as the latest step in this journey.
“For sure I’d love to be a GC rider, but it’s so, so hard. To be consistent every single day is pretty insane, especially for three weeks,” O’Connor
“You always aim for the next little steps, so being in the young rider’s jersey is nice little confidence booster to then work on your big GC ambitions.
“You come to these races and to beat Froome is pretty impossible. I mean, it’s not impossible, but to have something like this [the young riders’ jersey] is a great thing for young riders to get to that next step of leading the race.”