Caleb Ewan settled for fourth on stage one of the men’s Tour Down Under, admitting he’s been recovering from illness ahead of the WorldTour opener.
Ewan’s Jayco-Alula team were omnipresent at the front of the bunch very early to help set up the 29-year-old, who missed last week’s warm-up criterium, with the team saying he was “under the weather” after training in the heat.
The Australian was well-placed in the closing metres, sitting fourth wheel on the back of stage winner Sam Welsford’s Bora-Hansgrohe train, before losing ground.
“I was in a good position, exactly where I needed to be,” Ewan said post-race. “I didn’t really have to fight for the wheel but when I went to kick, I was already on my limit, so my sprint wasn’t very good.”
“During the week I should get better. I’ve been sick the last few days, especially with this heat, I was really struggling with my heart rate, but hopefully as the week goes on, I’ll feel a bit better.”
The Australian sprinter has returned to the squad where he turned pro, following a five-year tenure at Lotto Dstny that, whilst hugely successful, became acrimonious last year.
It was an incarnation of Lotto Dstny that backed Ewan to race at, and win, in his first Tour de France in 2019. However, differences in opinion over race program in the lead-up to last year’s La Grande Boucle suggested something internally may be off. A blast from team CEO Stéphane Heulot after Ewan abandoned stage 13 of the 2023 Tour further signaled a breakdown in communication and ultimately there was a premature end to his contract there.
Ewan is now back where he started in the WorldTour, in some ways still the same bike rider he was when he left, and in other ways not.
“Sprinters are a bit of a different breed,” Jayco-Alula sports director Mathew Hayman, told Cyclingnews at the start of stage one in Tanunda. “With any sprinter you want to get them right in the mix, or winning, both, and as long as he’s doing that…
“He’s had a couple of years that haven’t been ideal but that being said when you look at it still last year at the Tour de France, he was pretty close to winning a stage for somebody that [people] were saying ‘he’s not going very well’.”
Ewan, who finished third and then second on stages 3 and 4 of the Tour de France before withdrawing, raced again with Lotto Dstny in September and early October – with three DNF’s and a 32nd at a one-day Belgian race – before his team move was announced in October. He entered the Tour Down Under on the back of victory at the criterium at the Australian Road National Championships earlier this month.
“He’s definitely matured; he’s been away and he’s a long time in the sport,” said Hayman. “When we got him, he was a neo-pro and it’s a lot different to somebody who has won stages in Grand Tours and developed as a rider and been through what he’s been through.”
Ewan didn’t indulge in a public tit-for-tat with Heulot during the Tour last year, but the criticism directed at him was enough to prompt a response from his agent, Jason Bakker.
“Over the years whenever riders have been pretty content on leaving a team it’s pretty hard for a team to say don’t go,” said Hayman, “because what are you getting out of somebody in this sport that’s so hard if they’re not motivated?
“To be good at this level not only do you have to do all the work, but you have to be ready to race and if your head is not in it then you’re not able to do that. So hopefully he finds his spot again in our team, where he feels comfortable, and we can get the best out of him.”
A fresh start
Ewan has never been short on motivation and is especially driven to compete and make a name for himself in cycling’s biggest races.
His return to Jayco-Alula is a fresh start, in which the 11-time Grand Tour stage winner and Dutch sprinter Dylan Groenewegen will operate on different schedules and are largely set to have their own lead-outs.
“There will be some cross-over, but they’ve definitely got guys,” said Hayman of their respective aids.
Ewan’s lead-out is a work in progress and at the Tour Down Under he is pairing with Campbell Stewart for the first time, the pair set to work together in the run-up to, and during, this year’s Giro d’Italia.
“Today it’s the first time he’s worked with Campbell. He’s obviously raced with him but there’s a lot of question marks,” Hayman said, admitting the pair haven’t trained together specifically on lead-outs yet.
“There hasn’t been an opportunity,” he continued. “They can go out on the road and do some sprints but it’s not the same as when you really know a guy in front of you, really know all their mannerisms, when you really know their abilities, too, and how they ride. To be honest we don’t have that, but you’ve got to start somewhere.”
Ewan is slated to compete at the Giro this year, with Groenewegen, who has an established sprint train including Luka Mezgec, to focus on the Tour de France.
“Any time you change your environment there’s an ability to have a bit of a new start,” said Hayman. “I think he’s full of confidence and we’ve got to manage that throughout the season, give him opportunities to win and support him as well.
“It’s our job, too, to support both Dylan and him in winning those races. It’s not just them, it’s the team around them.”
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