In his Tour de France debut in 2019, Australian Caleb Ewan racked up three victories to add to his trio of Giro d'Italia stage wins and one stage of the Vuelta a España. The Lotto Soudal rider is coming into this year's Tour de France aiming to raise his arms in victory at least once more. But after coming a distant second to Peter Sagan in the points classification last season, Ewan said he will not try for the green jersey.
"I'm not focussing on the green jersey to be honest," Ewan said. "The way the points work it's just not a competition that suits a pure sprinter. We haven't seen a pure sprinter win in years. I think not just Sagan but also [Wout] Van Aert who can climb and sprint. The days I can't get to the finish, they'll get there and get maximum points. Even the days when I can win, they're always top five or top 10 and always scoring points."
Ewan's stage win on the Champs-Élysées pulled him up into second behind Sagan by 68 points. He said he had no regrets about not chasing after more points in the intermediate sprints.
"Maybe the day will come when I'm really close to winning it and I'll go for some intermediates, but right now I think it's too hard. Going for stages is hard enough and I think I'll focus on that."
With only a cursory examination of the Tour parcours, Ewan estimates there are six good opportunities for a bunch sprint finish, the first one coming on the opening stage in Nice. There is more pressure on his shoulders now that he's proven himself in the Tour de France but he's not banking too much on getting the first maillot jaune.
"Obviously the stage isn't going to be a straightforward sprint stage. It's a hard day," he said of the circuit which includes two category 3 climbs but has almost 40km of descending and flat roads before the finish. "I think the benefit for the sprinters is there is a lot of time to come back even if you do get dropped on the climb. There is a lot of time to come back in the valley, and usually at this time of year in the valley, there's a headwind, so that also makes it a bit easier to come back.
"It really depends on how it's raced on the climbs and if there's a team that really wants to split it, it's going to be hard for us. I think there are good sprinters here with strong teams and that always helps. I hope that it's going to stay together for a bunch sprint."
Ewan had a stellar start to the 2020 season, winning two stages in the Tour Down Under and a stage and the points classification at the UAE Tour, but after racing resumed in July, he missed out on a win in Milano-Torino to Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) and finished well off the pace in Milan-San Remo. But he won a stage in Tour de Wallonie and led the race for two days and says the opening stage of the Tour can't compare with what riders endured in Milan-San Remo.
The Italian Classic, he says, "was my second race back [after] five months without racing, and we were straight into a race that was seven, eight hours long. On Saturday the race isn't going to be seven hours long. By the time we hit the Cipressa, we had already had seven hours of riding and it was super hot also, so that made a big difference. I've heard it's going to be maybe rainy so I think the lower temperatures will suit me better."
A hard Tour de France for sprinters
The Tour de France will be missing some of the top sprinters - Démare, Michael Matthews (Sunweb), and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) are going to the Giro d'Italia instead. Ewan thinks this is because there are more sprint stages in the Giro but sees plenty of chances for himself at the Tour.
"When you really look at the course and look at all the opportunities, maybe there are one or two less sprints than last year, but there are still good opportunities," Ewan said. "I think it's still going to be hard to win here - some of the best ones aren't here, but there is still [Elia] Viviani (Cofidis), [Sam] Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep), [André] Greipel (Israel Start-Up Nation) - there are still really good guys here. As always it's going to be super hard to win."
Ewan has his eyes on six stages but how many he can win will all depend on his form relative to the other sprinters, and he wants to take home as many wins as he can. Some of the stages will depend on sprint teams being able to control the race and, this year, one of the teams that pulled during a lot of stage - Jumbo-Visma - will be looking after their overall contenders instead.
"It could be some days hard for the sprint teams, but I remember last year there was maybe only three teams controlling for a sprint anyway. I think it's going to be pretty similar to last year. The main teams to help are usually QuickStep and last year we had Jumbo helping a lot. Obviously this year they probably won't be pulling for the sprint stages but they might [for Wout van Aert]. Maybe there are fewer teams that are going to help, but hopefully it won't make much of a difference."
Ewan is modest when comparing himself to his rivals and said he hopes he will be the best of the sprinters but his teammate John Degenkolb was more outwardly confident in the Australian's abilities.
"I think Caleb is the fastest guy at the moment," Degenkolb said. "It's hard for him to take this position and say he's the fastest guy but I've seen many fast sprinters in my career and if you compare them all - his abilities, no one else has. He's as fast as Marcel Kittel but he only has to push half the watts because he's half as big. That's a huge advantage for him. Because he's so small he can also climb pretty well."
Degenkolb's main job will be to get Ewan and his last lead-out man Jasper De Buyst into position. He'll have Roger Kluge to help with that duty.
There won't be a Tour de France stage ending in Roubaix for him to make a repeat of his emotional Tour stage win of 2018 but the German says he might have some chances in the Tour to go for his own result.
"I know how wonderful it is to win a stage in the Tour. That feeling you have afterwards stays with you forever. It's more than worth it to fight for," Degenkolb said.
"We have a lot of medium-hard stages. If we see a chance to go for a result for me, I think I can also have my freedom in some of the stages and try to get a victory. The main focus is the supporting role in the team, but we will try to get something every day. We have a very balanced team and that's really good if you want to win stages."
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