Australian Ben O’Connor held off Sergio Higuita and Nairo Quintana to win stage 9 of the Tour de France, as Tadej Pogacar retained the yellow jersey on another wet day in the Alps.
After his sensational performance on Saturday, Pogacar was not involved in the battle for the stage win, but the Slovenian upped the pace on the final climb of the day to keep the lead of the general classification.
O’Connor moved into second place overall despite starting the day more than eight minutes behind Pogacar in the standings, following a hugely impressive ride from the 25-year-old. He dropped Higuita and Quintana before going solo on the final 20-kilometre climb and briefly threatened Pogacar’s hold of the yellow jersey before the defending champion pulled away in the final couple of kilometres of the second successive mountain stage.
“It was always the dream, just to be here is the first dream,” O’Connor said after securing the win. “I actually wasn’t meant to be in the break. I heard it was a great opportunity, to gain time on the GC, and I knew I could always win at the end.
“I was blowing pretty hard, but it was a mad stage, conditions were atrocious. I was concerned that Tadej was going to explode from behind and chase me down, but I knew I could win the stage. I had faith the whole time, and it was about making sure I didn’t panic.”
The effects of a brutal Tour and a seismic first outing in the mountains were felt before the start of today’s stage as Mathieu van der Poel and Primoz Roglic quit the race. Van der Poel held the yellow jersey from stage 2 through to stage 7 but had been left flattened by the climbs in the Alps, while last year’s runner up Roglic suffered through the pain of his stage 2 crash as he was dropped from general classification contention yesterday. They were joined by Tim Merlier, who won stage 3, in dropping out, in what proved to be another day of attrition.
The 145-kilometre mountain stage from Cluses to Tignes saw an early split in the peloton as a large group of 43 riders broke away from Pogacar and several other general classification contenders. A group of six riders, including O’Connor, led the way up the first of two Category-One climbs, with the wearer of the King of the Mountain jersey Wout Poels beating Quintana to the top of the Col des Saisies, despite a late sprint from the Colombian.
Quintana put his foot down on the following descent before he was joined by compatriot Sergio Higuita and O’Connor. Poels quickly fell away, along with Michael Woods and Lucas Hamilton, as the group of six was reduced to three for the climb up to the Col des Saisies.
The breakaway riders built up a lead of eight minutes and 20 seconds over Pogacar, which briefly gave O’Connor the virtual lead in general classification after the Australian started the day 8:13 behind the yellow jersey. Quintana reached the top of the following two climbs to Col du Pré and Cormet de Roselend ahead of Higuita and O’Connor to take the lead in the KOM standings in what proved to be the highlight of his day.
In sodden conditions, the descent off the Cormet de Roselend threatened to be treacherous, but while Higuita and Quintana tackled the final downhill with frightening speed to briefly lead, O’Connor was able to catch up ahead of the last climb of the day up to Tignes and the Australian held a 20-second virtual gap over Pogacar ahead of the long ascent.
O’Connor attacked at the start of the climb up to Tignes to leave Quintana and then Higuita in his wake, and the Australian continued on his own as he closed in on the win. The 25-year-old’s strong pace forced Team Ineos to kick into gear in the closing stages in order to protect Richard Carapaz’s place in the standings, but it was a move which backfired as the team fell away and Pogacar burst clear to close the gap on O’Connor – eventually finishing six minutes off the Australian, but increasing his overall lead in the Tour to over two minutes following Van der Poel’s exit.
The race will now pause for a rest day before heading to the Pyrenees.