Caleb Ewan cut a contented figure as he stood outside the Lotto Soudal team bus on the bank of the River Saône following stage 7 of the Tour de France on Friday. Just moments earlier, he had lost the stage to Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) by inches, but betrayed no signs of frustration as he spoke to waiting journalists.
After such a narrow loss, it would have been easy to avoid the assembled journalists and head straight for the shower, but the Australian admitted that he and his team did all they could to try to achieve what would have been his first career Tour victory on his race debut.
"I think my sprint was quite good, but I'll have to have a look at it," Ewan said, after adding to his two podium places thus far in the Tour. "I think Dylan started his sprint a little bit earlier and got the jump, but I'm getting closer and we'll still keep trying for the win."
Ewan's progress through the first week of the Tour has been clear to see both in results and in the photo finishes at the line.
The race's opener in Brussels saw him out of the picture, but by stage 4 in Nancy he was a wheel-length down on winner Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep), and in Chalon-sur-Saône he was less than half a wheel-length behind Groenewegen.
Both stages saw Ewan hit with bad luck, with the 25-year-old first threatening to burst up the middle to victory before being squeezed out, and then having to start from too far back after a disorganised lead-out. Stage 7, the longest of this year's Tour, saw him navigate the technical run-in successfully, but it was a question of pure speed at the finish.
"Once we got out of the left-hander out of the tunnel, it was a 1.5 kilometre straight to the finish," he said. "So when it's like that, it gets quite hectic, with guys coming from too far back and guys coming fast on the outside. You just have to keep your position and try to avoid crashes.
"I got squeezed on the barrier in the final kilometre, but, in the end, it didn't make much of a difference. I started my sprint where I wanted to, but Dylan was just quicker today."
The Australian, in his first year with Lotto, and with six wins already under his belt, seemed to do everything right in the final straight, keeping calm after green-jersey holder Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) inadvertently squeezed him 800 metres from the line.
Ewan stuck on the Slovakian's wheel, however, and reacted quickly when Groenewegen launched his sprint from further back with 230 metres to go. After passing Viviani and Sagan with ease as the road reared up in the final 75 metres, Ewan just didn't have quite enough to pass the Dutchman.
"I think I'm the type of guy that doesn't lose my cool too much," he said. "I'm happy with how the team is going, and I know my speed is there. [I think] it's just going to take a few more stages."
Saturday's eighth stage to Saint-Étienne is a day for the puncheurs as the peloton race through the Massif Central. However, the following days – to Brioude on Bastille Day, and the next day to Albi – are more sprinter-friendly, with the terrain on Sunday's stage 9 suited to a sprinter who can cope with a hill late on. Given Ewan's form, his day might just be coming.
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