After a disappointing year in the saddle, Caleb Ewan finally has what his heart and his legs desire: a new team, their complete support and, most importantly, a fresh start. At the Lotto Soudal training camp in Mallorca, Spain, the Australian sprinter sat down with Cyclingnews to give a frank and honest assessment of his 2018 campaign, and spoke about filling the shoes of Andre Griepel, and about his fractured relationship with certain members of the Mitchelton-Scott management team.
By his own admission, 2018 was not the season Caleb Ewan was hoping for. The year had started promisingly, with a stage win at the Tour Down Under in January, followed by another victory at the Clasica de Almeria in February. Everything appeared to be on track as the 24-year-old gradually moved towards his two main goals of the season in Milan-San Remo and the Tour de France.
However, by the end of June, the Australian was off the roster for the Tour and at war with his Mitchelton directors, who appeared convinced that a move to Lotto Soudal had already been sealed. As the season petered out, Ewan found himself struggling for races, dislodged from the WorldTour schedule and without even a shot at the Vuelta a España to keep him occupied. A win on the last stage of the Tour of Britain would be his final act in Mitchelton colours, and a sad end to his time on the Australian team.
"Results-wise, it was disappointing, but I feel like I stepped up a level, physically. I struggled to get a win in the second half of the season, though, and I missed the Tour as well, when I was at my peak form. I was wasted then, and from there it was a bit messed up," Ewan tells Cyclingnews.
"I felt like I could never find my rhythm. I'm not looking back with too much worry, because I was still getting podiums, and there were times when we just didn't catch the break. The Tour was my main focus of the season. But I didn't even get to do it, or any other Grand Tour, and I don't think I deserved that. I've won stages in the Vuelta and the Giro, so it's not like I'm not capable of doing a Grand Tour. It was a pity to see the team treat it like that in the end, but I wanted to still do well before getting the season finished. I didn't want to just throw away the rest of the season, because, in the end, it's my career. I kept training and luckily I got the win on the last stage of the Tour of Britain."
In January, Mitchelton-Scott announced that Ewan would ride the Tour de France. There was a sound strategy behind their pre-emptive strike. Firstly, it was at the height of the Australian season, when column inches in the national press could be obtained with the right subject and headlines. "Ewan set for Tour debut" ticked all the right boxes. The second element was that the announcement – in Mitchelton's eyes at least – would act as a 'hands off' to other teams. Out of contract at the end of 2018, the team were well aware that Lotto Soudal, who were looking to replace Andre Greipel, had already batted their eyelids in Ewan's direction, and, as one of a handful of sprinters on the market, they were keen to keep their starlet happy.
However, by the time May and then June rolled around, the relationship between Ewan and Mitchelton's management had begun to deteriorate. A string of podium places was set against a backdrop of rumours and speculation that Lotto Soudal had already signed their man, and when Lotto failed to deny the links, the speculation only intensified.
"It was all based on rumours," Ewan says in relation to that period.
"I hadn't signed a contract. We were obviously in pretty heavy discussions with Lotto, and that's the reason why Greipel thought I'd already signed. To be honest, it was obvious I would end up coming here, but it wasn't a done deal."
As Mitchelton began to narrow down the Tour de France selection, it became clearer and clearer that Ewan might miss out, and that the January press release announcing his Tour de France spot wasn't worth the paper it was written on.
Ewan picked up a few podium spots at the Tour of California, but crashed on the two sprint stages at the Tour of Slovenia. With Mitchelton keen on supporting their GC hopes come July, Ewan and his lead-out train were dropped from the long-list. It would be naïve to argue that the Lotto Soudal links played no part in the situation, but Ewan argues that they were in fact the primary reason behind Matt White and Mitchelton's decision to leave him at home. Mitchelton would counter and point to the fact that they brought Michael Matthews to the Tour in 2016, even though they knew he was leaving for Sunweb at the end of the year.
"I think I was unfairly treated, but I don't know about punished. Mitchelton still say that I wasn't good enough to go to the Tour, and they'll always maintain that, but I know I deserved a spot," Ewan tells us.
"That's probably the difference between Mitchelton and this team now. I've talked to the staff here and told them exactly which races I want to do, and they're so supportive of that. They're not going to say that I can go to the Tour and then flick me last minute. When Greipel was here, they were always backing him, no matter what, and if he hadn't won, they were still backing him. I think that's the difference between Mitchleton and this team. At Mitchelton they'll back a guy if he's going well, but as soon as things go bad, they try something different. They don't have consistency in backing guys.
"He'll always maintain that I wasn't good enough, which I know isn't true," Ewan continues as he discusses taking White's call a week before the Tour.
"I have data to prove that I was going well enough. He based it on me not racing much between San Remo and the Tour. I did California and Slovenia. At California I was on the podium most days, and that was my first race after months away, plus I'd just come down from an altitude camp, so I wasn't in the condition to be winning races. Then at Slovenia I had a big crash on stage 1, and then another crash on stage 2, and those were the two days for the sprinters. He based it on those results, and in the end you can't argue because I didn't win, but it was always going to be hard given how it was planned. My argument was always that if you wanted me to be at my best at the Tour, then I can't be at my best in California and I can't win a race when I'm on the ground with one kilometre to go. In the end, it was a bad move from them. I don't know what their thinking is half of the time."
Ewan states that the Tour de France snub was the finally straw and the catalyst for a team change. Mitchelton had been focusing on the GC with the three-pronged attack of the Yates brothers and Esteban Chaves for some time, and their focus on sprints had begun to wane, but pulling the rug from under Ewan's feet ahead of a possible Tour debut was the curtain call on his time at the team.
"The Tour was the point in my mind where it was completely made up. You can't stay in a team like that, where my ambitions were to go to the Tour and win races like that. Also, when I went to Milan-San Remo and I didn't get a full team backing me, I feel like I missed out on a chance to win there."
At the first Classic of the season, Vincenzo Nibali stole a march on his rivals with a daring attack in the finale. Ewan had surfed the wheels on the final climbs and was in contention with a handful of other sprinters. However, instead of helping his leader, Ewan points out teammate Matteo Trentin, who attacked rather than help pull Nibali back ahead of the sprint. Ewan would finish a creditable second but the thought of what might have been flooded his head on the podium, and it still rankles with him now.
"That wasn't the plan," he says. "If I got over the Poggio, Trentin was supposed to help me, but he went for himself. When I was speaking to Lotto, they were adamant that they would back me for the races that I wanted to do well at. If you look at the season, my two main goals were San Remo and the Tour. There were goals in between but I couldn't go to San Remo without my teammates racing me. In that case, I had a lot of guys helping me until that point, but it all fell apart when Trentin went for himself."
In the end, Mitchelton didn't make Ewan an offer. Lotto tried to keep Greipel but a fractious relationship between then general manager Paul de Geyter and the German saw the veteran sprinter move to pastures new. Come August 1, and the UCI transfer window, Ewan announced to the world that he would ride in Lotto Soudal colours. Riders change teams all the time, but it was nevertheless a sad ending to a relationship that had started years ago, and for a young rider and team that had developed in tandem.
"To be honest, I don't think that the relationship deteriorated. Maybe there were a few people who didn't want me to reach my potential but, other than that, the relationships with my teammates, and 95 per cent of the staff, were good. I don't think I left on a bitter note.
"You could feel that the relationship… They wanted want to keep me but they didn't mind if I left," Ewan says. "I was in the way of their GC ambitions. Maybe they wanted to keep me because I was Australian and I could win for them, but in the end I don't think they minded if I stayed or left, and now they can really focus on GC."
Flush with his Lotto Soudal kit and his Ridley bike, Ewan looks like a completely different rider to the one who ghosted through the second half of the season. As he sits with his new teammates around the dinner table in Mallorca, it's clear that he's the leader of the pack. They listen intently as he reels off stories, and his jokes are funny enough that they don't have to humour him with fake laughter. There already appears to be a bond.
It's helped that he's taken Roger Kluge with him from Mitchelton, and that Adam Blythe has been rescued from Aqua Blue and given another chance at Lotto, but Ewan is certainly settling into his new environment.
Perhaps that should come as no surprise given Lotto's history of helping sprinters settle in: first with Robbie McEwen in the mid-2000s and then with Greipel for almost a decade. Ewan represents the third generation of sprinters at Lotto and a new era for the team.
"I hope that I can," he says when asked if he is up to the task of carrying the baton.
"I hope to have a long period of time with the team, like those guys did, and I think that says a lot about a team: that someone like Andre would stay here for that long. A lot of other sprinters change teams every two or three years. Robbie was here for a long time, and then Andre, and hopefully I can be here for a long time, too. It was obviously a hard decision going from an Australian team where I'm comfortable to a team I'm new to, but if it works out well then it could be a really long relationship.
"It's a little bit different to Mitchelton, but it's been good so far. The staff and riders are really welcoming. It's good to be here and it's good to get started. I've not raced for a while, and this season hasn't been great, but I'm starting a new season and starting fresh."
It's important for both Ewan and his new team to hit the ground running come January, and his return to top-level racing at the Tour Down Under. A win on home soil would quickly put aside the talk of whether Ewan has made the right move, and whether he can fill Greipel's shoes, but the 24-year-old is keen to take on that challenge.
"If I'm going to have the pressure of winning a race, then I want that with the pressure and support of a full team behind me," he says. "I had pressure at Mitchelton, but I'd only get full team support there sometimes and at some of the smaller races. At the big ones I'd only have a few guys helping me. I'm going to have more support here.
"I guess I feel some pressure in being a leader, but, at the end of the day, there's no point in stressing about it too much because all I can do is my best. I can't do any more than that. I'm motivated and I'm going to train as hard as I can. I'll go for as many wins as I can. That might mean winning two races, it might mean winning 10 races. We'll just have to see. I don't see it as huge shoes to fill."
Greipel won 11 Tour stages during his time at Lotto. Ewan has yet to make his Tour debut but the pressure is something he must take in his stride throughout the season ahead.
After all, he's got everything he wanted: a new team, their complete support and, most importantly of all, a fresh start.