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James Moultrie

Why Ben O'Connor is opting for a Giro d'Italia return over Tour de France

Ben O'Connor at the UAE Tour pre-race press conference.

For most professional cyclists, including Ben O'Connor, the Tour de France is the pinnacle of racing. It's the most important event on the calendar, with the most attention, the highest accolades, the biggest crowds and all the pressure to match it. But in 2024, it isn't where the Australian is hoping to succeed.

After two "average" years at the French Grand Tour, as he describes them, where crashes, illness, and a run of bad luck saw him not match his pre-Tour performance level, it's no surprise to see the Australian look for a change.

In December he told Cyclingnews that he would "love to do the Giro" but understood an expectation to race the Tour de France comes with riding on a French WorldTour team. Their best riders often have to ride the Tour - which is a blessing itself - but O'Connor's request was respected by the team and it's Italy in May where his ambitions lie.

"It was me and the team choosing together. Obviously, the Tour is a huge thing for this team, but I've enjoyed taking that chance to try something new," said O'Connor to Cyclingnews ahead of the UAE Tour.

"I'm glad the team was keen on the idea as I think it was about time to change my Grand Tour plans. Sometimes the same-same doesn't always work out and It's a Giro that suits me, so I can only just be excited."

Illness at the 2023 Tour de France saw him far from his best and his GC bid ended almost as soon as it started. The year before it was a torn glute muscle that ruined his ability to match his fourth-place overall and stage-winning form from his debut at the Tour de France.

"It's not really on my list of wanted options," said O'Connor from Abu Dhabi.

"To be honest, I wouldn't mind focusing on other things. But if I had to do the tour, it's not a bad thing. It's still the biggest, most spectacular race in general and the most well-known - it's always a pretty crazy experience.

"I just feel like the last two years have been pretty average. Well, last year was both good and bad. I think I wouldn't mind just separating myself from that and doing something else."

The Giro d'Italia is the something else O'Connor is taking on in 2024. He is returning to the race for the first time since 2020 where he took his maiden Grand Tour victory atop Madonna di Campiglio while riding for NTT - a win which secured his move to AG2R La Mondiale later that year.

"For that win, it was about relief after a pretty average two years," O'Connor said.

"2019 was terrible and in 2020 I did actually win at the start of the year and showed that I was good, but the rest of the year was super average and I really struggled to find myself. So that was super emotional for me."

Also in the back of his mind wasn't unfinished business with the Giro as such, but a feeling that his palmarès were missing something from the Italian Grand Tour where he "threw away" an almost certain top ten finish on debut during the 19th stage.

"In 2018 I crashed out when I was on GC and that hurt, that was really disappointing, because I think it's a very easy top 10 I just threw away needlessly," he said.

"It was gonna be my first Grand Tour, my first top 10 and to blow that opportunity on stage frickin 19, that was that was a bit sad. It's not like it's unfinished business, but it's a race where I feel like I've missed in my career pathway so far to make the most of."

It won't be an easy feat to challenge for the overall with Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) trying to complete the Giro-Tour double for the first time since Marco Pantani in the 90s, but O'Connor isn't focused on the superstar Slovenian, only his own campaign.

"He [Pogačar] is one of the best race racers and riders in the world. So to get your foot in front of him is pretty difficult, but in the end, I don't really care. You have to look at your own race and your own performance and what you are actually physically capable of.

"You have to focus on things that are within your control and try to execute that. Because if you look around too much, then maybe you can be a little bit caught up - on who's there."

For O'Connor, that road to the Giro starts at Monday's UAE Tour where he'll challenge the likes of Adam Yates (UAE Team Emirates) and Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) for the overall. The Australian fancies his chances but knows any uncostly errors in the exposed desert echelons could be his undoing.

"I got to make sure that I'm good in the wind. The time trial is pretty simple to do yourself and organise," O'Connor said.

"The climbs take care of themselves and they are all about managing - whether it's the heat, or just managing your teammates so that you're in position at the right moment for when everything hits the fan. While in crosswinds you really can lose could lose this race, for me that's the most crucial point for this race."

O'Connor is making his debut at the UAE Tour where Yates enters as the heavy favourite having won the overall in 2020 and been the best rider on the decisive climb - Jebel Hafeet - on multiple occasions. On the Australian's side is his flying start to the season from the Vuelta a Murcia where he took solo victory and Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale's first win in 2024.

"It was confidence building, it's not confirmation or anything but I think it's just a good way to start. It kind of puts you at this point where you can see that everything has worked out," he said.

"All the planning, the training camp - you see direct results immediately and that's probably one of the most enjoyable things to know, that the initial plan and organisation has worked."

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