Ben O’Connor stepped behind his team bus, his face wearing the dust of 60-something kilometers spent chasing and the emotion of failing to catch. His press officer threw an arm around his shoulder. Television cameras waited out front. A 15-foot Netflix boom mic hovered over his head. Thirty seconds, maybe a minute passed. Bob Jungels, loyal domestique to the end, slowly spun his legs on a stationary trainer, staring straight forward, eyes unfocused.
Ben O’Connor probably wasn’t going to win this Tour de France. He said so himself before the race began. But the 26-year-old Aussie was going to try, and a podium was a reasonable possibility. He was fourth last year. Instead he exits the Tour de France’s cobble stage as one of two top GC men to lose significant time. Four minutes, in fact. It will take an exceptional two and a half weeks to come back from that.
“I’m a bit sad,” he said, though he didn’t need to. “And a bit disappointed. Just a bit sad because there wasn’t a lot else I could have done today.”
Perhaps it would hurt less if the four minutes had been his own doing. But they largely weren’t. A flat tire on the second sector, of 11 total, pushed him well off the back. His team rallied, sending Geoffrey Bouchard, Mikael Cherel, and Benoit Cosnefroy straight back to him. The four chased and chased, and as those domestiques faltered, more dropped back to their leader.
The back of a Roubaix stage does not experience the same race as the front. As the peloton splits, each gap is infiltrated by vehicles, hordes of TV motos and team cars and commissaires filling every space. They fly by riders on wide sections of pavement and then choke the narrow cobble sectors like dog hair in a drain, forcing riders off the smoother crown and into rougher, slower lines, sometimes forcing them to stop completely.
“Too many motorbikes and TV cameras everywhere,” O’Connor said. “A TV camera would cut in front of you and then all of a sudden there’s a big traffic jam. So it was a bit rough for us to chase and we could never get close.”
The gap hovered at a minute and a half for some time. If there was a tactical error, it was perhaps in not throwing enough strong legs at the problem early on. He had Bouchard, Cherel, Cosnefroy but the two riders most capable of closing a gap like that, Jungels and Oliver Naesen, weren’t brought back until later.
“Maybe we could have all stopped straight away?” O’Connor said. “Maybe?” The question mark seemed genuine. He wasn’t sure it would have made the difference.
“Eventually Oli [Naesen] and Bob [Jungels] were with me, until the very end, the last 40 k was just those two,” O’Connor said. “I can’t thank them enough really. We stayed together and just tried to do the team time trial. But, once again, we lost a lot of time on the pavé with the cars.”
The team cut off the interview. O’Connor, his face still covered in dust, swung a leg over his bike and slowly spun away the day’s efforts. “Too many motos,” Jungels said under his breath as he cooled down next to him. Both riders shook their heads. “We tried,” O’Connor said.