The news that Mitchelton-Scott have decided to leave sprinter Caleb Ewan at home for the Tour de France has raised eyebrows, but one look at the Australian squad's line-up shows that team management have decided to throw everything behind a crack at the overall title with a coming-into-form Adam Yates, rather than try to split their resources between the GC and helping Ewan to notch stage wins.
Here, we analyse each selected rider's skills and aspirations as part of an outfit that now has very real intentions of deposing Chris Froome and Team Sky from the top of the Tour de France tree.
“The primary focus is for GC,” Mitchelton-Scott’s Matt White told Cyclingnews after the squad was announced on Thursday morning.
“But if you look at the roster, even if there’s a worst-case scenario in the first week, and something happens to Adam, then we still have options across the board to win stages. That said, I think we’ve got a super team to look after him, with Hayman, Hepburn, Durbridge and Bauer for the first nine days.
“I think that we’ve also got a great chance for the TTT and with this team we could be looking at putting a minute plus change into some of the other GC contenders. Of course, BMC and Sky are the teams to beat but we will definitely be in the mix.”
Yates has come back from injury to perform admirably in the last few months. He was in contention at Tirreno-Adriatico, despite a fall, and picked up a stage win. He returned at the Tour of California, and although he was short of his best form, he picked up another solid placing in the GC. At the Dauphiné he ran Team Sky and eventual winner Geraint Thomas close but was forced to settle for second place overall and a stage win.
Like his brother Simon, Adam Yates’ contract situation is set to be resolved in the coming weeks, and Mitchelton head to the Tour de France with a settled lined up. As expected, there is no place for Esteban Chaves, who is still recovering from the Giro, while Simon Yates is set to be rested for the second half of the year. The likes of Roman Kreuziger, Jack Haig and Chris Juul-Jensen competed in the Giro and the recent Tour de Suisse and were never in contention for a Tour spot.
If Yates can come through the first week without incident, he could play a significant role in the mountains and the final shake-down for the podium places. With Nieve by his side, he has one of the most experienced climbers in the peloton, while Damian Howson and Daryl Impey will support the British rider in the medium mountain stages. One could argue that the team is short of an additional pure climber but unlike the tactics at the Giro, Team Sky are likely to field a much stronger line-up, and therefore control far more of the race.
“Some might forget that the last time Adam was at the Tour, he finished fourth, and although he’s had some setbacks with injury this season, his trajectory since February has been excellent. He’s ready to go,” added White.
The Caleb question
The shock news, of course, revolves around the decision to leave Caleb Ewan at home. Back in January the team announced that the sprinter would be making his Tour debut in July, and the declaration was seen by many as a ‘hands-off’ message as the team tried to dissuade rivals squads from making a move for the soon to be out of contract rider, who had made no secret of his desire to race the Tour.
Recent links to Lotto Soudal have not helped the situation and it looks more and more likely that the move will take place, but White stressed that the decision to leave the sprinter at home was based on performance. There is certainly an argument to back this statement. In 2016 the team knew that Michael Matthews was leaving for Sunweb as early as June and yet they still chose to take him to the Tour and he duly won a stage.
The situation with Ewan is comparable, but the sprinter has not won since the Spring and has won only twice since the start of the year. Drawing blanks at the Tour of California and Tour of Slovenia proved the deciding factor, although Ewan’s decision to put off contract talks certainly would have been discussed within the management. Unlike with Matthews, Ewan would also require a deeper lead-out train, and, given his lack of Tour experience, White argued that taking a relative rookie was too much of a gamble.
“The decision has been a difficult one but it’s performance-based,” White told Cyclingnews.
“At the start of the year the plan was to go with split ambitions but plans can always change. It has become even trickier with one rider less this year, and we’ve got to make decisions around what’s going to bring us the best performance at the Tour. That’s key. Adam has proven that he’s in super shape and we’re backing the team around him.”
Whether his omission from the Tour de France is the nail in the coffin for Ewan’s time at Mitchelton remains to be seen. As previously stated, he may have already signed for Lotto Soudal but this recent development is unlikely to improve any possible talks between the rider and his current team.
“There’s been a lot of talk of his Caleb’s movements for 2019 but whatever the outcome we’ve picked the team that we think will meet our objectives for the entire Tour de France,” White said.
“Racing-wise it’s not been an ideal season for Caleb and he would have wanted more success coming into July. We’ve made a big effort with the sprint group, and there’s been a lot of placings but we have to back what we feel will deliver the best result for the team.”
Mitchelton-Scott's Tour de France team
Name: Adam Yates
Position: Team leader
Nationality: Great Britain
Experience: Fourth overall in 2016
The leader of the team and the sole focus of the squad's GC aspirations. This season has had its ups and downs, with injury a factor in the spring, but Yates returned to form with a superb second place at the Critérium du Dauphiné and a stage win on the final day. His last Tour de France in 2016 saw him finish fourth overall, ahead of Richie Porte, and several other contenders. The former white jersey will benefit from a climber-friendly route and will be surrounded by experience for the TTT and the first week.
Name: Mikel Nieve
Position: Super mountain domestique
Experience: 12th overall in 2013; important part of Froome's Tour wins in 2016 and 2017
Came back from injury at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Romandie before finding his form at the Giro d'Italia in the third week with his third career stage win. Age should not be a factor and Nieve was arguably the team's best signing at the end of 2017. He will offer Yates vital support in the Tour mountains, and shouldn't be too fatigued from his Giro exploits after riding himself into form towards the end of the race. If Yates cracks or drops out of contention for GC, then Nieve becomes an excellent weapon to use if the team start chasing stage wins.
Name: Damien Howson
Position: Mountain domestique
Experience: Rode his first Tour in 2017, finishing 88th overall.
Probably doesn’t receive the credit he deserves for his exploits against the clock, but Howson will be relied upon to support Yates in the mountains and will be a big help in the TTT . He has had a relatively quiet start to the season, results-wise, but has finished every Grand Tour he's started (four) and will be lined up as the team's 'Mr Dependable' in the medium and high mountains of the Tour de France.
Name: Daryl Impey
Position: Sprinter and stage hunter
Nationality: South Africa
Experience: Wore the maillot jaune in 2013
One of the first names on the team sheet, having missed the Tour de France just once since the team's inception in 2012. Impey provides a skill set like no other on the Mitchelton team and can sprint, climb and perform well in the team time trial. While the majority of the team will protect Yates, the South African will be afforded chances to race for himself, with several potential stages in the first week of the race. The overall winner of this year's Tour Down Under may have been a DNS on stage 4 of the recent Tour of Slovenia, but he claimed the points jersey and a stage at June's Critérium du Dauphiné. With Ewan at home on the sofa, Impey is perhaps Mitchelton's best chance of winning a stage before the race hits the mountains.
Name: Mat Hayman
Experience: Finished his second Tour de France in 2017
Despite his lengthy career, Hayman has only started three Tours, finishing two in the last two seasons. That said, he brings a wealth of experience to the team, both on and off the bike, with a career that has spanned three decades. He will be vital in protecting Yates in the first week and keeping Mitchelton's payload safe and out of trouble before the mountains come into view. A stage win would be the fairytale ending for Hayman with retirement a likely scenario at the end of the season, and the cobbled stage offers the perfect landscape for the veteran. However, Yates' ambitions will be Hayman's real focus.
Name: Michael Hepburn
Has started and finished the last four Giros but has never lined up at the Tour de France. Still just 26 years of age, Hepburn will be an integral part of the team's TTT core, bringing in experience from his track days. His form at the Tour de Suisse was nothing to write home about, but he was only added to the roster after another rider was hit by illness the day before. He has not won a race since 2015, but Mitchelton will be relying on his consistency more than anything else.
Name: Jack Bauer
Nationality: New Zealand
Experience: Came agonisingly close to winning a stage in Nîmes in 2014
Has picked up two top-10s in recent time trials and will be another important rider for Yates on the flats and in the team time trial. His physical presence, as with Hayman, will be used to keep Yates out of danger, while Bauer also has the ability to ride on the front for hours on end. With Ewan out, Bauer can also focus entirely on the team's GC prospects, and will not be relied upon for lead-out duties.
Name: Luke Durbridge
Experience: Set to start his fifth Tour. Crashed on stage 1 in 2017 and abandoned the next day
Durbridge will be expected to help look after Yates in the first week, particularly with crosswinds, cobbles and crashes set to be major factors. The Australian has become one of the team's most reliable riders in the Classics and, along with Hayman and Bauer, will form the nucleus around which Yates' first-week challenge will be based. The lack of individual time trial miles means that Durbridge's main focus will be on working for the team's GC, but he can provide much more. Along with Impey, Durbridge made it into the break to help their former teammate Michael Matthews win his stage in Revel at the 2016 Tour de France.