At the end of last year, the UCI came up with a new rule of eligibility for the Under-23 World Championships, allowing WorldTour riders of that age to enter the event. It was already the case for Pro Continental riders, such as current world champion Kevin Ledanois, who showed up at the Fortuneo-Vital Concept team presentation last week in the rainbow jersey last week, though he won't be able to wear it at races.
The new UCI rule opens the Under-23 Worlds to the likes of Caleb Ewan of Orica-GreenEdge, who would surely be a favourite for the event on the flat roads of Qatar this year after winning eleven races on his professional debut in 2015, including a stage at the Vuelta a España. Ewan finished fourth in his first Under-23 world championship behind Matej Mohoric, Louis Meintjes and Sondre Holst Enger in Florence in 2013, and was the runner-up behind Sven Erik Bystrøm in Ponferrada in 2014. Born in 1994, he theoretically could go back to the young category in Doha – and never wear jersey like Ledanois.
But this potential easy medal for Australia is very unlikely to be targeted as Cyclingnews found out on the start line of the national championship in Buninyong. Orica-GreenEdge team manager Shayne Bannan's first reaction was: "He's a World Tour rider!" But Australia loves gold…
"We'd leave that to Caleb to decide," Bannan continued. "Would he be allowed to wear that jersey? If he wanted to do it there's no way we'd oppose to this fantastic possibility for him to be the [U23] world champion. But the world championship is flat this year. For him it's a really good opportunity to have exposure in his first professional world championship. If it was for myself I'd rather get the experience and the exposure in the Elite rather than in the under 23."
Ewan's new teammate Alex Edmondson, who is just six months older than him, doesn't see the Australian going back to the under-23 ranks. "My birthday is on December 22, so I miss being under-23 this year again by about a week," Edmondson said. "It's a question you have to ask him [Ewan] but look what he does at World Tour level. I mean, he's winning stages of Grand Tours. I can't make that call for him but it's pretty unbelievable to be able to do what he does at that young age, it's impressive."
"If I'm wearing my Australian Elite national coach hat, I'd like to explore all potential possibilities to running Caleb with me in the elite," acknowledged sports director Bradley McGee, who also nurtured Ewan at the New South Wales Sports Institute before he turned pro. "But at the same time we're going to have that conversation with Kevin Tabotta and James Victor with regards to the under-23 goals but definitely my thoughts would be going towards the pro race with Caleb.
"In normal situations of a world championship, a second year pro wouldn't be a potential winner," McGee added, "but we're not talking about a normal scenario this year. Worlds are in October, they're in Qatar, it's dead flat, it changes a lot of things. If there's an opportunity there, if we don't have any other obvious strong Australian guy putting his hand up for leadership goals, that would mean there's an opportunity for young Caleb Ewan. We could give him full support. It wouldn't be an absolute shock if he'd got his hands in the air but at the same time it would be a massive achievement for such a young kid."
Richmond's runner-up Michael Matthews who was absent from the national championship warned earlier on that the Doha route is too flat and not his taste, so his next attempt to the rainbow jersey should be in Bergen, Norway, 2017.
Ewan himself was adamant as to his preference for the Doha Worlds. "Elite!" he answered firmly when the question was put to him. "There's no satisfaction going back to the Under 23s. I want to win the Elite Worlds!"
25 under-23 riders are part of the WorldTour. Three teams (FDJ, Giant-Alpecin and Katusha) have three apiece. There's a potentially interesting Colombian national team with Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) backing top sprinter Fernando Gaviria and his team-mate Rodrigo Contreras (Etixx-Quick Step). France has a chance to retain the rainbow jersey with Lorrenzo Manzin of FDJ who already won a pro race last year. Belgium could line up with new classics star Tiejs Benoot. Slovenia's Mohoric can have an unexpected second shot on a terrain that doesn't suit him as much as Florence's course, while the new rule is another opportunity for Ireland's Ryan Mullen (Cannondale-Garmin) to win the time trial title.