Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) took his first Tour de France stage win in Toulouse on Wednesday, managing to time his bike throw to perfection to edge past Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) in a photo finish. Ewan's teammate Roger Kluge was visibly beaming outside the team bus, but instead of playing his usual lead-out role in dropping Ewan off with a few hundred metres to go, Kluge instead left Ewan on Groenwegen's wheel with two kilometres still to race.
The decision was partly pre-mediated but also in part down to the duo’s teammate Jasper De Buyst crashing with around 15 kilometres left to race, causing Ewan to lose contact with the peloton at the sharp end of the stage.
After dropping back to tow Ewan back to the bunch, Kluge then shepherded Ewan onto the wheel of the four-man Jumbo-Visma lead out, which Kluge admits is the strongest at the race.
"The final 15 kilometres were pretty interesting," Kluge explained to Cyclingnews outside his team bus after the stage. "We were caught behind a crash and lost a lot of positions, and then I waited for Caleb and I got him back on the wheels with probably 10 kilometres to go and from there we, we had to move on again and move up.
"He was on the limit and sometimes we had to rest a little bit," Kluge said. "There was the little climb with five kilometres to go and luckily, they didn’t take it full and from there, after I dropped him on the downhill to the Jumbo-Visma train and kept him there for another kilometre until the last two, and then I was gone, I was over but he kept the position and did a perfect sprint.
"I think everybody could see from the first week [Jumbo-Visma] have a super strong team, with the strongest lead out. We have a strong team as well, with a strong lead out, but we learned after a couple of stages we just need to drop him off in the right position. We don’t need to give him the perfect lead-out because he can jump from the wheels and that makes him a super fast sprinter.
"Jumbo were in front and they still had enough guys, so it wasn’t easy, but I knew they could go to the final, they would manage it and time it, so he was on a good wheel."
Despite an age gap of eight years, Kluge and Ewan are very close teammates, often sharing rooms at races and sharing similar race programs throughout the season. Following the Australian’s high-profile move from Mitchelton-Scott to Lotto Soudal last summer, Kluge's move was confirmed a few weeks later to become a key part in Ewan's lead-out train.
The pair had expected to be at the Tour de France together in 2018, but after being controversially left out of Mitchelton-Scott's plans, it seemed Ewan had a point to prove at his debut Tour this year.
"It's a big achievement," Kluge said. "We were already looking forward to this last year in going to the Tour and winning a stage. He’s already won at the Vuelta [a Espana], he’s taken a win at the Giro d'Italia in the past and he had two stage wins at the Giro this year, so we knew he was definitely ready and could do it at the level to contend among the other sprinters.
"He's already come really close when he finished second, so we always knew he had it in his legs. He's one of the fastest. He can time a sprint to perfection, then he can win and he did it all right today."
Ewan's victory was the second for the Belgian squad at this year's race, following Thomas De Gendt's breakaway win on stage 8 to Saint Etienne. The race moves into the Pyrenees on Thursday, but with two more pure sprint opportunities to come and Tim Wellens in the polka dot jersey, Lotto Soudal's golden streak might not be over just yet.
"I would take more, but we’re super, super happy," Kluge said. "We came here to win one stage, and we have two. We still have the [polka dot] jersey with Tim [Wellens], it has been a fantastic Tour so far and anything else that happens after this will be something extra."