Riding is Life
Lights

Comments

New year, new Ewan: 2024 is a chance for Caleb to get back to his best

After a tough Australian campaign, the Aussie sprinter just nabbed his first UCI win in eight months.

Caleb Ewan had one chance at the 2024 Tour of Oman. Only stage 1 at the five-stage race was suited to a bunch sprint. It was crucial that he and his new lead-out train got it right.

When the 29-year-old crossed the line outside the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre, half a bike length ahead of runner-up Bryan Coquard (Cofidis) after a tough uphill drag to the finish, Ewan’s delight was plain to see. He screamed and pumped his fist multiple times, before celebrating heartily with his teammates.

It wasn’t just that Ewan and Jayco AlUla had taken the only sprint opportunity available to them at an otherwise hilly race; it was that the victory was Ewan’s first at UCI level in eight months, his first since rejoining GreenEdge, and that the win came after a difficult Australian campaign.

The year had started perfectly. In his very first race day back with Jayco AlUla, on January 5, he won the Australian criterium title, beating Sam Welsford in the process. It seemed as if the Aussie summer was going to be a great one, and that changing teams had immediately delivered the fresh start he wanted after a couple of tough seasons with Lotto Dstny. 

The weeks that followed, though, weren’t nearly as satisfying as he might have hoped.

In the Nationals road race, Ewan got a puncture just as the race was splitting apart, and he never saw the front again. “I was never gonna beat Plappy [Luke Plapp] but I think I was in good enough shape to be in contention for a medal or to have a really good race,” Ewan told Escape via video call before Cadel’s Race.

Ewan then got sick between Nationals and the Tour Down Under, and ultimately left the season’s first WorldTour race with a best result of fourth on the opening stage. Illness had hampered him the first couple stages, and then things just didn’t go his way in the remaining sprint opportunities.

“The second last [sprint], I was in a decent position but then I was just kind of in that bubble where you either sometimes make it out or you don’t,” he said. “And I couldn’t really quite make it out. And then, that last sprint with the uphill kicker, I was way too far back in the last corner so I was just never in contention for that one. So that was a bit annoying.”

At the Surf Coast Classic and Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, Ewan again didn’t feature, meaning he left Australia without a UCI-recognised win to his name. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the January he was after.

“I really wanted to start well in Australia and I made it one of my goals to start well here, not just because it’s Australia but I just wanted to have a good start to the season,” he said. “I was really confident with the form I was in so I definitely had higher expectations. So in that sense, for me personally, it’s annoying. But if I go on to have a really good season, no one is really gonna remember [a tough January].”

As Ewan said, a January without a UCI-level win – while not ideal – is far from a disaster. In his first season with Lotto Soudal, in 2019, Ewan also left Australia without a win, and “then it went on to be the best season of my career”. That year he won two stages of the Giro d’Italia, three of the Tour de France, and another four races besides.

“It’s a long season,” Ewan said before leaving Australia. “I’m still confident that it can be a good one. So you can’t dwell on the results so far.”

A dejected-looking Caleb Ewan rides ahead of a group of riders.
Ewan had a pretty rough time of it in the Aussie summer races. Here he is on stage 2 of the Tour Down Under, still getting over the last of a pre-race illness.

Being back with the GreenEdge organisation in 2024 is a boon for Ewan; a chance at a mid-career reset after his relationship with Lotto Dstny – and specifically general manager Stéphane Heulot – disintegrated last year. Ewan had been underperforming for some time, and Heulot had lost faith in his marquee sprinter. So when Ewan’s manager, Jason Bakker, brokered a deal for Ewan to come back to Jayco AlUla a year before his Lotto Dstny contract was due to end, everyone was happy.

“It was a bit of joy and relief,” Ewan said of the moment the deal was done. “I just couldn’t see a future where I could keep performing or get back to my best at Lotto. So it was like, if I stay there, I kind of knew deep down that I was going to have a pretty shitty 2024. So I knew that for me to get back to my best I definitely had to change teams.”

Ewan says his motivation at Jayco AlUla is markedly higher than it was in his final season at Lotto Dstny. He says that’s crucial if he’s going to bounce back from two tough seasons and find his way back into the upper echelon of sprinters.

“If I started this season with Lotto, I definitely wouldn’t be as motivated as I am right now,” he said. “I think that’s the main thing. Cycling’s such a hard sport that if you lose motivation, then you’re done. So you need to have something to be motivated for. You have to be in a team that you’re motivated to ride for. And I have that here.”

Ewan’s transition back into Australia’s only WorldTour team has been easy. He’s already had four years in the organisation and knows many of the staff and riders. The fact it’s an Australian team is relevant too.

“It’s been good just being back in a bit more of an Australian-mentality team, being back with Aussie speakers,” he said. “You just have a better connection with your own countrymen, let’s say.”

Caleb Ewan and Jasper De Buyst cross the finish line at the Tour de France, arms around each other, with the 'broom wagon' right behind them.
Ewan (right) was last to finish on stage 12 of the 2023 Tour de France (and was shepherded across the line by lead-out man Jasper De Buyst). Ewan’s exit from the Tour the following day would sour relations between him and team manager Stéphane Heulot.

One of the most notable aspects about Ewan’s return to Jayco AlUla is that he’s not the only marquee sprinter on the team. In fact, Jayco AlUla’s existing fastman, Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen, has been among the world’s best sprinters in recent years, leading many to question how Ewan would fit in when his signing was first announced.

Jayco AlUla has since revealed that Groenewegen will race the Tour de France this year and Ewan will race the Giro, with the pair having separate programs and lead-out trains throughout the season. Leadership at the 2025 Tour de France will come down to Ewan and Groenewegen’s performances in the lead-up. For now, though, Ewan isn’t too concerned that Groenewegen has the better program.

“I think they probably had already spoken to Dylan about his program for this year before I signed, so they were kind of set on what he was doing,” he told Escape. “So then I kinda got, let’s say, the other program. I was always happy with that and they made it pretty clear when I was coming that I wouldn’t be going to the Tour, for example. I was happy to do that and just have that fresh start.”

This fresh start comes at a time when, from Ewan’s perspective, the sprinting game is changing. While he’s had a couple lean seasons, other sprinters have been rising to prominence, creating a long list of fastmen capable of winning on the biggest stages – emerging riders like Arnaud De Lie and Olav Kooij, plus more established riders like Jasper Philipsen, Fabio Jakobsen, Tim Merlier, Welsford, Arnaud Démare, and others. Ewan admits that he has to adapt his sprinting, if he’s going to get back to his best.

“I feel like I had sprinting pretty much worked out until maybe the last few years [where] it changed a lot,” he said. “It’s something that I think about a lot, and I know I need to probably change the way I’m sprinting. But I’m not quite sure exactly how yet. I just kind of need to keep racing, just change little bits by little bits and see maybe where I’m going wrong, or what I need, or what I need from my teammates to get me in the best position possible to do the sprint. 

“Because I’ve definitely been lacking something in the last year or so and I think there’s a really good bunch of high-level sprinters now, whereas, probably before there was maybe three or four really good guys, and then a whole bunch of guys that maybe were like a bit of a level down. But now every race you go to there’s super-quick guys, and every race you go to it’s really hard to win.”

Ewan’s not exactly sure what he needs to do differently, but the fact he’s not winning like he used to means that something needs to change.

“I have all my numbers from the past 10 years, and I’m in better shape than I was, let’s say in 2019 when I had the best season of my career,” he explained in January. “So that just tells me either I’m not progressing it enough with the peloton or something’s changed and I’m maybe still set in my ways of how I want to sprint.

“So yeah, dunno. I need to figure it out. If you see me winning a lot, then I’ve figured it out.”

A line of Jayco AlUla riders ride along a road.
Ewan on the wheel of Max Walscheid at the Tour of Oman over the weekend. Walscheid will be a key component in Ewan’s lead-outs this season.

A vital ingredient in any sprinter’s success is his lead-out. That was on full display at the Tour Down Under where Sam Welsford dashed to three stage wins thanks to a world-class lead-out from his Bora-Hansgrohe teammates, not least Ryan Mullen and Danny van Poppel. In 2024, with his return to GreenEdge, Ewan is now working with Kiwi Campbell Stewart, with the pair only meeting for the first time in Adelaide at the Tour Down Under. Ewan says the relationship is progressing well so far.

“To be honest, it’s much easier working with a native English speaker, so that’s been good,” Ewan says. “We definitely have work to do for sure. And that’s normal. I think whenever you have a new lead-out man they need to kind of learn how you ride, I need to learn how he rides, see the signs of when he’s done his turn. There’s just little things that you have to look for. And that just comes with time. I think we’ve already made quite good progress just this summer and I think we can be a good team.”

Ewan’s long been a rider that’s as happy riding the coattails of other sprint teams as he is following his own lead-out train. Could a change to the way he rides the finales give him the reset he needs for his sprinting?

“I dunno,” he says, earnestly. “I’m still trying to figure it out. But I mean, the lead-out is very important. Because you’re trusting these guys to get you as fresh as possible into the last 200 metres, 300 metres, 400 metres. If they don’t do a good job, then I might not be in contention to sprint. So it is up to them to do a good job and I think they’re all capable of doing it.

“I need to see how I can utilise those guys as best as possible. Because we’re not always going to have a strong-enough team to do the lead out until 150 metres to go. Because a lot of the races we go to it’s going to be a split ambition of GC and sprints, so you don’t have seven guys lined out in front of you. So we need to figure out the way that’s going to work best for all of us.

“When I go to Oman, in a few weeks, Max Walscheid will be there so I think he’ll be a great addition to the lead-out as well. He’s got a lot of experience and I think we can nail it.”

Ewan’s prediction turned out to be a good one. On Saturday’s opening stage of the Tour of Oman (2.Pro), they did indeed nail it.

“The last 10 km was really hectic,” Ewan said afterwards. “[There were] a lot of fresh legs because the stage was quite easy, and that always makes it a bit harder in the final. So we really had to get the timing perfect and like I said, those boys did a great job. Max [Walscheid] did the final pull there. [Alexander] Kristoff got in between us but I wasn’t too panicked because I know he’s also quick.”

On the uphill drag to the line, into a headwind, Walscheid pulled off just inside 200 metres to go. Kristoff was first to launch his sprint, but was quickly passed when Ewan got up to speed and hit the front. Coquard got close, but in the end, Ewan was simply too strong. He’d taken his first win since the Van Merksteijn Fences Classic (UCI 1.1) in May last year, and earned himself a day as leader of the Tour of Oman.

***

Ewan has a rather simple goal for this season: “to win as much as possible”. He also wants to be winning consistently.

“A few years ago, pretty much every tour I lined up for I’d win a stage, at least one,” he said back in January. “So consistently every race I was going to I’d come away with something. Whereas definitely the last year or two, I haven’t been that consistent.

“So I just want to get back to that consistency. I want the team to know ‘If we send Caleb there then we should almost be guaranteed a win.’ It is definitely getting harder now with all the good riders but someone has to win so hopefully it’s me.”

Digging a little deeper, there are a bunch of races that Ewan is targeting in particular.

“I really want to win Milan-San Remo,” he says. “That’s always a big goal of mine. So for the first part of the season, that’s my biggest goal. But before that I have [Tour of] Oman and Tirreno[-Adriatico], which I want to try to win stages in.

“And then after that, I’ve got the Giro, which I hope to do well in. I want to aim to finish the Giro this year, which will be a first for me. And then after that, it looks like I’ll be doing the Vuelta as well. But I’ve heard it’s quite hard so I’m not sure what the team want to do with that.”

That first big goal of the season, Milan-San Remo, is one that’s eluded Ewan for years now. He’s been second twice, both times winning the bunch kick just behind a solo winner (Vincenzo Nibali in 2018 and Jasper Stuyven in 2021). He’s hopeful that a return to GreenEdge will give him a leg-up there this year, largely because he’ll again line up alongside Michael Matthews, a two-time podium finisher himself.

“You can always guarantee that he’ll get over the Poggio,” Ewan said of Matthews on the eve of the Tour of Oman. “So maybe if we get over together, he can either help me depending on how he’s feeling, or I can help him. And it just makes a huge difference when you actually do have a teammate over the top.”

Vincenzo Nibali celebrates winning Milan-San Remo while a dejected Caleb Ewan leads the bunch across the line in second.
Ewan (far left) finishing just behind Nibali in the 2018 Milan-San Remo. The same would happen three years later, with Stuyven taking the win.

***

Looking back at Ewan’s split with Lotto Dstny, the perception from the outside was that things weren’t great for Ewan. He was in a team that didn’t seem to want him, and where he didn’t want to be, and yet was contracted for another year. Life didn’t seem particularly rosy.

While things weren’t going well professionally for him, Ewan is quick to say that that wasn’t the full story.

“To be honest, I was never really that unhappy because, you know, I’ve got a nice family, I’ve got three little kids,” he says. “Life’s good. They’re all healthy, so I can’t complain. My career was not going great but there is more to life than your career so you can’t dwell on it too much. It is what it is.

“If you’re a professional athlete, your career just doesn’t keep going up and up and up and up until you retire. You go through patches where it’s not as good – it kind of goes up and down. And I think especially later in your career, those up and downs are happening more often than when you’re younger. So yeah, it’s just part of it and you just have to have the resilience to keep going and keep believing that you can come back to being your best.

“I haven’t really stopped believing that and I definitely think I can get back to my best. Hopefully it happens, but you can never tell.”

Throughout our interview in late January, Ewan made a handful of references to the future, to the back end of his career. The natural question: is he looking ahead to retirement? Does he think about when he might call it quits, and what might come after?

“I’ve got no idea what I’m going to do after I retire but I’m getting to the point in my career where I’m probably over halfway, so it’s coming,” he said. “But I don’t know when. I’ve got two years now with Jayco so I’ll focus on that. And then after that, we’ll see.”

He was more direct when he spoke to reporters before the Tour of Oman.

“If I have two more bad years, then it’s kind of career over so I’m kind of hoping that I can get to a better level again, win some more races, and [race] a little bit longer,” he says. “Hopefully at least get to 35, 36. I’m not gonna go to 40 but a little bit longer would be nice.”

In chatting with Escape, Ewan was refreshingly pragmatic about his value as a sprinter, and how that impacts his longevity in the sport.

“The thing with me is that I’m only good for one thing, and that’s winning,” he said. “So if I’m not winning, then I’m not really good for anything else. There’s guys that are better than me to ride the front, guys that are better than me to climb, there’s guys better than me to TT, there’s guys better than me to do lead-outs. So if I can’t win anymore, then I have no role.

“To be honest, every year from now until I stop is going to be ‘Can I keep going or not?’ I’m now coming off the back of two pretty average seasons so in the next few years, I definitely have to do something to convince this team to keep me on, or any other team to sign me.”

While that might sound a little defeatist, there can be no doubting Ewan’s desire to find his spark again, and to start winning on the biggest stage. 

“I definitely haven’t lost any motivation; I’m still super motivated to come back to my best,” he says. “I’ve felt what it feels like to win the biggest races in the world and I want to have that again. It’d be sad to just stop after having like three or four consecutive bad seasons.

“I definitely want to come back to my best and I’ll do everything I can to try to get there.”

Judging by his win at the Tour of Oman this past weekend, it seems Ewan’s well on his way.

Jonny Long contributed reporting to this story.

What did you think of this story?