Pint of Guinness: It’s been a tough TDU for Caleb Ewan

It hasn't been the Tour Down Under that Jayco AlUla wanted, but it is only January.

Rupert Guinness
by Rupert Guinness 20.01.2024 Photography by
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As the Santos Tour Down Under heads uphill for its climax at Mt. Lofty on Sunday, the presence of Caleb Ewan will become more distant with every pedal stroke – literally so.

That is understandable, considering Ewan (Jayco AlULa) is a sprinter and unsuited to hilly days like Sunday’s. He won’t be alone though, as all the sprinters in the tour will likely be off the back, including three-time stage winner, Australian Sam Welsford (Bora-Hansgrohe).

However, of greater concern in this tour is that Ewan’s presence has been distant throughout. From stages 1 to 4, stages that were all suited for sprinters, Ewan barely posed a threat to Welsford, or even to those who challenged the Bora-Hansgrohe flyer.

An unexplained illness ruled Ewan out from the Down Under Classic criterium last Saturday. The event would have been his first as the 2024 Australian criterium champion, a title he claimed 10 days earlier in Ballarat, Victoria. He was also absent from the Jayco-AlUla team line-up for a Jayco sponsorship reception last Monday on the eve of the Tour Down Under.

And when it came time to race in the Tour Down Under proper, Ewan barely fired a shot. And not only him, but also his sprint train. The lingering impact of his illness and the heat were given as explanations for his fourth place on stage 1; but for stages 2 (fifth), 3 (sixth) and 4 (18th), the combination of Ewan and his train was clearly not where the team wants it to be this year. That’s understandable considering it was their first race together. Saying that, the Tour Down Under was the first race for Welsford on Bora-Hansgrohe.

Jayco-AlUla’s head of high performance, Matt White, gave a valid perspective of how grave (or not) Ewan’s sub-par performance was in his first race back at the team; a team he left in 2019 for Lotto Soudal. As he jumped into his team car before Saturday’s fifth stage to Willunga Hill, White quipped with a smile: “If he wins a couple of stages in the Giro d’Italia or even Milan-San Remo, how he did here or not won’t matter to anyone.”

Saying that, White also recognises that he had hoped for more from Ewan and his sprint train. 

Asked to sum up the week for Ewan and his train as Jayco AlULa’s attention turned to British teammate Simon Yates and his overall race, White said it was “not the ideal run-in with his illness. It was definitely work in progress with the sprint group around him. 

“But we knew it would be. They had never raced together [as a sprint train for Ewan]. I think that there’s some things we can work on with the execution of delivery of the little fella.

“I think the first sprint he put himself – or the guys put him – into perfect [position]. He chose Welsford’s wheel and was ready to step off. A healthy Caleb would have been very close. 

“The next sprints were poor execution by the guys. We could have done things better.”

While buoyed by the prospects of Yates in the overall race that will be determined on Sunday, Jayco AlULa have certainly not cast aside the issue of dealing with Ewan’s unsettled return to the Australian WorldTour race. Every stage is followed with a debrief. On sprint stages, the team meeting is followed by a more detailed debrief among the sprint train.

“We do a general debrief including everyone, then we break it down with sprint group,” White said. “We go over the final couple of kilometres of what we could have done better.”

White would not elaborate on what Ewan’s illness was when pressed, other than to reply: “I don’t’ really want to talk about it. Just that he wasn’t well.” However, White dismissed any notion that Ewan’s results reflected his fitness or preparation. “There’s no issue with his fitness. There is no issue, certainly, with the work that he’s done coming into here.”

There is no doubt a huge dent was made in the firepower of the Jayco AlUla sprint train with Australian road champion Luke Plapp crashing before the finale of stage 3, and withdrawing from the tour just before stage 4. 

But White did allude to confidence being a factor, both that of Ewan and his sprint train. 

Sprinting is such a confidence-driven art. It impacts the read of a 65 km/h finale, the commitment of the lead-out riders to hold their position at high speed, or their fight for it when it is not yet theirs to hold. It triggers the quick-response mechanism of every rider involved, especially a lead sprinter on whose shoulders lies the responsibility to deliver wins. 

“There are split-second decisions and you’re also working on very small margins,” said White. “You make a mistake, you brake … or if you go too early, and all those little things. 

“It’s all about timing which is all bound by confidence and everything around it.

“Once you’ve got it, you get a roll on. And when you haven’t got it you start looking at sprinting a different way as well. It’s a combination of things. We would have liked to have left here with the stage win for him [Ewan], but then it is the start of a long season.”

Long, the season is. For Ewan it resumes next week in Victoria with the Surf Coast Classic on Thursday and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race on Sunday. After that, Ewan will race in the Muscat Classic and Tour of Oman in February and then Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo in March before a preparation block for the Giro d’Italia.

White is optimistic that Ewan and his Jayco AlUla train will find their mojo in time for Ewan’s major season goals, notwithstanding the pressure that was on them all at the Tour Down Under with it being an Australian team in an Australian WorldTour event. 

It is worth noting too that while Welsford and his Bora-Hansgrohe team showed how dialled-in confidence works, Jayco AlUla were not the only team to be shown up in the sprints.

Other teams had eyes on the sprint stages such as Bahrain Victorious whose sprinter Phil Bauhaus last year won at Tanunda where Welsford won on stage 1 this year. His best result was second on stage 1, followed by 106th on stage 2, 14th on stage 3 and ninth on stage 4.

Bahrain Victorious directeur sportif Neil Stephens lauded Bora-Hangrohe for their superiority, but said the lack of success by other teams was not for lack of effort.

“Sam Welsford is going great,” he said. “He’s doing fantastic. He’s a standout. He’s really stepped it up. He’s obviously worked really hard and by far had the best lead out train.

“But there are a lot of teams that work really hard. Jayco AlUla worked really hard, but they don’t seem to be putting it together. 

“We’re a bit in the same boat. We also came here with high aspirations. We have worked hard, but haven’t been able to put it together. We’ve also had a number of crashes.”

While Sunday’s final stage of the 2024 Tour Down Under is another one for the climbers, Ewan and his fellow sprinters will be looking further ahead. As White says, the season is long and even the most frustrating Tour Down Under will be forgotten if success follows in the bigger races.

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