It wasn’t until the final stage of his third Tour de France that Robbie McEwen claimed the first of his 12 stage wins. That was 20 years ago and after that there was a considerable hiatus before he collected his 11 other Tour stage victories – and his three green jerseys, all of which were won with the Lotto team.
In 2019, its 34 consecutive season in the top-tier peloton, the Belgian squad has invested in another Australian sprint specialist. And there are big expectations on Caleb Ewan.
“We have full trust in him,” said Lotto-Soudal’s manager, Marc Sergeant, of Ewan during the team press conference in Brussels on Thursday. “That’s why he can go for a victory – or victories. And that’s the reason why we have built part of the team around him.”
Lotto-Soudal’s objective for these next three weeks is to win stages, either in sprints with Ewan or in breakaways with either Tiesj Benoot, Maxime Monfort, Tim Wellens or the undisputed ‘Master of the Escape’, Thomas De Gendt.
Australia’s most prolific stage winner, McEwen, was 27 when he won on the Champs-Elysées, and over 30 for the other 11 Tour stage wins. He gained experienced and duly delivered victories with regularity once he joined Sergeant and co in 2002; by then, according to Sergeant, he was a “fish in water” – completely at ease in the peloton, and capable of beating the best in the world without a fully committed lead-out train. This is a quality he shares with the second Aussie sprinter on the Belgian team’s roster.
“They have similar qualities,” said Sergeant when asked to compare McEwen with Ewan. “I will compare it to another rider we have worked with, André Greipel. He needs four or five guys to guide him through the peloton; he’s a big rider and he wanted to have his space. But Caleb is more like Robbie.
“You can get him near the finish and, with 500 metres to go, throw him in the top five or six and he will manage to have a good wheel. That’s completely different to Greipel.”
It’s a characteristic that takes pressure off the team and allows them to have a multi-pronged approach: sprints or breakaways… they’re both priorities in 2019 and Sergeant believes the team won’t have to wait three years for Ewan to earn his first Tour stage win.
“Saturday is a big opportunity for us,” he says of the opening stage of the 106th Tour that many believe will end with a bunch sprint. “If we can win that one, it would be really great as a Belgian team, with a Grand Départ in Belgium. And, of course, there is another present at the end of Saturday’s stage, a yellow jersey.”
Caleb quietly nodded as the manager spoke. A wry grin appeared on the face of the new father who later admitted that he is confident of delivering on lofty expectations. Like McEwen, Ewan is capable of surfing the peloton, finding his way to the finish by jumping from one wheel to the next as he seeks prime position before launching his trademark aero sprint.
“With Robbie, it was extreme,” explains Sergeant, enjoying the chance to draw on his memory of the seven years McEwen spent with the Belgian team.
“He’d say, ‘Take me to one kilometre to go, and I’ll look after myself.’ It was easy!
“In that period, we had a mixed approach with Cadel [Evans] – sprints for Robbie, GC for Cadel – and it’s not great to have a GC rider and a sprinter. But Robbie took it as an obligation to take care of Cadel, he said: ‘Okay, you can help me, but look after Cadel first – he’s the priority, he’s good for GC. I will manage. Lead me to one kilometre to go and I will manage.’”
Sergeant smiles at the thought of those halcyon days of McEwen’s long career. He was a rider who elevated the Belgian team from relative obscurity to regular appearances on the podium – in the Tour, but also the Giro d’Italia… and many other races.
Of course, the nature of sprinting has changed a lot since McEwen’s final season with Sergeant (2008, when Evans finished second overall at the Tour for a second successive year). Still, I wanted to know, if there was a battle between McEwen and Ewan in their prime, who does Sergeant believe would win? “Well, we’ll have to see,” he replied. “It’s Caleb’s first Tour and it’s different to all other races.
“Robbie… he was always at ease, even in the Tour there was no stress. Caleb is a bit the same. Nothing is a problem. He’s calm.”
It’s a valuable quality, one he believes will serve Ewan well in the coming weeks. Sergeant then offered an anecdote to explain why he believes Caleb has the ability to win – and possibly wear the yellow jersey in his first Tour.
“One of the first things I asked him at the training camp was, ‘How do you react when you lose a sprint? It’s important for me to know. Do I leave you alone for a little bit? Do you get angry? Is there a fire inside?’ He responded, ‘I’m quite easy: we just need to speak about it. That’s the most important.’ And that’s a good attitude to have.”
Explain the problem after a loss, work on finding a remedy? “Yes, exactly,” replied Sergeant. “What did we do wrong? What can we do better next time? That’s a good approach and one that will serve Caleb well.”
Something else that’s important for sprinters is being able to motivate and inspire team-mates and Sergeant says Caleb does this in style. “You see it as you look at him, it’s obvious in his body language.
“He’s got both feet firmly planted on the ground and he doesn’t get flustered. He also has good dialogue with his team-mates which is impressive; after each race he says what he thinks about the work, what is good, what could be better.”
Lotto-Soudal is expecting good or better in the coming days. We wait to see what gets talked about on Saturday evening because, as Sergeant concluded, “Of course, if you win, it’s another discussion.”