Ben O’Connor’s cycling career is not one that started early, in fact, O’Connor first raced a bike in 2013 at the age of 17.
O’Connor’s humble beginnings on the bike stemmed from one of his best mates and a cross-country running background.
Along with many newcomers to the cycling scene who get their first taste of racing in criteriums, O’Connor turned up at a criterium in Perth in the summer of 2013 - and won.
From that moment on, the ball was rolling.
O’Connor was handed his first opportunity by Wayne Evans, owner of Perth’s Cyclemania and founder of Lion Sports Management, where he has nurtured the careers of some of Australia’s best including Cameron and Travis Meyer, Wesley Sulzberger and Damien Howson.
Back in 2013, Evans also juggled the reigns of Perth-based National Road Series (NRS) outfit Satalyst-Giant Racing Team, which would become Navitas-Satalyst Racing Team in 2015 and race with a UCI Continental license.
Evans’ first interaction with O’Connor was at a State Time Trial event in Western Australia, one in which O’Connor raced in on a standard road bike.
“He had no time trial wheels, no time trial bars – nothing,” Evans said.
“He did a time of 56 minutes and that was the first time I noticed him, and I’d never seen this kid before that.
“I thought ‘who the hell is this guy?’ - he’s just turned up completely out of the blue and rattled off a 56-minute 40km time trial with no TT gear whatsoever.
“I asked him how long he had been riding a bike and he said ‘oh, I've been going about six months and I used to do some cross-country running’.
“I went ok, it’s clear to me you’ve got an engine – have you had a Vo2 test. He said no, then I asked if he had done any tests at all, and again he said no.
“Immediately I told him, mate, we’re going to get you one.”
A little while after O’Connor and Evans’ first meeting, Evans called Ben up and sat him down out the back of North Perth’s Cyclemania.
“So I sat Benny down and said ‘look, what’s your goals for the future, where are you at with all your vision on sport’,” Evans said.
“Now Ben is a very intelligent guy, his family is very academic and if he wasn’t doing sport, he’d be at university being an achiever as well.
“So when I asked him that, he said ‘oh look, probably do some triathlons’ and I kind of laughed.
“I told him ‘mate you’re pretty tall, you’re over 180-odd centimetres’.
“I know that doesn’t mean you’re not going to be a good triathlete, but I reckon we should focus just on the riding aspect for you - are you willing to do that? Are you invested in the thought process with me because I reckon if we just give you one or two years fully focused on the bike ... and let’s see what happens because I think you’ve got the capability.
“And he went ok, I listen to you, let’s give it a go.”
After racing the Tour of Tasmania at the tail-end of 2014 with Satalyst-Giant Racing Team’s development team, O’Connor stepped up to Navitas-Satalyst Racing Team, in 2015.
The NRS team hailing from the west had long pondered venturing into the Asian racing scene, particularly the allure of taking part in UCI 2.1 and 2.2 races, and Evans’ success in gaining title sponsor Navitas was their ticket up the ladder.
“Along with Matt Davis and Peter Pang as well as the entire management crew, our vision was to try to elevate the team into the UCI Continental ranks and if we could pursue that and take it further,” Evans said.
“We stood for what we wanted to see as an outcome, and we’d invested a lot of effort into a lot of the kids. I was always putting in a lot of my own money.
“At that time we had just signed Wesley Sulzberger to the team because he had finished with FDJ and the Orica-GreenEdge team. He had so much to give to the young blokes despite being at the end of his career.
“In hindsight, we know now we did our job, we did what we wanted to achieve. We just didn’t see it back then, that some of these kids were really going to go on and reach the pinnacle.”
O’Connor’s next step was to Australian heavyweights Avanti-IsoWhey Sports Cycling Team, managed and co-owned by Andrew Christie-Johnson (ACJ) and Steve Price, whose alumni include Richie Porte, Nathan Haas and Jack Haig.
For Evans, the opportunity was a no-brainer.
“I had a chat with ACJ and Ben’s journey continued with Avanti-IsoWhey under him,” he said.
“I still think ACJ is one of the best sport directors on the planet, period, of any size team.”
Opening eyes in Europe and Asia
After a solid performance at the Tour of Qinghai Lake in 2015, Navitas-Satalyst's Wesley Sulzberger put in the call to Christie-Johnson about his promising young teammate from Fremantle called Ben O’Connor.
“Wes said that this kid was good, and we should get him on board and try and get him off to Europe next year,” Christie-Johnson said.
“I knew Wayne really well, we’re good mates, and we discussed it.
“I asked if he was happy for me to look after him going forward. He knew he was probably a bit more of a local team and did do some overseas races but wouldn’t be in Europe.
“Wayne was really positive and engaging and was happy for me to approach Ben. Basically from that point, we signed him up for 2016.”
Among a star-studded squad home to the cream of the crop of Australia’s NRS scene, Christie-Johnson said O’Connor was just another guy on the team.
“We knew we had a good guy in Ben, but we had a lot of good guys – it was early days,” he said.
With Avanti-IsoWhey, O'Connor took a stage win at the New Zealand Cycle Classic, third overall at the Tour de Taiwan, and third overall behind Enric Mas and Tao Geoghegan Hart at the Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc in France.
He quickly caught Dimension Data's eye as a result, signing with the African WorldTour team for the 2017 season.
“To see Ben sign with a WorldTour team in 2017, even though that was quite some time ago, was the best part of it all,” Christie-Johnson said.
“That’s really all we do, to allow that pathway to get guys onto the WorldTour.
“And then you become mates and you keep in contact - and you're hoping that when they get there that they can then go on and not only have a job at the WorldTour but succeed at the highest level.”
Watching last night’s Stage 9 of the Tour de France to Tignes, Christie-Johnson began to reflect on images that seemed eerily similar.
“That stage (Stage 9) in particular was special because the Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc he did with us in June 2016, in that same exact region, was the international race which got him the contract into the WorldTour,” he said.
“The stage that actually got him into the WorldTour and got him recognised finished in Cluses, which is where they started yesterday. They basically did the course in reverse yesterday.
“I was following in the team car that day and it was freezing, it was only three weeks earlier than this time of the year, but it was freezing, raining and half of the field didn’t even finish - it was that cold.
“When he did something special there, I thought this guy is classy, he can handle all sorts of conditions.
“So then watching him on the same stage that he got signed at, in those same conditions just seemed like déjà vu.
“That’s what made it really special upon reflection.”
O’Connor’s heroics up Tignes was also a moment of recollection for Evans from his home in Perth, who had always instilled a strong emphasis on self-belief during the early days with Ben.
“Last night when he was up the road, it was amazing, in my head I was thinking don’t you think about these two guys, they’re going to try and focus on the stage, you just ride your tempo boy, ride to win the jersey. Don’t worry about getting muddled up in this little game of chess for the stage because these two will play games and you just need to put your power down,” Evans said.
“There was a time many years ago at a place we call Death Valley up in the hills, and we knew Ben was going to be racing against Graeme Brown and Travis Meyer from Drapac. This is where it is funny because I represented Travis as his agent as well as his friend and he’s still one of my good buddies.
“But as the manager of Navitas-Satalyst I said to Ben, personal friendships aside with Travis and my personal friendship aside with Graeme Brown, I’m going to tell you how you’re going to beat these guys – you need to ride the race exactly how I tell you and you will win.
“I said I want you to start the race and you just ride at threshold, just look at your numbers and ride at threshold, and I don’t care if it takes you 15km, 20km, 50km – it doesn’t really matter.
“Just ride at threshold and you will drop those other guys because Browny won’t be able to do it and Travis doesn’t have the condition to do it (after a horrendous crash).
“But if you ride at their level and you stop-start, stop-start you’ll play into the hands of Brown and you will get beaten, so ride your race and sit on your FTP and you will win that bike race.
“So they left the start line and Ben did as I told him and he sat on the front, and everyone must’ve thought oh what an idiot, but 30km later he was alone.
“He just kept opening the gap and won by four minutes. That’s what I was thinking last night – just do it, just ride your tempo because you will drop those two, they don’t have your engine Ben – and he did it.
“It was amazing, I shared so many days with Ben in the early days when I said mate just believe in yourself – you've got the capability.
“The other night he replied to one of my messages and said ‘cheers mate, thank you from the start and starting this journey for me’ - that meant a lot.”
Both Evans and Christie-Johnson made it known they believe O’Connor possesses the ability to remain on the podium of this year’s Tour de France.
“Ben gets better, Ben always gets better. He's got such a depth of engine of endurance in that body of his,” Evans said.
“He revels when it gets longer and harder so I do think there is more to come from Ben.
“He has now been a pro long enough to know his capabilities and what his depths are and that was shown last night when he rode under the radar into the breakaway and wasn’t afraid to commit.
“With about 80km to go he flicked the switch on basically and said this is it I’m going to go for it.
“He committed and he wasn’t worried about everyone else in the breakaway, he just sort of went about his game plan. I could see that, and the rest of the world could see that. That tells me Ben knows where he is at and knows where his capabilities are.
“I still maintain Ben is capable of a top-five finish no matter what, and he can stay on the podium, he just needs a little luck as well.
“I’ve always known he was going to be able to reach the top if he had the right opportunity at the right time and remained injury-free.
“Last night he showed that to the world - I’m still emotional, I can’t believe it. I mean I can, but it’s just so amazing.”
Pictures: Shannon Brisco (Navitas-Satalyst Racing team photo), Tour of Taiwan, New Zealand Cycle Classic, A.S.O./ Pauline Ballet