Ben O’Connor (AG2R-Citroën) recognises he’s on the edge of the main GC battle for the Vuelta a España, but the Australian says rather than jettison hopes of a high overall placing, for now he’ll keep his shoulder to the GC wheel.
Eleventh overall, O’Connor believes a top 10 result remains potentially within his grasp, and he will fight the GC fight at least until Sierra Nevada. Failing that, his second goal of completing his ‘set’ of Grand Tour stages remains very much on the radar, too.
“At the moment, I’m there but I’m not there,” O’Connor told Cyclingnews at the start of stage 13. “I’m trying to do my best every day, but being realistic I can’t fight with the top three or top five guys.
“So it’s day by day. First it’s this weekend, do the best GC ride I can until then, and then see if there’s a chance in the last week.”
O’Connor has produced his best Grand Tour rides in the high mountains, with a memorable win at Tignes in the Tour de France last year acting as a key foundation stone for his fourth place overall in Paris, too. And in 2020, his win at Madonna di Campiglio helped push him towards breaking the top 20 in the Giro d’Italia.
But O’Connor knows that the two summit finishes this weekend are both exceptionally major challenges in anyone’s book, too, and they will define the 2022 Vuelta outcome to a large degree. So while hopeful, he’s keeping his feet to the ground.
“This weekend is the most important of the race,” he said categorically. “Tomorrow [Saturday in La Pandera] is really hard, it’s draggy, you’re always on the pedals at the end. I’s going to be decisive.
“Then Sierra is Sierra, it has the altitude, the length, the really steep gradients at Hazallanas. It’s one of the hardest mountain top finishes you probably can do.”
If both ascents sound daunting, on the plus side the Vuelta’s move inland on stage 13 means although it’s still very hot, it is no longer as horrendously humid as it has been.
O’Connor graphically described the combination of high temperatures and high moisture levels earlier in the race as “like riding through a rain forest,” but thankfully, he said, that is no longer a factor in his personal Vuelta equation.
“For sure the humidity was killing me, the TT was vulnerable,” O’Connor said. “This dry heat is like what we have back home in Perth, but I enjoy that. Humidity like that – it’s not for me.”
As for who is potentially vulnerable on GC ahead of him, O’Connor has two names in his sights.
“Jan Polanc [UAE Team Emirates in 10th] is there, but I’m fairly sure he’ll drop. Wilco [Kelderman, Bora-Hansgrohe in sixth], you never know but if you go off the first week, I’ll be surprised if he stays in the top 10. As for me, I don’t think finishing in the top ten would be a bad result.”