Caleb Ewan arrived at this Tour de France a different man compared to the one who made a commanding debut last year, when under stress that he later reflected on as unhealthy. Then, the Australian needed more than a week to work up to his career first stage win, but he has taken just a few days to notch his maiden victory of this campaign.
Ewan won stage three of the 2020 Tour by pipping Irish champion and race debutant Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Italian champion Giacomo Nizzolo (NTT) in a bunch sprint on Monday. The performance was a display of physical and mental fortitude from Ewan, who is intent on finishing what has been described as one of the hardest Tours in modern cycling in a bid to win again on the Champs-Élysées – an unofficial world championship for sprinters.
Unlike Deceuninck-Quick-Step and NTT, who were clearly assembled at the front of the bunch with 16km to go, Ewan’s Lotto Soudal team were not visible until they moved up with 8.7km remaining. It was smart, given the headwind finish and that Lotto Soudal has lost two men. The 26-year-old Ewan likewise bided his time in the frenzied run to the line.
“In the last kilometre I was literally too far forward, so I dropped back into the wheels,” Ewan said. “That gave me some time to rest the legs a little bit before the final lead-out. Coming from behind was a bit of a risk but I found my way through the barrier and I came with a lot of speed. In the end it worked out perfectly.”
Ewan’s Tour last year was a coming of age tale. When asked in October to recall his debut, Ewan spoke of winning the Bay Crits in Victoria as a teenager when he was likened by an overzealous Australian media to Mark Cavendish and linked with a race he had only watched on TV. Ewan shouldered that expectation for the years that followed, and it compounded when former team Mitchelton-Scott reneged on sending him to the 2018 Tour. In 2019 he succeeded legendary sprinter Andre Greipel at Lotto Soudal and his infant daughter, born six weeks premature, was still in hospital when he left for the Grand Départ.
“There was so much stress I guess leading into the Tour, it wasn’t healthy I don’t think,” Ewan said. “When I finished the Tour, it was the biggest relief of my life.”
Fast-forward to 2020 and the story is not about verification or validation, rather a ferocious but considerate competitor, who has an eye on a seat at the head of the table. Ewan’s lead-up to this year’s Tour has not been without challenges – not least having to reset after an almost five-month competition shutdown due to a global pandemic. The eight-time Grand Tour stage winner is based in Monaco and lockdown protocols there prevented him from training outside for a stint. Also, the peloton had just four weeks of race conditioning from when the revised and condensed season resumed on 1 August to when the Tour left Nice under a cloud of virus-related uncertainty on Saturday. Yet it has not penetrated his composure.
Ewan entered the Tour with an understated but clear surety in his own ability to not only compete but also stake a claim as the best sprinter in the WorldTour by season’s end. He is aiming to finish the Tour and less than two weeks later start the Giro d’Italia, where every marquee sprinter is slated to be. Ewan is not brash like some predecessors in claiming he is the best, especially in one of the most competitive and populated sprint fields seen for a long time, but his focus on quality victories over quantity is testament to the aim.
When asked at the outset of the Tour how many stages he believed he could win – a stock standard question that nearly every sprinter responds to with a diplomatic “one and then we’ll see” – Ewan left it open.
“The goal is to always win a stage, but you know it’s a hard question because if I go to this Tour de France now and if I’m the fifth best sprinter here and I win one stage then I’m going to be happy,” he said. “But if I’m the best sprinter here and I only win one stage and I miss out on four or five then I’m going to be unhappy. It depends on how I’m going compared to the other sprinters. If I’m going really good, then I want to come away with as many stages as possible.”
Ewan won three stages on debut and has counted six opportunities, two now gone, to repeat if not improve on that feat.