Nine months ago, West Australian cyclist Ben O’Connor was at a crossroads in his career.
The Giro Rosa, also known as the women’s version of the Giro d’Italia, took place at the start of July and Mara Abbott (USA national team) claimed overall glory for the second time in her career.
In terms of the women’s professional calendar it is recognised as one of the most important tours of the year but unfortunately it is usually overshadowed by that small race in France that also happens in July.
The 2013 edition of the Giro was eight days this year with a nice mix of stages, from flat sprint stages to undulating terrain and a couple of mountain top finishes.
We started in Southern Italy in the Puglia region and made our way up the Amalfi coast to Ancona before crossing over to the Adriatic coast and into the Liguria region.
From there we made our way inland and up into the mountains for a stage before heading back down and finishing in Cremona in the region of Lombardia.
There were some long transfers but the scenery and stages we encountered made for a beautiful race, and we covered a lot of Italy over the eight days.
My team Orica-AIS went into the race with the goal of chasing stages and taking opportunities as opposed to protecting one rider from the start and building a team around them to chase the overall classification.
We took this approach as heading into the race we didn’t have an outright favourite for the overall and with such a strong and diverse team with everyone capable of a stage win, we could use our strengths in different ways.
Often if you are chasing stage wins the overall classification can come to you and fall into place when you don’t expect it.
Basically, it was an opportunity for everyone in the team to step up, put themselves in the race as if one of us is in a race-winning position then the team will always get behind them and support the move.
I personally was heading into the race to try and have a go at chasing GC honours, with the goal of a top ten finish.
The team gave me the opportunity to do this but it was up to me to put myself into the position for GC first before we change the plan of stages and support GC.
After last year’s performance of a stage win and 11th overall on the final classification personal expectations were quite high.
My preparation heading into the race was a little bit up and down. I had a three-week training block in the lead up to the race and I spent that training around Monaco and the Cote d’Azur, my European training base.
I am lucky to have such a beautiful place to train, many times riding through three countries in one day, along the sparkling blue coastline or up into the Alps that surround the area.
After some recovery days when I returned home from racing in Spain I had a structured program to follow.
It was made up of a combination of short but intense days with a lot of efforts and some longer endurance days through the mountains.
There was a recovery day in there every few days where you spend more time at the coffee shop than riding. These days are always the nicest, especially when you have a good group of people to keep you company.
I had a small spanner thrown in the works a little over a week out from the race when I came down with a chest infection and was run down. Not really what you want, but at least there was still some time to recover.
As an athlete you generally have the mentality where you want to try and push through and keep going, and it is very difficult to tell yourself to stop and rest. But ultimately, it is the best thing for you and the quickest way to get on top of things.
I spent the majority of the final week before the Giro doing very slow and easy rides with no intensity in order to get better along with a short course of antibiotics.
To add to the sickness I also found myself one evening in hospital after a small kitchen injury, slicing my finger open with a knife resulting in four stitches in my pinky.
To say the least I wasn’t feeling overly confident heading into the Giro, feeling underdone and unsure how my form would stand up over the eight days.
It was nice to have two ‘easy’ days for the opening stages of the race, ending up in sprint finishes and my task was to just surf wheels, look after myself and get ready for the harder days coming up.
It allowed me to be able to ride into the race and let my body feel race intensity again before hitting the first ‘hillier’ day.
By the third day of racing I was starting to come good and feel myself again so what better way to show that than by putting myself in the move of the day.
It was a tough stage, up and down all day, fast technical descents and nice climbs with a short but steep cobbled climb up to the finish.
I found myself away with Marianne Vos and four other riders; the break was formed on an early descent.
Vos used her superb handling skills to put pressure on the entire peloton and only the brave or crazy made it to the bottom in one piece with the front.
This set up the entire race, as you never want to give Vos an inch because she will take a mile.
With many teams missing out on the move and in particular many GC contenders back in the main pack we knew they would be breathing down our neck. If we wanted to stay away, we had to keep the pressure on.
As we made our way back up the valley towards the finish, one by one my breakaway companions dropped off until it was only Vos and myself with 40km remaining in the race.
I was feeling strong on this day, strong enough to battle for the win, I was climbing well and although on my limits on the descents trying to hold the wheel of Vos, I was surviving.
All good things did have to come to an end eventually and my luck ran out. As we were on the final descent still with a 45-second buffer on the chase group and only about 8km remaining.
Before I knew it I was doing a commando roll on the ground around a hairpin bend, my front wheel had slid out from underneath me, as my hopes for fighting for the stage win were gone.
I was up on my bike quicker than I was down but by the time I got going again the chase group had just about reached me and I was caught.
Vos continued on to take the stage win as I was left licking my wounds, frustrated but looking at the positives that I could take out of the stage.
I was lucky that I wasn’t too injured from the crash, a couple of cuts and bruises to add to the collection but I pulled up pretty well the following day and I wasn’t too stiff or sore. I was ready to fight another day and get ready for the next round of battle.
The fourth stage was another ‘relaxed’ day for me, the longest stage of the tour but also fairly flat.
I only needed to be switched on and fighting for the final, a 2km drag up to the finish but you can never be completely relaxed as you need to be aware of what is going on within the race and keeping one eye on the other GC contenders.
It was a day for my other teammates to try and get into a move, as the following two stages were big climbing days that I needed to be ready for.
I didn’t choose the best day to have anti-doping control and a podium visit (for a bonus prize for the intermediate sprint during the stage) after the day’s action as we had the longest transfer of the race, a five-hour drive across Italy.
Normally after the stage it is good to try and get away as quick as possible and on the road so you can get to the next hotel and start the massages and recovery as soon as possible.
It was a long day for both riders and staff, it’s all part of the adventure though and everyone is in the same boat.
The following two stages of the race were going to be the decisive days for the overall General Classification, and where the race would more or less be won.
Two mountain-top finishes with one short but hilly stage all day, followed by a longer stage with less climbing but still a hard climb to the finish.
They were both beautiful stages. Hard, fast and aggressive racing, but ultimately it was the true climbers that excelled and showed their strength, in particular Abbott – she is in her element on any long uphill finish.
What I found special about these two stages was just how great the contrast was with the area we stayed in.
We went from the beautiful sparkling blue waters of the Cote d’Azur, very busy with tourists and beaches to quite a remote hotel at the top of a mountain at 1800m just a three-hour drive away.
You felt so far removed from the world; it was incredibly peaceful and relaxing with so few people around.
The hotel owners were responsible for more or less building the little ‘village’ where it was located as when they first came there, there was nothing.
We were very close to the Swiss boarder, and if you went for a hike on one of the tracks around the area you would probably find yourself in Switzerland.
Stage 7 was a special day for me, mainly because it was my birthday. For the last six years I’ve had the privilege of spending my birthday celebrating it at the Giro.
It means you miss out on having wild parties but there is always a chance for belated celebrations once we’re finished racing.
It is fun though when you have a nice team around you to spend it with and a lot of fellow cycling friends to make it a good day.
To say the least there was a lot of cake on hand to be consumed, luckily all the mountains were finished and we only had flat racing remaining so we were able to enjoy it.
The stage itself was pretty uneventful; it was the last chance for sprinters to leave their mark on the race or a breakaway to succeed being the last road stage.
It was fast racing, aggressive and very hot, I was pretty happy to just get it done to be honest as my legs weren’t great on this day.
We had a sprinter in our team so our major goal was for a sprint and to try to set it up for her.
Needless to say it did finish in a typical hectic sprint, won by Vos, but in these type of finishes we always joke that it’s a win if you just stay upright, as quite often there is carnage.
The 2013 edition came to a close with a 16.7km Individual Time Trial: dead flat, super fast, not very technical but some lovely rough pavement for the final 300m of the race.
If you aren’t fighting for final GC classifications, or a pure time triallist looking for a stage win then it was about getting out there and getting it done.
The sooner this happens, the sooner you can tuck into a gelati and enjoy the real reason that people visit Italy for.
Ellen van Dijk (Specialized Lululemon) finally gave her team a stage win for the race taking the win on the final day.
The course was right up her alley and she has been consistently showing this season that she is becoming one of the world’s best time trialists.
The end of the Giro was a bit of an anti-climax for me personally as I wasn’t able to hang around, relax and enjoy the finish with my team mates.
Instead as soon as I had put in my effort, left everything I had out on the road, I had a second race of the day – the race to get back to Milan to make my flight home.
Overall though I love racing the Giro, it is a beautiful race and one I love coming back to.
We had a nice atmosphere this year, good crowds and organisation combined with a challenging route but with stages for all types of riders.
I ended up finishing 11th overall in the final classification, just outside of my goal but equaling my best overall performance in the race.
I spent a day leading the mountains classification earning myself a nice green jersey to wear and had a close but no cigar stage where if I didn’t crash, who knows what would’ve happened but that’s bike racing for you.
Lots of positives to take out of the race and an amazing team Orica-AIS to race alongside.