Caleb Ewan has had, by his own admission, “an up and down season” so far. “It definitely hasn’t gone as good as I’d have hoped,” he tells this week’s Cycling Show.
The so-called “pocket rocket” has stood on the top step of a podium five times this season, with only one of those coming at the end of a WorldTour race.
Compare that with 2019, the season he made his debut at the Tour de France and soared to victory on the Champs Elysees. He had travelled to the Grand Depart in Belgium with seven wins to his name, five of which were at WorldTour level, two of them from the Giro d’Italia.
In the most recent edition of the Corsa Rosa, which finished at the start of this month, the Australian left the race early, which was planned in advance, but came home empty-handed, which definitely wasn’t. An opening stage fall limited his capacity to compete in the first week. The closest he came to popping the Prosecco was when a photo-finish separated him from Arnaud Demare in Scalea.
“Luck wasn’t really on my side,” he says.
It might not bode particularly well for the forthcoming lap of France, but Ewan has never lacked belief in his own abilities. Nor is he one to dwell on setbacks when he could be focussing on the challenges ahead.
“Coming out of the Giro with no wins wasn’t ideal, but I knew my form was there,” he says. “I just have to stay focussed now on the Tour. I know if I’m in really good shape I can be competitive there.”
One reason to justify his optimism is that the Covid-disrupted 2020 season was numerically not a prolific one, either, but any year that includes one Tour de France stage win, let alone two, will go down as a success.
“As a sprinter you want to win as much as possible, and that’s where you get your confidence from,” he says.
“[But] if you know that you’ve done everything right and you know your numbers are good, that also gives you confidence. It doesn’t solely rely on results. I’m on track to be really good at the Tour. Obviously you have to bring it all together and I’m confident we can do that there.”
Even on a team with as strong a sense of camaraderie as Lotto Soudal it can’t be easy being the one rider everyone is counting on?
“Being a sprints leader you have to get used to letting your team-mates down,” Ewan replies. “There’s guys that might ride for 200km on the front, trying to chase back a breakaway, and you might roll in fifth or sixth place. If you let that get to you every time it would be quite hard, and you would be quite hard on yourself, but they know that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.
“Most of the pressure comes from yourself, it doesn’t come so much from the team. Obviously they want you to win and do well, but not as much as you want to do well yourself.”
There’s no more dangerous place to be in cycling than the thick of a bunch sprint. With speeds often exceeding 60kph, and the difference between a jubilant victory and demoralising defeat coming down to infinitesimal margins, it really is a case of “no guts, no glory.”
Lotto Soudal with Caleb Ewan (right)
Image credit: Getty Images
“You do have to be a little bit fearless,” says Ewan. “Sometimes you have to go through gaps that you know can close in a split second. As a sprinter, when you start thinking too much about that kinda stuff, and that stuff gets to you, then you stop going for those gaps. Once the fear kicks in it’s going to be hard.”
You only have to watch an overhead shot of a bunch sprint in which Ewan has featured to see how unfamiliar he is with the feeling of “fear.”
It feels like Ewan has been one of the biggest name sprinters in the bunch for a decade, so you may be surprised to hear that he is still only 27 years old – making him just six months older than Mathieu van der Poel. This will be his fourth appearance at the Tour de France, just getting started really.
He will celebrate his 28th birthday on the second rest day of the Tour, by which point he will hope to have opened his account.
His goal? “At least a stage win, and everything after that’s a bonus. If you can walk away with a stage win, then you’ve already done better than probably half the teams there.”
The start of the Tour de France is mentally about as far from Paris as it’s possible to get. All the same, Ewan can’t help but cast his mind forward to the final moments of the race.
“The Champs-Elysees is the one that everyone wants to win,” he says.
“You can win there and leave the Tour on an absolute high or, even if you win a couple of stages during the Tour, if the Champs-Elysees goes wrong, you leave with a bitter taste. I’ve experienced both but it’s much better to leave the Tour having won.”
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