The Australian Road National Championships are an important race for Caleb Ewan in the context of his desire to claim a maiden green-and-gold jersey and simultaneously gain one-day racing experience ahead of his Milan-San Remo debut.
Having shouldered the responsibility for Orica-Scott at the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic and the criterium championship, Ewan will be one of six cards the Australian WorldTour team can play in Sunday's 183.6km race, and he's looking forward to sharing the leadership role.
"When we got to the crits I am the one man that the team is working for, and I have to win. On Sunday, we have so many options it takes the pressure off being a sole leader, and because we do have everything covered I will go into the race knowing exactly what my role is, and if the race plays out like that, I am ready for it. Otherwise, I am there waiting and have trust and faith in the rest of the team to do their job as well," Ewan said of the race in which he finished second to Heinrich Haussler in 2015.
Having announced himself as a prodigious sprinting talent at the tender age of 17 by winning at the Bay Crits, Ewan has entered the majority of his races as a favourite for victory. Asked what affect the pressure has on his mindset and approach to racing, Ewan explained he enjoys starting races with the pressure to perform.
"I don’t mind it, to be honest," he said. "It is probably harder to go into a race with pressure and being the favourite but I have gotten used to it over the last few years. Ever since I did well at Bay Crits when I was 17, every time I’ve since come back to that race, for example, I have had pressure on my back to do well there, which is good for my career I think to learn to deal with the pressure and coming back to a race as a favourite. After awhile, you get used to it and you deal with it and becomes second nature."
Simon Gerrans and Luke Durbridge have both won on the course, while Ewan's U23 victory and silver medal suggest he could win an elite title on the hilly circuit. Although the physical character of the circuit is often cited as the reason sprinters can't win on the course, Ewan highlights the wind and weather as equal factors in determining the outcome.
"I have done well on this course before even though it is not much of a sprinters course," he said. "The wind conditions play a major role in how this race is raced and how it plays out. For example, that year I got second to Heinrich it was a headwind coming up the hill, which obviously makes it a lot easier for guys sitting on the wheels to get over and get through the race. Last year, it was a tailwind up the climb, so every time Richie [Porte] is going full gas, even sitting on, it is super hard and that is where the race goes in two different ways. Obviously, I am hoping for a headwind to favour me but if it’s not, we have guys who it will favour so it won’t matter."
While Ewan is focused on challenging for the victory, he is also using the race as an important hit-out for his one-day racing ambitions. The Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race is another one-day race Ewan will contest in the early season but he'll otherwise be engaged with stage racing.
"At the start of the season before San Remo, we don’t have a whole lot of one-day races to do, they are mostly one-week tours. Every one of these one-day races between now and San Remo I am going to have to try and learn how to really conserve my energy as best as possible because, at the end of the day, that is what wins you those really long races," he said. "Those guys who can really conserve well and you see a lot of the time the older experienced guys that do well in those races is because they have the experience and know how to race them."
Ewan is also hoping that for his debut at the first of the five monuments on the calendar, he can gain as much as experience as possible from 2012 winner Simon Gerrans.
"I have spoken to him a little bit about it and honestly, I would love to do it with him. Watching him race it, I would be able to learn a lot so hopefully, we can both do it this year. I don’t know if I will be going for the win or what my role will be there, but I just want to get there and do it," he said. "More for the future than anything. If I could follow him around for the day and see exactly how he races it, then I am sure I would learn a lot."
Gaviria and sprinting rivalry
During his brief professional career, Ewan has regularly come up against the top sprinters in the contemporary peloton, but it is Colombian Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) who has arguably emerged as a rival, rather than the likes of established fast men Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel and Nacer Bouhanni.
Both riders are former junior omnium world champions and have come up against each other at the 2014 Tour de l’Avenir, U23 Worlds later that year, and on stage 3 of last year’s Tirreno-Adriatico, where Gavira bested Ewan after the Australian was the better finisher in their first two battles. Gaviria is likely to line out for Quick Step-Floors at Milan-San Remo and avoid the misfortune he suffered in the finale of last year’s race, where the rivalry with Ewan will resume.
"To be honest, I haven’t really raced him when I am in my peak form and it is hard to tell exactly where I sit in comparison to him. I think at the moment, he is a little bit of a different rider to me, he is not exactly the same. He is super quick but he can get through a long race like San Remo. If he didn’t crash last year, he could have potentially taken out the win there, and for a 21- or 22-year-old it is an amazing result. Even to get to where he did was an incredible ride.
"At the moment he can get through the longer races better than I can but then hopefully if it came down to a pure bunch sprint then I could get him. It is going to be a rivalry that is going to go on for hopefully the next five, 10, 12 years."
Like the 105-year-old Robert Marchand who recently called on a rival after setting a new hour record to push him to new heights, Ewan welcomes the rivalry with Gaviria and the added depth in the WorldTour sprinting stocks.
"I think it is always good to have a solid rival. I guess at the top end of the sport unless you were Cav a couple of years ago, you are never going to be a guy that is going to win everything and do what he did. I think now, especially with the depth of sprinting, that it won’t just be Fernando and I, there is going to be a whole lot of good young guys coming through.
"The depth in sprinting over the last few years has really grown. You never see guys winning by bike lengths anymore, it’s a lot of the time really close. I think it is good for sprinting and there was a period where Cav was just winning everything and it was kind of getting boring, where now it is shared around a little bit more."
Unsure exactly how many more watts a green and gold jersey would provide, 22-year-old Ewan is direct when stating what the national jersey would mean ahead of the crucial 2017 season.
"Hopefully a lot if I do end up winning it," he said. "It would be nice representing the country in every race I go to, and to be honest, it would be a dream come true if I could wear the green and gold for a full year."