For ten months Ben O'Connor was the biggest general classification hope from Australia. After his fourth place at last summer's Tour de France, the third best GC result by an Australian at the race, he shouldered the expectation of a nation at the biggest cycling event in a world.
Then Jai Hindley went and won the Giro d'Italia last month. Another man from Perth, Hindley became the second Australian ever to win a Grand Tour, after Cadel Evans, and inherited that pressure and responsibility.
At his first opportunity to do so, O'Connor sent a reminder of how good a GC rider he is, finishing third overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné. It was his first podium at a WorldTour stage race, and was a result he could be proud of, even if he finished well over and a minute and a half behind the winner, Primož Roglič.
With fourth on stage seven, and third on stage eight, the AG2R Citroën rider showed that he is one of the best stage racers in the world, just days ahead of the Tour. His third place at the Dauphiné followed him finishing seventh at the Ruta del Sol, sixth at Volta a Catalunya, and fifth at Tour de Romandie.
There is no real competition between O'Connor and Hindley, of course, but it is interesting that the pair - separated by just a few months in age, the former is older - are coming to the top of the sport at about the same time. It is a golden age for Western Australian cycling, with Michael Storer (Groupama-FDJ) up there as well.
Last year, O'Connor was surprised to finish fourth at the Tour, but this time around there will be more expectation around him, but he is on track to handle this well.
"It is not what I thought would happen, and nobody would have thought that I could ever have finished fourth," he told Procycling magazine last summer. "Maybe I could do 10th, I thought, possibly, but I guess it's a good resilience for everyone, to never give up and keep pushing. Even just in general life too."
This weekend, despite finishing behind the Jumbo-Visma pair of Roglič and Vingegaard, both on the final two stages, and the overall GC, O'Connor said he was proud of the result.
“I can be super proud of this,” he said. “Jonas was second in the Tour last year, Primož has won the Vuelta three times and pretty much every other stage race. It just means you’re there fighting with the best guys, so I can be really proud today.”
O'Connor admits he still lacks the high-octane acceleration of his two Jumbo rivals, but this may prove less of a handicap on the long climbs of the Tour and multiple stages in the mountains.
“I would have loved to have been able to be with Jonas and Primož, but it was too explosive for me,” O’Connor explained.
“I tried to see if I could get back, but we just stayed the same distance. I thought I might get back to them, I still had legs, never exploded, I just couldn’t go with the first acceleration.”
After a couple of fallow years, 2021 was a breakout year and he's backed that up in 2022. He won a stage of the Volta a Catalunya on the way to sixth overall there, and his team can be proud of his progress.
“It’s kind of clear, I’m moving really well,” O’Connor said.
“All the work we’ve done as a team has paid off. We’re really not far away from fighting with actually the very best in the world, and that’s something we can be proud of.
“I just need to get to the Tour now, not get too tired beforehand, and hopefully not having too many problems in the Tour.”
Come July there will be more eyes on Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Roglič than O'Connor but rest assured the Slovenians will not want to let the Aussie out of their sights.
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