Ben O'Connor leads Filippo Ganna across the finish line during a stage of the 2024 Giro d'Italia.

Everyone’s a winner in O’Connor and Yates moves – except Decathlon

Jayco-AlUla and Visma-Lease a Bike score in the latest round of transfers, but Ben O'Connor's current team is left with a big hole to fill.

by Daniel Benson 27.06.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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The transfer market is alive and kicking with riders penning new deals and teams rolling out the red carpet as they court potential targets. As you read this, rider agents are booking flights for the first Tour de France rest day in order to meet with general managers and tie up loose ends. It’s all go!

Plenty of names are still up for grabs but several high-profile riders have already decided their futures, with Simon Yates heading to Visma Lease a Bike and Ben O’Connor moving from Decathlon-AG2R la Mondiale to fill his shoes. On the face of it, these two transfers make complete sense. 

The only potential loser in this particular merry-go-round could be O’Connor’s current team, who despite a stellar season consisting of 26 wins and counting, are losing a bonafide stage racer with over 2,200 highly valuable UCI points. (Points scored will stay with the team for purposes of the relegation standings, but Decathlon will have to replace his production in 2025.) 

Let’s start with Jayco-AlUla, the Australian WorldTour squad who are on the cusp of something of a transition in terms of their men’s roster. Losing a veteran leader like Yates would ordinarily spark panic within an organisation but the arrival of O’Connor eases any anxiety.

Yates is a former Vuelta a España winner, has won 10 Grand Tour stage wins across his career and when on form, can compete against the best bike riders in the world. There aren’t many athletes in that top echelon of the sport. 

However, he’s 31, hasn’t been in great condition so far this year, and hasn’t won a European WorldTour-level bike race since taking a clutch of stages at the Giro d’Italia in 2022. He’s on a fair but sizable salary yet doesn’t have a huge volume of UCI points at present. Jayco, meanwhile, has a decent budget but when your top dog isn’t consistently winning then it’s totally understandable to look around. 

The market this year wasn’t awash with options the calibre of Yates and while the team gave their leader plenty of  time to consider a contract extension they also needed to be prudent. For a while Red Bull-Bora’s Jai Hindley was of interest. He ticks several boxes in that he’s competitive in stage races, has won a Grand Tour, he’s younger than Yates and he’s Australian. Jayco are an international team but Aussie blood is in their DNA, so nationality cannot be ignored. 

Ultimately they settled on O’Connor. Like Hindley he’s younger than Yates, is in the midst of arguably his best season since 2021, and has potential to improve in both week-long races and Grand Tours. He’s also got a decent time trial under the hood, ticks the Australian box, and like Hindley and Yates doesn’t operate with an ego.

Another consideration when it came to scouting for a long-term replacement to Yates was long-term planning. Finding a new franchise-level leader isn’t just about 2025, and waiting in the wings is Luke Plapp. We still don’t know how far the Australian rider can go in the sport but at 23 he’s got a huge ceiling and could conceivably be a Grand Tour rider in three or four years. What Jayco really needed was a bridge: a rider who could potentially take over the mantle from Yates and perhaps become an experienced hand to guide Plapp through a Tour de France a few years from now. Both Hindley and O’Connor measured up in that sense too. 

We don’t know the exact timings of how things shook out but at some point in May it became clear to all concerned that Yates was leaving Jayco. O’Connor was still interested in a move, while Bora had moved quickly to extend Hindley’s deal. O’Connor certainly wasn’t the last option left on the shelf, and it could easily be argued that his fourth-placed finish at the Giro suggested he could be the better rider for 2025 and 2026. And now that the dust has settled Jayco has a rider who can instantly perform, improve, and help develop the team. It’s also the first time the squad have had a genuine home-nation GC talent for the Grand Tours. That’s a novelty that could kick-start the team in 2025. 

The transfers also make sense for Visma-Lease a Bike and Yates. Both are operating in similar spaces in that they want and need to win in the here and now. Yates probably has two years left in him before calling time on his career and after spending every year of his time in the pro ranks on the same squad, a change was probably needed. He may have looked at how his brother Adam had left the Australian squad and improved at both Ineos and then UAE Team Emirates and seen what a move could do for his career.

At Visma-Lease a Bike the 31-year-old will have opportunities to still win but he’ll also have far less pressure on his shoulders. No doubt he’ll work for Jonas Vingegaard at the Tour de France, and perhaps he’ll share leadership with another rider at one of the other two Grand Tours, but he won’t be the stage racing focal point. 

For Visma-Lease a Bike, they get a proven commodity who has a vault of experience and know-how in stage racing. The Dutch team probably watched on with envy in 2023 when Adam Yates played such a pivotal role in UAE’s Tour challenge and wanted a Yates of their own, so a two-year stint with their own version suits them perfectly. They’ll add firepower to their mountain train, while giving breathing space to some of their less-experienced stage racers who need more time to develop. 

The only potential losers out of these two moves is Decathlon, who will see their best stage racing asset walk out the door at the end of the year. Perhaps they couldn’t compete for price, and perhaps they wanted to invest more in backing riders like Felix Gall and the gaggle of promising talents they have coming through the ranks, but they certainly don’t have a ready-made replacement for O’Connor. 

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