INTERVIEW: CALEB EWAN
Austral ian sprinter Caleb Ewan has been desperate to star t the Tour since he burst onto the pro scene in 2015. Procycling speaks to the young prodigy about bringing his style to the big stage
Australian Caleb Ewan on his sprinting style and making his long-awaited Tour debut
Some of us - most of us - are almost certainly never going to ride the Tour de France. But if ever there was a rider who seemed destined to, it’s Mitchelton-Scott’s Caleb Ewan. And if anyone had any doubt at all as to whether the 23-year-old sprinter is ready, they only had to watch him finish two lengths clear of the bunch at Milan-San Remo in March.
True, he was ‘only’ sprinting for second place, after Vincenzo Nibali had jumped clear on the Poggio and soloed to a well-taken victory. But those Ewan beat read like a who’s who of the world’s top sprinters. They were all there: Arnaud Démare, Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan, Michael Matthews, Elia Viviani, Marcel Kittel - all names he’s likely to come up against when he takes on his first Tour this summer. Throw a couple more names into the mix - André Greipel and Mark Cavendish (both of whom crashed out of San Remo that day) - and you have to consider Ewan capable of regularly being there or thereabouts on the stages when the sprinters are unleashed.
Can you even gauge when you’re ready for your first Tour? Stage wins at other grand tours? Check. The respect and confidence of your colleagues and team-mates? Check. The decision by team management to send you? Well, yes - check. It’s been very much the latter from whom Ewan’s been waiting for the green light. Now, it’s lit, and so is Caleb Ewan.
“Ever since I turned pro, it’s been one of my biggest goals: to make the Tour de France team,” Ewan tells Procycling. Fearless during our conversation at the prospect of competing at the world’s biggest bike race, yet not in a cocky way, if Ewan can take that confidence to the start line at Noirmoutier -en-Île on July 7, he’s already halfway there.
“It does feel as though I’ve been waiting a long time to go,” the Australian continues. “But the more I think about it, the more
I’ve always been pretty ambitious. I just wanted to go to the biggest races straight away. The team’s had to slow me down a bit
I realise that it hasn’t really been that long. I am really excited to get there and to get started. I’ve always been pretty ambitious; I just wanted to go to the biggest races straight away. I guess the team’s | had to slow me down a bit, and help me progress on more of a constant, rather than sending me straight to the biggest races in the world. But I think it’s probably better to be ambitious as opposed to the other way around.”
You could argue that anyone who can win a stage of a grand tour in their first full year as a professional - as Ewan did at the 2015 Vuelta a España, at the tender age of 21 - might be ready to do the same at the Tour. He went on to win a stage at last year’s Giro d’Italia, too. It’s almost inconceivable that Ewan is still only 23. He’ll turn 24 four days into the Tour, on stage 5 between Lorient and Quimper: a lumpy 204.5km hilly stage. It’s probably a stage beyond him - the hilly Classics specialists should be to the fore in this far-west finish – but no doubt the young Sydney-sider will hope he’ll have given himself an early birthday present with a win on one of the three sprinter stages that open the race on stages 1, 2 and 4. Nothing, appears to faze him. He is mild-mannered, well-spoken and polite off the bike. On the bike Ewan is… well, he’s the same, most of the time.
“I probably am a bit different from the ‘real me’ in the last few kilometres,” Ewan laughs. “I guess you have to have some kind of aggression in you as a sprinter. Everyone’s willing to push you out of the way, so if you don’t push back, you get walked over. You have to change. I think a lot of the sprinters now are quite wellmannered off the bike, but maybe in the past a lot of sprinters had the same personalities off the bike as on it. They might have come across as a bit arrogant.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m actually an aggressive rider, ever, really,” he says. “But if in the last few kilometres of a race it feels as though you need to get your elbows out, then you do. You can probably see better with the on-board camera footage these days just how much pushing and shoving goes on. But it’s just part of sprinting, and we all have to do it.”
Off the bike, do Ewan and his fellow sprinters get along? “During the race you can’t really be that friendly with anyone because you’re all there to win, but after the race all the sprinters get along pretty well, yes.”
That was evident at the pre-race press conference at January’s Tour Down Under when Lotto-Soudal’s André Greipel took the microphone.“My impression is that I have no slipstream behind him - and that makes it difficult,” a smiling Greipel said, when asked what he thought about Ewan.
Ewan took it in the good-natured way that it was intended.
“And I remember last year at the Tour of Abu Dhabi, when one day Mark Cavendish was on me when I started my sprint, and after the stage he said, ‘Now I know how everyone else feels when they’re sprinting on [behind] me!’” Ewan laughs. “So, yeah, I’d prefer it if no one can get a draft off me. It’s a gain for me!”
While Simon Yates was targeting the general classification at the Giro d’Italia for MitcheltonScott in May, twin brother Adam Yates is almost certain to target a good overall finish at the Tour, having finished fourth at the 2016 race and ninth at last year’s Giro.Yet Ewan points out that Mitchelton-Scott are in a better position than a lot of other teams when it comes to mounting multiple goals.
“It’s taken time, I guess, for the team to be in a position to back me fully,” admits Ewan. “I think when the whole team’s around you, there’s probably more pressure, but it certainly makes things easier having, say, six guys helping you as opposed to about three. The team’s probably expecting more from me than ever before, so it’s been good to work with guys this season who should be going to the Tour, as we can work together to develop a sprint train ahead of July.
“I think we’re lucky that we’ve got guys like Matteo Trentin and Daryl Impey who can help in the lead-outs for the sprints, but they they can also help on the climbs,” he says. “Maybe not quite as much in the high mountains, but they can get over some pretty solid climbs, so we’ve got guys that can do both roles. Whereas if you’ve got guys who are more one-dimensional, you have to go to races with a whole team built around either a sprinter or a climber. I think we’ve got a good balance.”
While Mitchelton-Scott’s Tour squad hadn’t yet been picked as we went to press, Impey - the valuable all-rounder who won the Tour Down Under in January - is surely a shoo-in for the race. Trentin, meanwhile, crashed out of Paris-Roubaix, resulting in a compression fracture of his thoracic spine, and his start looks less certain.
We started off quite high - probably even higher than I’d naturally sprint. And then we gradually moved down to this extreme low position
Physically - and aerodynamically, of which more in a moment - Ewan is ready. He’s prepared mentally, too: the result of a steady progression through the Cycling Australia ‘system’.
“I started cycling at 10 years old, and won the under-17s road race championships when I was 15 or 16,” Ewan explains. “Pretty much from then, I started to do short stints of racing in Europe, and everything progressed from there. By the time I turned professional, I’d already raced a lot in Europe, so it wasn’t like I was living at home and then all of sudden I was off to Europe by myself.”
He turned professional with OricaGreenEdge (now Mitchelton-Scott) towards the end of the 2014 season, and the team soon had Ewan in the wind tunnel in a bid to make him even faster. It was here that he’d develop his trademark headdown sprinting style: not too dissimilar to that of Cavendish, although arguably more extreme. “We just started trying different positions,” says Ewan. “We started off quite high - probably even higher than I’d naturally sprint. And then we gradually moved down to this extreme, low-down position, which is kind of like what I’m doing now. I can’t remember the figures as to how much of a difference it makes, but it’s pretty substantial at high speed. My coach at the time suggested I tried to do some sprints in that position out on the road, to see if I could do it, as it was going to be tough to adopt it without losing power.
“Today, I probably start my sprint in quite a high - or normal - position, but, as my power fades, I kind of drift down into the lower position. The whole idea of that is that I’m upright to get up to speed, putting out the most power, as you can’t really create that much power in a lower position. So as my power’s going down, my body’s also going down into a more aerodynamic position to make up for it.”
The comparisons to Cavendish come at a time when aerodynamics in sprinting are taken extremely seriously. When Cavendish won the World Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2011, it was a watershed moment for sprinting aerodynamics. “Yeah, I think that when he won the Worlds in a full skinsuit and wearing an aero helmet, it was the turning point,” agrees Ewan. “I find it so strange that no one had really thought about the aerodynamics of sprinting before that. Everyone was super into being aerodynamic for time trials, but when it came to sprinting no one really was,” he says. Watch Ewan closely and you’ll see he tends to get into an aero posiiton in the middle of a stage or oneday race too. “Every little bit of energy you can save during the race helps when it comes to the sprint,” Ewan says. “During a 300km race such as Milan-San Remo, if you’re saving little bits of energy like that all the time, it can make a big difference by the end. Cav does it too. You always see him hiding from the wind, and it’s something I’ve had to get used to doing as well. Any energy you can save before the sprint can make the difference between winning and losing.”
You get the sense that Cavendish is somewhat of a role model, which makes perfect sense: smaller in stature than many sprinters, capable of folding himself down into an aero sprinting position, tactically astute, fast… And, like Cavendish, Ewan has all the attributes required to become the fastest man on two wheels. He also possesses the Holy Grail that is the ability to get over climbs with the best, such as San Remo’s Poggio. Cavendish is of course a past winner of Milan-San Remo, which the 2018 edition proved was within Ewan’s grasp - if not in 2019, then soon after.
For now, Ewan has his sights set on setting alight the sprints at this year’s Tour. If he can deliver there, at his first attempt, then he may prove himself to be Cavendish’s sprinting heir.
Watch this (s)pace.
Ewan grits his teeth and sprints to a debut stage win at the Giro