Cycling

Once heralded as ‘cycling’s next big thing’, Caleb Ewan was controversially left off his team’s 2018 Tour de France roster. Given a start this year with Lotto Soudal, the Australian sprinter has now rewarded the Belgian outfit with two stage wins. By Kieran Pender.

Two-time Tour de France stage-winner Caleb Ewan

Australia’s Caleb Ewan celebrates his first stage win in the 2019 Tour de France.
Credit: AP Photo / Christophe Ena

Caleb Ewan once described confidence as the biggest asset a cyclist can have. That makes his dual Tour de France stage victories this month all the more remarkable.

The Australian sprinter’s initial triumph on stage 11 of the grandest of the Grand Tours should not have been a surprise – Ewan’s potential has long been known. In January 2012, when the Sydney-born, Southern Highlands-raised athlete was just 17, legendary commentator Phil Liggett compared him to superstars Mark Cavendish and Robbie McEwen. Two years later, Ewan was described by the Herald Sun as “cycling’s next big thing”.

In his first professional season with Australian-registered team Mitchelton-Scott, Ewan’s sports director, Matt White, publicly suggested that five wins would represent a successful 2015 campaign for the new signing. In one race alone, the Tour of Korea, Ewan won four stages and the overall jersey. In his first Grand Tour, the 2015 Vuelta a España, Ewan claimed a stage victory. Two years later, he claimed line honours on the seventh day of his debut Giro d’Italia.

But win after win was not enough to silence the doubters, particularly given his recurring absence from the Tour de France – the most high-profile stage race on the World Tour calendar and first among equals of the three Grand Tours. In 2018, it seemed Ewan would finally be given an opportunity to prove himself on French roads. Mitchelton-Scott announced his participation with unusual forewarning, in December 2017.

Six months later, on the eve of the race, Ewan was omitted from the team’s roster. It took everyone, including the rider himself, by surprise. His agent, Jason Bakker, lashed out on Twitter: “I’ve seen the highs and lows of sport for 30+ years. Tonight is a huge low … I wonder how this decision will look in 5 years’ time.”

The decision precipitated Ewan’s exit to Belgian outfit Lotto Soudal, with question marks lingering over his ability to perform at the highest level. Ewan’s confidence was shattered. Once a teenage prodigy, now he couldn’t even make his Tour de France debut.

In an interview prior to the controversial selection decision, White had offered cryptic commentary on Ewan’s future. “Caleb has talent – people have been talking him up for a long time. But at the end of the day potential is just that … The ball is in Caleb’s court – it’s all in front of him.”

Ewan grasped the invitation, switching to Lotto Soudal to become the team’s main focus – having shared the spotlight during his time at Mitchelton-Scott. “When you have a full team supporting you – their one goal is for you to win – you have all that pressure,” Ewan tells The Saturday Paper. “When I was with Mitchelton-Scott there was normally also a general classification option, so I didn’t feel the pressure as much. It is more stressful knowing I’m the guy – but I love it.”

When Ewan arrived on the Tour de France start line in sweltering Brussels earlier this month, the pressure had never been greater. “I know for sure that if I don’t get a win a lot of people will say Mitchelton-Scott were right to leave me at home [in 2018],” he said before the race began. “All I can do is go there and do my best.”

The 25-year-old finished an agonising third on the opening stage in Belgium’s capital, before again finding himself on the bottom step of the podium days later in Nancy. He narrowly missed out on glory on the seventh stage, sprinting to second, before collecting his third bronze placing on stage 10.

With the race heading towards the Pyrenees’ steep climbs, where opportunities for the sprinters are few and far between, Ewan was running out of chances to silence the critics. His hopes of proving to the world that Mitchelton-Scott had erred by not picking him 12 months earlier – a decision he is diplomatic about in public but still privately fumes over – diminished by the day.

Ahead of the race, Ewan had sought to downplay the implications of failure in France. “A lot of riders don’t win in their first Tour – it will be nothing to be ashamed of if I don’t. It will be a learning curve for me.” But after the fuss Ewan and Bakker had made about the 2018 non-selection, leaving France without at least one victory would provide more fodder for the detractors.

On the outskirts of Toulouse last Wednesday Ewan found himself towards the front of the peloton. After repeatedly knocking on the door of a stage win in France, his confidence was suffering. When the rider’s lead-out man, Jasper De Buyst, crashed into a ditch in the closing kilometres, Ewan’s prospects took another hit.

But as the peloton flew into central Toulouse, the heart of France’s aeronautical sector, Australia’s own rocket dug deep. He thought of his wife and newborn daughter, whom he had left behind in hospital to come to the race. He grimaced. And then, in the final kilometre, Ewan surged forward. He surfed a wave of other riders before reaching the white line millimetres ahead of rival Dylan Groenewegen. Tour de France glory, at last.

“I was ready for the Tour three or four years ago: I always wanted to go straight to the top races,” he said afterwards. “I’ve been held back. I finally got my chance.” No one could begrudge Ewan basking in the glory of this long-awaited triumph, or even the slightly gratuitous dig at a team that had developed him from raw talent to cycling superstar. Potential may be just that, as White had mused, but Ewan has now translated his potential into ability, winning at the Tour de France’s rarefied heights.

When Ewan survived a tough day in the mountains last Sunday, he achieved another feat: the longest he had persisted at a Grand Tour in his career. During past appearances in Spain and Italy, Ewan had withdrawn midway through the race – a common tactic for sprinters once the climbing gets too hard, enabling them to recover ahead of the next opportunity. If Ewan is ever to win the hallowed green jersey – the sprinters’ yellow jersey equivalent, won by the rider with the greatest accumulation of sprint points – he will need to learn how to survive the full 21 stages of a Grand Tour. At the time of writing, Ewan was still in the race; indeed, on Tuesday, he won his second stage with a superlative effort during the final sprint into Nîmes.

Australia has a proud history in the sprint classification battle at the tour – Robbie McEwen won the green jersey three times in the 2000s, while Baden Cooke and Michael Matthews both have the maillot vert hanging on their walls. “Winning green is something I would love to do in my career,” Ewan admits.

But the category has been dominated in recent years by puncheurs such as Matthews and Peter Sagan – cyclists who can sprint and climb – and the diminutive rider concedes that his green jersey ambitions are distant. “To beat those guys to the green jersey would be pretty hard,” he continues. “It is no longer a competition for the pure sprinters, unless you can dominate the flat stages, which with so many good sprinters is really hard.”

After the Tour de France concludes this weekend with the iconic final sprint on the Champs-Élysées and Ewan returns to his home in Monaco, he might reflect on his earlier meditations on confidence. “At the top level everyone is so similar in ability,” he had said at the time, after identifying the trait as an essential asset in the high-pressure environment of professional cycling. “Having that confidence over other guys – who might be doubting themselves – can make a world of difference.” With this French monkey off Ewan’s back, the sky is the limit.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 27, 2019 as "Confidence schtick". Subscribe here.

Kieran Pender
is a London-based freelance writer.