‘Mind-blowing’ Alpine triumph hauls Aussie O’Connor into Tour de France frame
Australian climber Ben O’Connor soared to a high-altitude stage win on the Tour de France on a cold, rainy Sunday that culminated in an energy-sapping 21km ascent to the ski resort of Tignes.
O’Connor showed no signs of vertigo as he skipped up the final climb near the Italian border, leaving other members of his breakaway group, including Colombian pair Nairo Quintana and Sergio Higuita, trailing in his wake.
“It’s mind-blowing, it can make your heart stop and it definitely did that to mine,” said a visibly thrilled O’Connor.
This might be July but there was snow visible on the peaks for much of the race and the temperature was in single figures Celsius with rain falling most of the day.
“Conditions were atrocious,” said O’Connor, with riders looking frozen to the bone at the finish line, many trembling with cold.
Many riders missed the time delay cut and were subsequently disqualified from continuing.
One who didn’t was sprint specialist Mark Cavendish, left weeping with gratitude for his teammates who helped him make the cut.
“I’m so humbled and physically broken,” said Cavendish, who kept the green jersey for best sprinter. “This is the one stage I was afraid of.”
The last man home was Nic Dlamini, the first black South African to race the Tour, who dug deep on his debut to complete the stage, eventually coming in alone 1hr 25min off O’Connor’s pace and 32min adrift of the man before him.
– Some kind of miracle –
Pogacar once again showed he is currently the strongest of the overall contenders as he dropped Ineos pair Geraint Thomas and Richie Carapaz with 4km to go, gaining another 30 seconds in his title defence.
“Ben O’Connor is potentially a good GC rider, he’s super strong and super young. For sure he’s in contention now,” added the Slovenian leader.
O’Connor said earlier on Sunday it would take some kind of miracle for him to be in the top five in Paris in two weeks’ time.
“I’ll try my best but I’m not on the same level as Tadej (Pogacar), but I’m just enjoying the fact that I can now stand here with these guys and do what I can.”
– Who is better than us? –
Champion Pogacar said he had feared being ganged up on and had taken action every time someone attacked to discourage a mass rebellion.
Ineos certainly tried.
“Carapaz felt good for sure, in the end they tried and I respect that. I gave my best to counter-attack, because if I didn’t try I thought everybody would attack in the last kilometres,” he said.
He would also insist that any hopes he would fade in the final weeks because his team is weaker than others were misplaced.
“Who is stronger than us?” Pogacar asked.
“The guys do a fantastic job, I’m wearing the yellow, remember.”
Known as the ‘Condor the Andes’, Quintana had promised ahead of the day’s proceedings to go for the polka dot mountain points jersey, and he was as good as his word taking the lead with 50 points.
The Tour lost two big guns, however, as 2020 runner-up Primoz Roglic succumbed to exhaustion following on from a fall on Monday.
And Mathieu van der Poel decided to pack his bags for Tokyo, to focus on Olympic mountain bike gold after spending six days in yellow and sending the roadside fans wild with his gung-ho approach.
“I’ll be back next year,” promised the Belgian.
Monday is a rest day before Tuesday’s relatively flat 190.7km run from Albertville to Valence.
“I can get a lie-in at last,” race leader Pogacar said with some conviction.