Caleb Ewan must be wondering when he's going to catch a break in 2018. The Australian did everything that was asked of him in the finale at Ardooie on stage 4 of the BinckBank Tour, but being the fastest finisher in the bunch sprint was only good enough for second place after Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) clipped off the front with a little over a kilometre to go.
The red jersey of points classification leader will be of scant consolation for Ewan, who is keen to finish a trying season with some more tangible prizes as he signs off on his tenure at Mitchelton-Scott. No matter how the campaign ends, of course, the story of Ewan's year will be dominated by his absence from the Tour de France line-up after building his entire season around his planned debut at La Grande Boucle.
Since last winter, Ewan had been touted as the team's leader for July, and Mitchelton's decision to send most of its climbing talent to the Giro d'Italia seemed to confirm that the Tour squad would be built around their sprinter. After declining to sign a contract extension with the team, however, Ewan found himself surplus to requirements when the Tour squad was announced, although he is coy about drawing a link between the two events.
"I'm not sure, to be honest. I don't know what they were thinking," Ewan told Cyclingnews in Blankenberge on Thursday. "All I can say is that I was definitely on track to be going well there. The decision was theirs, so I don't know."
In the intervening weeks, Ewan has reached a decision of his own, and he recently confirmed that he will ride for Lotto Soudal in 2019. The announcement followed an unexpected spell of midseason downtime as he sat out the Tour and then returned to action at the RideLondon-Surrey Classic at the end of July.
Maintaining motivation and rebuilding condition through that period, however, proved trying.
"It was hard because obviously the Tour was my main goal. It was hard because I'd trained for the Tour and then I had no racing for a while. I had to manage that time. I had a few weeks off and then started training again for the second half of the season," said Ewan, whose late-season schedule has not been affected by his impending transfer. After the BinckBank Tour, he will ride the Tour of Britain and, possibly, the Tour of Guangxi.
"My programme for the second half of the season is pretty similar to what it would have been. They're still sending me to races I can do well in, so I think they're still trying to get the most out of me for the rest of the season."
Ewan's 2018 season has yielded just two wins thus far – a stage at the Tour Down Under and then the Clasica de Almeria in February – although the entire year might have had an altogether different complexion had Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) not soloed clear on the Poggio at Milan-San Remo. Ewan won the bunch sprint for second place on the Via Roma that afternoon but then did not race again until May's Tour of California as his focus turned to preparing for the Tour de France.
"A lot of my season was built around the Tour. In the last five months, I've only had two races. It hasn't been ideal. I haven't raced that much," Ewan said. "I was going for a peak in July – that's when I was going to be going at my best – so I'm disappointed I missed out on some of my best form of the year. It was a bit of a waste, to be honest."
For now, Ewan is in the somewhat liminal state of being on Mitchelton-Scott without being a part of the team's future. It would be understandable if his thoughts were already beginning to drift towards the new beginning at Lotto Soudal next year, and the new lead-out train that will build up around him as he replaces André Greipel as the team's sprinter.
"At the moment I'm just focusing on finishing this season well," Ewan said. "This season hasn't been great for me, so I'd still like to get a few more wins under my belt before the end of the year. But I am excited for next year. It kind of brings me a bit more motivation, moving to a new team – a team that's really going to put a lot of support behind me."
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