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Caleb Ewan: The waiting game

23 Jul 2018

Words Kieran Pender Photography Wouter Roosenboom

Four years ago he was hailed as ‘the most promising young talent in the land’. Since then he has cemented his position as Australia’s best sprinter, but Caleb Ewan displays none of the bravado or cockiness common among his rivals.

Standing just 5ft 6in tall, Ewan has a Colgate smile, carefully styled hair and a tattoo with his name in Korean, the birthplace of his mother Kassandra.

While he could swagger with the best of them, he’s reflective and self-aware beyond his years.

Perhaps it’s because the sprinter has had to grow up fast. Ewan was beating highly fancied riders at 17 and signed a professional contract before his 20th birthday.

His unusual style saw him gain international attention – his diminutive statute allows him to sprint in an aerodynamic position, with his head just centimetres above the handlebars – as has wins against the likes of Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan.

Australian pro Simon Gerrans first met a young Ewan through a mentorship programme established by Cycling Australia.

‘I saw this ambitious young guy with truckloads of potential,’ says the two-time Monument winner. Reigning Australian national champion Alexander Edmondson, meanwhile, has known Ewan since they were kids:

‘Caleb is still super young, but he has characteristics that a lot of people don’t have,’ he says. ‘I won’t say he’s the best sprinter in the world, though, or he’ll get a big head.’

Boy to man

Ewan now calls Monaco home, and he looks every bit the resident of the glitzy Mediterranean city-state, but it’s a world away from his childhood in the leafy southern highlands of New South Wales where he first learned to ride on rural roads.

Ewan’s early childhood was filled with football and rugby. It wasn’t until his 10th Christmas when the gift of a mountain bike spurred his interest in cycling, and he would go on to win his first track race on the same bike.

Ex-pro Patrick Jonker once described Ewan as ‘someone Australian cycling has never seen – a phenomenon’. But his success didn’t always seem so predestined, and Ewan’s mid-teenage years were full of mediocre results.

‘A lot of the stronger kids back then just go to the front of the bunch in track races with two laps to go, stay there and win,’ Ewan says.

‘Because I was never strong enough to win like that, I always had to think about what I was doing. It was probably one of the best things that’s happened to me in my career so far, because it really teaches you how to race in the bunch.’

The sprinter’s early breakout moments came at the Mitchelton Wines Bay Classic, a criterium series that opens the Australian summer of cycling.

In January 2012, 17-year-old Ewan won two stages against some of the nation’s best sprinters. Race director John Trevorrow can still vividly remember the final stage of that year’s race.

‘Leigh Howard was leading out Allan Davis into the final corner, and it seemed a fait accompli that the new Orica-GreenEdge team [now Mitchelton–Scott] would win,’ he recalls.

‘Caleb came off third wheel and went past two world-class sprinters so easily it made my head spin. I remember Phil Liggett saying at the time that Mark Cavendish and Robbie McEwen couldn’t have done it any better.’ Ewan has since won the series on three occasions.

In 2013 Ewan joined Australia’s World Tour Academy programme, which meant leaving school halfway through his penultimate year and heading to cycling’s homeland.

‘I first came to Europe when I was 16, and then my stints just got longer and longer,’ he says. After a slew of junior results, including two stages at the prestigious Tour de l’Avenir, Ewan signed pre-contract terms with Mitchelton-Scott.

‘By the time I was pro I’d already done six months in Europe,’ he adds. ‘I was lucky I had that progression – it wasn’t like I was living at home and then suddenly I was in Europe.’

Ewan joined the team as a stagiaire in mid-2014, before turning pro the following season.

At that point, Mitchelton-Scott sports director Matt White suggested five UCI wins would represent a successful year. Ewan almost achieved that feat in just one race – the Tour de Korea – where he won four stages and the general classification.

Stage wins at the Tour de Langkawi and Vuelta a España would follow, while 2016 and 2017 saw similar levels of success. This February Ewan won the Clásica de Almería, while in March he placed second at Milan-San Remo.

He offers a measured appraisal of his first three years as a pro. ‘I could never have gone from the top of juniors and under-23s to immediately being at the top of the WorldTour,’ he says.

‘I knew I wouldn’t be winning everything straightaway.’ But the victories came thick and fast, and at the time of writing Ewan has almost 30 wins on his palmarès.

‘A lot of riders start off slower, but I had an opportunity where the team gave me responsibility right from the start,’ he says. ‘I never had to do my few years proving myself before they started helping me.

‘I’m always looking towards improvement, but I’m really happy with how it’s gone.’

The big dream

Despite racing the Vuelta in his debut season and contesting the Giro d’Italia in 2016 and 2017, Ewan had been a notable omission from Mitchelton-Scott’s recent Tour de France rosters.

His continued absence from cycling’s biggest race has been the source of some frustration to Ewan and those close to him. His agent Jason Bakker, who formerly managed Cadel Evans, reportedly raised the issue with the team last year.

While disappointed, Ewan accepts there may have been sense behind the team’s decision-making.

‘I’d have preferred to have raced it by now,’ he says. ‘I’d planned to race the Tour within my first two years, but I’m always ambitious like that.

‘In hindsight, maybe it was better I waited. You always think what could have been – there was a lot of sprints last year, and I’d have liked to go then – but it’s hard to fit my ambitions in with the team’s ambitions.’

White is diplomatic. ‘Caleb is very ambitious and we’ve been very careful with his development,’ he tells Cyclist.

‘Keeping Caleb’s ambitions in check with his development has been challenging at times.’

It seemed as if Ewan’s hopes had finally been met. In December, Mitchelton-Scott announced their intentions for 2018 unusually early.

‘We know Caleb is ready for the Tour,’ White said at the time. ‘It’s going to be a learning experience and we’ll be supporting him 100 per cent.

‘He’s won at the Giro and the Vuelta and the natural progression is that now he gets a crack at the Tour de France.’

Ewan was ecstatic. ‘Ever since I turned pro that was the one race I wanted to compete in,’ he says. ‘When I finish my career and look back, I want to have Tour wins.’

Then, on 21st June, Mitchelton-Scott dropped a bombshell. Despite their December announcement, and despite Ewan’s racing calendar being deliberately tailored towards July, as well as his recent attendance at a pre-Tour de France training camp, the Australian team left him at home.

‘Devastated is an understatement of how I feel,’ he tweeted soon afterwards. ‘I was on track to being more than ready for my TDF debut. So much hard work has gone into this from my sprint team and I to be ready for our big goal this year.’

Instead, Mitchelton-Scott will focus solely on their general classification aspirations with Adam Yates, a move that has since backfired with Yates well off the pace at the Tour.

The team’s decision has left many bewildered. Ewan was firmly tipped for stage success. Trevorrow, a former national champion and close friend of Mitchelton-Scott owner Gerry Ryan, was confident.

‘I would be surprised if Caleb did not win a stage in this year’s Tour,’ the 69-year-old had predicted. ‘He is ready.’

No longer, it seems.

Fast into the future

Even before his shock Tour omission, Ewan’s future was uncertain. In June Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad reported that Ewan had refused to sign an extension to his Mitchelton-Scott deal and has been offered a contract by Lotto-Soudal, who are looking to replace André Greipel.

Mitchelton-Scott’s current general classification emphasis, with the Yates brothers and Esteban Chaves, has placed Ewan in an awkward position.

‘The hardest thing for the team to manage is the fact that they have three guys wanting to do well in GC,’ he states matter-of-factly. ‘I have to fit in with that.’

Scott McGrory, an Australian cycling commentator and past Olympic gold medallist on the track, thinks a move away from Mitchelton-Scott is possible.

‘Caleb would like to stay with his current team due to the Aussie connection,’ McGrory suggested before the team’s Tour de France squad was announced.

‘But he is ambitious. If he misses out on the big races because of the team’s general classification aims, I don’t think he’ll hesitate to leave. Lotto-Soudal may be a good option, but there would be a few teams keen to get him on his way up.’

Whether Ewan’s non-selection was made for purely sporting reasons or partially motivated by personal politics, a departure from Mitchelton-Scott now seems highly likely.

His agent Bakker tweeted ominously: ‘I’ve seen the highs and lows of sport for 30+ years. Tonight is a huge low. So sad for @CalebEwan and his @LeTour non-selection. I wonder how this decision will look in five years’ time.’

Wherever Ewan finds himself in 2019, a Tour de France debut will be front of mind – now more than ever before.

While he is keen to stress that the hallowed green sprint classification jersey is not on the immediate agenda – ‘my priority is to go for stage wins’ – Ewan is open about his bigger ambitions.

‘As a sprinter you want to win the Tour de France green jersey at some stage in your career,’ he readily admits.

Realising this aspiration will be no small feat, with puncheurs such as Peter Sagan and Michael Matthews able to collect sprint points on both flat and climbing stages.

‘They probably have the best chance of getting the green jersey,’ Ewan concedes. ‘Unless they change the points scheme to suit pure sprinters, or if it’s a Tour with a lot of flat sprints, it’s going to be hard to win.’

If Ewan is able to overcome this obstacle – and at just 24, time is on his side – he would join Matthews (2017), Robbie McEwen (2002, 2004, 2006) and Baden Cooke (2003) on an Australian-dominated recent green jersey winner’s list.

Indeed, it was this sprint pedigree that inspired Ewan’s interest in cycling.

‘Australia has a long history in the green jersey,’ he says. ‘I first started watching the Tour in 2003 when Baden Cooke and Stuart O’Grady were going head to head, and it came down to the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées.

‘It’s a competition I’ve always followed, and I would love to add my name to that Australian history.’

It may be a few years until Ewan is contending for the maillot vert, but it would take a bold observer to bet against him one day adding his name to that illustrious roll of honour.

‘He doesn’t lack confidence,’ says BMC Racing’s Gerrans, a former teammate and mentor to Ewan.

‘But I think once he gains more experience, and once the strength necessary to get through Grand Tours and be consistently sprinting for the win is there, he will be a green jersey contender for sure.

'The sky is the limit for what Caleb is going to achieve in this sport.’

It’s now up to Ewan to show what he can do. ‘Caleb has talent – people have been talking him up for a long time,’ adds Mitchelton-Scott sports director White. ‘But at the end of the day potential is just that.

‘McEwen, O’Grady – they had successful careers for nearly 20 years. The ball is in Caleb’s court – it’s all in front of him.’

After White decided against giving him that opportunity this July, it seems almost inevitable that Ewan’s success will come away from the Australian team that nurtured him from prospect to pro.

For now, however, all he can do is wait.

Timeline: Caleb Ewan's story so far 

1994: Born on 11th July in Sydney, Australia to Kassandra and Mark.

2004: The gift of a bike for Christmas prompts Ewan to begin racing.

2011: Five top-five finishes sees Ewan claim the junior omnium world title in Moscow.

2012: Ewan narrowly misses out on a junior road race crown at the World Championships in the Netherlands.

2015: Four stage wins give Ewan the Tour de Korea yellow jersey, his only senior GC victory to date.

2015: Takes his first Grand Tour stage at the Vuelta a España, outsprinting John Degenkolb and Peter Sagan.

2016: Wins two stages during his ‘home’ WorldTour race, the Tour Down Under.

2017: Secures another Grand Tour triumph on Stage 7 of the Giro, beating fellow sprint prodigy Fernando Gaviria.

2018: Comfortably wins the Australian criterium championship, his third in a row.

2018: Finishes second at Milan-San Remo behind lone breakaway rider Vincenzo Nibali.

Caleb Ewan on... 

… three consecutive national crit titles:

‘I always want to get my season off to a good start, so I put a lot of emphasis on the Australian leg of the season. It’s always nice perform in front of a home crowd.’

... finishing a Grand Tour: 

‘If I really wanted to have finished the Giro in 2017, I could have. The Vuelta in 2015 was different – when I pulled out of that I was absolutely dead. I now have the ability to finish a Grand Tour.’

... mental strength: 

‘As a sprinter you need to go in with confidence – that’s the biggest asset you can have. At the top level everyone is so similar in ability. Having that confidence over other guys – who might be doubting themselves – can make a world of difference.’

... turning pro:

‘When I was at the Australian Institute of Sport, everything was done for us – we were taken care of. When you turn professional, you’re on your own. That’s the hardest part. You’re not just moving out of home, but moving to a different country and having to race at a high level at the same time.’