Two second places in the space of a week is an awfully tough lesson in sporting life - particularly for a neo-pro, even more so when a national title is up for grabs - but Caleb Ewan will come out of his experience at the Cycling Australia Road National Championships both stronger and smarter, writes Anthony Tan in Ballarat.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:39 PM

It's unusual to grant a neo-pro leadership roles at the first three races of the year - Bay crits, the national criterium championship, and the national road championship - but Caleb Ewan is simply that good.

That he walked - or rather, rode - away with the first and almost won the second and third says a lot; not so much about his talent, since we all knew it was there, but his maturity to handle the pressure of leadership at an elite level, which lesser beings struggle with till at least three or four years into their pro careers.

Finishing second in Wednesday's criterium and second again at the road race Sunday, to Steele Von Hoff and Heinrich Haussler respectively, Ewan admitted to being beside himself in coming so close, yet so far: "To be honest I am devastated. It would have been such a dream start to my pro career to get the green and gold for my first year as a professional."

But 10 years from now, the defeats he suffered this week in Ballarat, I'm absolutely certain of it, will prove a blessing in disguise.

For a one-day race, he discovered many things he'll need to get used to as the years progress. One is being a heavily marked man - a similar scenario to that experienced in his last two years as an Under-23 rider. Another is being isolated from his team-mates, who on Sunday did what they could to protect him in the early stages of the race, with Michael Hepburn his only ally in the winning break.

"I knew no one wanted to really take me to the line," Ewan said of the situation faced in the final laps of 183.6 kilometre road race, which saw him attacked multiple times, in particular by Drapac's Darren Lapthorne.

"It does deaden your legs a little bit, but I knew I had to keep it together. As soon as I saw the breaks going, I knew I would have to jump on (them) straight away... Once they get a gap, it can be all over. I was really trying to get on everything that went, that last eight k's."

Young Caleb will perhaps need to learn to be a little more patient, like his Orica-GreenEDGE leader Simon Gerrans, who one almost exclusively only sees at the very end of a race, and back himself completely to win a sprint - especially from a small group - rather than hedge his bets like he did Sunday, attacking over the top of the Buninyong climb.

"I saw the guys the second last lap really hurting up there and I was feeling quite good. So I thought I would just give it a go and try to go full gas up that part.

Ewan said his move "wouldn't have made a difference" to the end result - "It doesn't matter if you are sitting on or not," he said. I'm not so sure; he showed his strength when he didn't need to, and when the chasing group caught up with him, it exposed him to being counter-attacked and possibly dropped after a large effort.

"Maybe if he would've waited and done things a little bit differently... but he's a young rider, you've got to follow your instinct - I was the same when I was younger," Haussler said Sunday. "If you feel good you just want to go, you want to show yourself."

Haussler, obviously a far more experienced campaigner, also noted the finish was into a block headwind. It saw him take the wheel of Ewan - who later admitted he didn't know the winner-in-waiting was there: "I didn't know he (Haussler) was on my wheel in the sprint. I was just trying to focus on my own sprint," he said.

"It worked out perfectly in the last k, because (Ewan) followed an attack and I was on his wheel, then it was a full gas headwind," Haussler said. "I didn't know he was going to hit out early but I kind of had the feeling... I just waited, waited, waited - and at the last moment tried to come around."

Still, at 20 years of age, Ewan has plenty more chances to learn, grow stronger, and be smarter - not to mention faster - and take the titles that eluded him this week by the barest of margins.

"I will come back here, probably I hope for the next 15 years of my career, and hopefully one day I can get the jersey."