‘Too many bikes’ clog O’Connor’s cobblestone chase

Ben O’Connor stood behind his team bus, his face showing the dust of the 40-odd miles he spent chasing and the thrill of not being able to catch. His press officer put an arm around his shoulders. TV cameras waited out front. A 15-foot Netflix boom mic floated above his head. Thirty seconds, maybe a minute passed. Bob Jungels, loyal domestic to the end, slowly swung his legs over a stationary trainer, staring straight ahead, eyes unfocused.

Ben O’Connor was probably not going to win this Tour de France. He said it himself before the race started. But the 26-year-old Australian was going to try, and a podium finish was a reasonable possibility. He was fourth last year. Instead, he exits the cobblestone stage of the Tour de France as one of the two best men overall to lose significant time. Four minutes, actually. He will take an exceptional two and a half weeks to come back from that.

“I’m a little sad,” he said, though he didn’t have to. “And a little disappointed. Just a little sad because there wasn’t much more she could have done today.”

Perhaps it would hurt less if the four minutes had been his doing. But for the most part they were not. A puncture in the second sector, out of 11 in total, pushed him well back. His team recovered and sent Geoffrey Bouchard, Mikael Cherel, and Benoit Cosnefroy straight back to him. The four chased and chased, and as those domestics faltered, more fell back on their leader.

The rear of a Roubaix stage does not experience the same stroke as the front. As the peloton splits up, each gap is infiltrated by vehicles, hordes of TV bikes and team cars and marshals filling every gap. They fly past riders on wide sections of pavement and then clog up the narrow cobblestone sections like dog hair in a drain, forcing riders off the smoother tops onto rougher, slower lines, sometimes forcing them to stop completely.

“Too many motorcycles and TV cameras everywhere,” O’Connor said. “A TV camera was passing in front of you and then all of a sudden there was a huge traffic jam. So it was kind of hard for us to chase him and we could never get close.”

The gap remained at a minute and a half for some time. If there was a tactical error, maybe it was not throwing the legs hard enough at the problem early on. I had Bouchard, Cherel, Cosnefroy, but the two riders most capable of closing a gap like that, Jungels and Oliver Naesen, didn’t come back until later.

“Maybe we could have all stopped right away?” he said O’Connor. “Maybe?” The question mark seemed genuine. He wasn’t sure if he had made a difference.

“Eventually Oli [Naesen] and Bob [Jungels] They were with me, until the end, the last 40k was just those two,” O’Connor said. “I really can’t thank you enough. We stayed together and tried to do the team time trial. But once again we lost a lot of time on the cobblestone with the cars.”

The team cut the interview short. O’Connor, her face still dusty, swung a leg over his bike and slowly pushed the day’s efforts away. “Too many bikes,” Jungels said quietly as he cooled down next to him. Both riders shook their heads. “We tried,” O’Connor said.

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