So close. Oh so close. I have just finished watching and commentating on Ben O'Connor adding another heroic ride to the 2021 Tour de France. A race that seems content to suspend our disbelief on a daily basis. An expert display of patience, strength and determination, Ben was seconds from taking not just a stage win on one of this year's toughest stages but the yellow jersey too.
Back in 2018 I went out on my bike, I hadn't been riding in a few months, life had taken over and I was missing it. So being a moronic ex-pro I made my first ride as difficult as possible and rode up my local mountain, Rocacorba. I was incredibly slow, yet it was wonderfully enjoyable. It was Good Friday, and I planned to make the Easter weekend a cycling extravaganza. On day three I met a young pro, who turned out to be Ben. Today made me think of that day. This is the story, in both our words.
Rocacorba is a 10km long beast of a climb, one that is close to my heart. My first ride when arriving in Girona back in 2006 included an ascent of Rocacorba, my friend and future team mate, Christian Vandevelde, "kindly" took me up there. It wasn't as well known back then as it is now, in fact it had only been paved a couple of years before; it's a dead-end, a service road to the two antennae on the summit that make it so prominent in the local landscape. Since then it's become the training and testing ground for the world's greatest professional cyclists as well as a mecca for visiting cycling tourists. It seemed a good place to start my three day block... Albeit a painful one.
Day two I did my favourite local loop out and through Esponella, a forested undulating car-free blissfully quiet loop, it felt weird being on the small ring up and over lumps and bumps that I still vividly remembered stomping over with ease in the big ring. Yet I loved it, and it was less painful than Rocacorba.
Day three I rode out to our annual Easter lunch at our friend's house on the Costa Brava, and I chose to go over El Angels, a route I’d previously never taken. Even when I was a pro and would ride to their house, I never went that way. I thought it would be fine but it wasn’t. It felt like it went on forever, previously I thought of it as being an insignificant climb. This was the day I met Ben O'Connor for the first time.
Easter Sunday on the first day of April. Bright and clear blue sunshine greet a gleaming newly washed bike. It’s my first day back on the bike after a failed training camp in Sierra Nevada. I was sick, and the team sent me home. It is what it is. I don’t put my left shoe on before my right. I don’t wear new socks for the first day of the month. My only ritual is a coffee, it’s a double shot and thickly textured. Back in Perth, Australia, we call it a 'Long Mach topped up'.
Today, I don’t especially want to go train hard; both from the sickness and the fact it’s just a so goddamn stunning day. After a week of racing Volta Catalunya for my top WordTour result to date, and then four days in the snow at Sierra Nevada, all I want is to be outside. In amongst the fields of bright lush green, golden yellow, young bees amongst the flowers and that Spanish sun.
For a young professional racer it’s a dream job on days like these. Optimism surges back to you like a wave. It will be a week until my girlfriend arrives back to Spain, so I’m going to be on the bike for as long as possible to avoid the loneliness of an empty apartment. It’s amazing what balance can do. And I’m talking about life now. I had never lived by myself before. In my first year as a pro I lived in Italy - specifically Lucca. Medieval, charming and quintessentially Italian. I didn’t like it. It’s great for five days but to live there, not so much. I endeavour the modern. The contemporary. In that way it kind of sums up my first year as a neo pro: flashes of brilliance but looking back it was more of a year of searching for the right things, the right place and people.
I live in Girona now.
My second year as a pro is much better. I know what I’m doing now. The move from Italy to Spain has cleared things. I don’t need to be a monk - drink some red wine! Have some chocolate! Go to Barcelona for the weekend! It’s okay. The only thing this live requires is to work hard and be dedicated to your job. But never forget it is also your dream. Pro riders can sometimes lose sight of that, I believe. The dream. And on Easter Sunday I loved every moment.
I got to the top of Els, went into the monastery and bought a beer. It was sunny, so I thought I’d go and sit on the terrace. Outside I sat down but then I realised it was cold and it made me uncomfortable. I wasn't in the mood to be uncomfortable. I picked up my beer and went inside and sat in the dark and warmth. I felt happier inside. I looked at my phone, and I did what we do.
Having exhausted Instagram, I said my thank yous and descended the other side of Els Angels, moving from one ecosystem into another. The land on the other side of the hills feeling more like Tuscany or Provence than the Girona side, being filled with vineyards and hilltop villages. As I came off the monastery road, I saw a solo cyclist. My innate pro knew immediately it was a one of us.
I’ve been at it for hours now. I saw a group coming down from where the monastery is, I forget the name, and so now I’m on the flat, and I want to test my legs. Just for a moment. I tuck down. Then I see a guy up the road. It’s kind of breezy, but he still goes the no-hands-check-pockets-thing. Either he is trying to seem cool, or he knows what he’s doing. In Girona the roads are filled with amateurs and pros and sometimes amateurs think they are pros, and they do all the moves, and you need to get a little closer before you can tell. You can always tell, when you get closer.
I catch him. He stays up by the handlebars, so I have to greet and chat now. I want to anyway - I’m not really training here, I’m just soaking this up, so I begin talking about the scenery. I mean, how can you not? It is idyllic spring. I hear the English accent. I see the kit, and I kind of put pieces together. Could this not be David?
He’s scanning me. My bike, the team kit. It’s obvious he doesn’t know who I am, which is normal, I guess, but I know him. And that’s what makes it great. I don’t need to answer silly racing questions now. It’s more like living things. We talk about life when back at home around the racing. Now, with Easter celebration, that kind of thing.
I know his kit. It makes me jealous at times. We see it on the roads in Girona. Our team kit is a label for all who support us. It is who we represent, our sponsors and so forth and I love that, because it enables me to live my dream. I’m proud of my team kit, because it makes me think about that I’m a professionel bike rider. The kit is a permanent reminder of the dream. But the CHPT3 kit looks cool, and who doesn’t like cool? Cool class. Button class. Those buttons. Yes. David suggests, I’d take this small little road because it’s different. Okay. So we shake hands, he goes off to lunch, and I continue on my melancholic pedal.
The rider is getting nearer. I figured this could be interesting. Eventually he made it up, not a big feat to be fare, and we spent the initial seconds of him behind me deciding whether we would ride together. I could feel him there, so I opened up the road inviting him to ride next to me.
Dimension Data, I noticed that first. Then the fact he was tall and skinny, and ohh-so-young. We said, ’Hi/how you doing/where you going’ in that metier familiarity. He told me what a beautiful day it was, so green, he was enamoured with the landscape and told me so. It’s normal to appreciate as April and May are sublime here, although it’s probably rare to share so early and enthusiastically in a male introductory conversation, especially a metier one. But now he does it. Then I thought, maybe we’ve met before, hence his openness and I said, ’have we met before?’
He said, ’no. No, we haven’t.’ I looked as conspicuously as I could at his bike, his jersey, then his helmet, trying to trace more info, and I found the sticker on his helmet, an Aussie flag and O’Connor. Ben O’Connor, Australian. Neo-pro.
I had no idea who he was.
He said, he had been sent home from Sierra Nevada, where he’d been on a team camp and fallen sick. So rather than spread the sickness he was immediately returned to barracks aka Girona aka the Professional Cyclist’s Home From Home.
We talked about the mundaneness of being on the top of a mountain on a training camp, and considering Sierra Nevada was covered in snow while he was there, it made me understand, why he had been so open about the glories of a Catalan spring day. I guess he could relate more closely with the beauty and freedom on that day on that particular ride. Which was the same for me.
I enjoyed talking to him. I could talk to him in a way I’d forgotten I can talk to people. We talked about his job, the scene, our experiences, and it wasn’t long till we peeled off - maybe we spent ten minutes talking. He told me, how he loved what we were doing with CHPT3, and how he loved the look and the technical details and in particular the buttons. He loved the buttons. The fact that it didn’t look like you were on a team while pointing to his own jersey. That really made my day, and I said so in a rare fit of visible joy. I said, ’that’s it, it was designed for us!’
The whole conversation lightened my day. It reminded me of who I am and where I come from. The rest of the afternoon was spent chasing children and talking to friends before riding back home again. It is only 30 km directly, and I set myself the challenge of doing it as fast I could. For some strange and bewildering reason, probably the flashbacks of being a professional from briefly riding with Ben, that’s what I decided to do.
It had been a wonderful day. I got back into town, parked the bike, got inside our apartment, sat down and looked at some random cycling results. Someone did good there, someone not so good there. The usual. Boiled down, you are either on form or not on form. It is what it is. I’ve won twice before. Smaller races... in New Zealand and once in Austria - nonetheless joy is the overriding factor. I’m a couple of weeks away from winning a big stage at the Tour of Alps, certainly my biggest win, but I don’t know sitting at this table. For me, it’ll not just be a win in a normal bike race, it’ll mean more than that. The value is more. The attention is more. The presence of Chris Froome and co. And also it’ll be the way in which I win and the stage around it. Mountain pass, long range aggression, and then a huge roll of the dice in the final gamble in the valley. I can’t wait - I have no sprint. It’s my style and I think it attracts appeal - but it’s the only way in which I can win.
I’ll have the TV camera at my hip in those final kilometres, which will be a funny one. I’ll be half ecstatic to be on the verge of a win. And then half scared of being caught. Imagining my girlfriend with much more nervousness than me watching will certainly give a push - a drive to win. The thought of the work all your teammates did all day to keeping you safe/ready to fire when you tell them “I’m good” is another. The shouting in your ear from Alex the director sportif - to hear a friend in a time like this will be inspiring. The list can go on and on.
And then I’ll win. The finish line being a whole new experience for me. The photographers all clambering around with lenses ready to fire in your face; a microphone and the presenter throwing down questions. And all I’ll want is someone to embrace - hence why I’ll throw myself into Jesus’ arms (our Soigneur).
And I’ll need to soak up the moment and the jubilation before the next days racing starts a whole new day. At the end of the tour in Innsbruck I’ll win the Young riders jersey too. My Mum will ask me if I’ll have time to see Innsbruck to celebrate. And then I’ll come home to loved ones and the meaning of it will sink in. Pride comes from all corners. A win is not me. I’m a piece of one big puzzle. And a puzzle is never built from one piece.
It’ll happen. I don’t know it yet. But it will happen.
I ended up doing the slowest time trial of my life. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the effort was the same, it hurt and I took myself to the limit for the duration - I even stopped at a petrol station to buy a packet of gummy bears to avoid complete nuking - and the whole time I was reminded of just how hard it used to be, and how deep I would constantly go in those days. I didn’t miss that. Yet, I was happy to be reminded of it, and it made me understand a bit better why I am what I am, for better and worse.
My father-in-law had a cold beer waiting, and he asked me how it was, and I said to him, it was horrible, because it reminded me how hard it used to be, and then I said, I loved it though.