Caleb Ewan deserves every accolade that has come his way at the 2017 Santos Tour Down Under where he claimed his second win on stage three to Victor Harbor on Thursday.
The ORICA-SCOTT flyer’s credentials as a loyal teammate have also been on show. A reminder is the image of Ewan, still only 22 and in the Ochre Leader’s jersey, riding himself to the brink of exhaustion at the front of the peloton nearing the final climb to Paracombe in order to help his two teammates, Colombian teammate Esteban Chaves and Australian Simon Gerrans, make best of their best stage two winning chances.
But on days suited for sprinters like Ewan – days like Tuesday and Thursday – the real benchmark is if he wins. And after doing that on Tuesday’s 145km first stage from Unley to Lyndoch, he did so again in Thursday’s 144km third stage from Glenelg to Victor Harbor for his fifth win for the year, but second on the road, as his first three were criteriums.
Furthermore, Ewan’s latest win in which Slovakian world champion Peter Sagan (BORA-hansgrohe) finished second and Italian Nicolo Bonifazio (Bahrain-Merida) third, is that he won short on teammates – only Australian Luke Durbridge and German Roger Kluge – in a sketchy finale that was marred by a crash with three kilometres to go. The crash included the rider closest to Australian race leader Richie Porte (BMC Racing Team) – that being the Spaniard Gorka Izaguirre (Movistar Team) who was awarded the same time as per race law on incidents in the last three kilometres and remains second overall at 20 seconds, while Chaves is third at 22 seconds.
Adding lustre to Ewan’s victory though is that came from far back in the peloton and won the stage by three bike lengths.
Caleb Ewan: “Happy to get a few up on [Sagan]”
Ewan’s elation for the outcome was as understandable as it was clear as he tapped his chest with an open hand while breaking into the broadest of grins as he sped across the line.
“Today was pretty tough, backing up after yesterday,” Ewan said. “I went pretty deep [on Wednesday]. It really took me probably three quarters of the race to really get into it again. “It didn’t help that [on Thursday] we had to ride back a super-strong breakaway [of four riders] … on the [four Victor Harbor finishing circuit] laps, we were going full gas.
“Unfortunately, I lost a few of my teammates on the final part as it got really messy. In the last [kilometre] I thought I was too far back and luckily I made my way up for the sprint.
“I was a bit further back than I hoped. Sometimes you have to hold tight and try not to waste too much energy.”
Beating Sagan for the second time in this Tour, and third time in five days with his win in Sunday’s Peoples’ Choice Classic included, went down well with Ewan. Although, wisely, it did so with measured self-appraisal. Ewan knows that the Sagan of today – in Australia and so early in the season – will likely be much stronger in Europe for the classics and major tours. Ewan also knows his challenge will be to hold his form for the European spring season when he will not only face a peaking Sagan, but also many of the world’s best sprinters who are not at the Santos Tour Down Under. Three such names are Germans Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and Marcel Kittel (QuickStep-Floors), and Britain’s Mark Cavendish (Dimension data).
“It’s good,” Ewan said of beating Sagan. “I don’t know what kind of form he’s in, it’s still going to be hard to beat him during the year. I’m happy to get a few up on him so far.
“I’m in pretty good form at the moment. Obviously, the Australian summer is a target for me and [not for Sagan]. “Hopefully, I can continue this form in Europe.”
Peter Sagan: “He is the best [sprinter] here.”
But it reflects Ewan’s maturity that he recognises the challenge. It is one that ORICA-SCOTT head sports director Matt White and Sagan also pointed to when asked on Thursday.
After Ewan won the Australian criterium championship in Ballarat, Victoria on January 4, he spoke of his season goals. Winning is an obvious one, but against the big boys of bunch sprinting he said he must become as strong as he is fast at the end of longer and bigger races like the 298km Milan-San Remo classic in Italy in March that he will debut in this year.
White is still impressed with Ewan’s progress – as he was for his win over Sagan on Thursday.
“Sagan is the best bike rider in the world and the most versatile bike rider in the world,” he said, but added with a wry grin: “… and it’s January.”
“We will put it into perspective when we get back to Europe in March and have a field of world class sprinters. But winning is winning. That is what he is doing very well here.”
While Sagan is happy with how his form is developing in Australia, he recognises Ewan as the fastest sprinter here. But like Ewan and White, Sagan also pointed to the real test to come for the NSW flyer: racing the very best at their prime.
“He is riding at home. He was all the winter here in Australia and he was training in good weather,” Sagan said.
“He is really motivated for this kind of race because it is the first race [of the WorldTour season]. He is a good sprinter. “For now [there are] not [sprinters] here like Kittel, Greipel who really are the best sprinters in the world. Still he is winning a lot because … yeah, he is the best [sprinter] here.”