Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) would have been forgiven for resigning himself to the notion that this was going to be an ill-starred Giro d'Italia. On the opening stage in Olbia, the Australian won the bunch sprint but was denied the first maglia rosa of the race by Lukas Pöstlberger's almost accidental late breakaway. A day later, Ewan pulled his foot out of its pedal when he was in the box seat to claim the spoils in Tortolì.
Those near misses were all the more maddening because such opportunities are rare on the modern Giro. Ten or fifteen years ago, the sprinters usually had a chance to dream it up all over again the following day. At the 2004 Giro, for instance, some 11 of the race's 19 road stages finished in bunch sprints, with Alessandro Petacchi carrying off nine of them.
Ewan and his fast-finishing contemporaries must survive on a more meagre diet than Ale-Jet, but the youngster took the edge of his appetite when he claimed victory on stage 7, fending off Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) and Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) in a breathless finish in Alberobello.
"When you win the sprint one metre behind the guy who broke away, or you get boxed in, or your foot comes out, you'd be lying if you said you weren't frustrated," Orica-Scott directeur sportif Matt White said afterwards. "But he's handled it well. If he hadn't handled it well, he wouldn't have won today."
It was the second Grand Tour victory of Ewan's career after his triumph at Alcala de Guadaira during his maiden three-week appearance at the 2015 Vuelta a España. That race, more than any other, showcased the youngster's patience, and ability to seize the rare opportunities that come his way. "In his first Vuelta, the only time he finished in the bunch was the time that he won," White said.
With victories at both the Giro and the Vuelta now notched on his palmarès, it is only natural to wonder when Ewan will be thrust into the fray at the Tour de France. For now at least, however, he is unlikely to see action at this year's Grande Boucle, where Orica-Scott is due to be led by Simon Yates and Esteban Chaves.
"At the moment there's no plans on taking him to the Tour de France this year. We've got our plans and there's no change in those," White said. "The next logical step is to win another stage here. For sure, the Tour de France is a goal of his, but when it happens, we'll see. He's won at the Giro and the Vuelta, he's won the Hamburg Classic. He's won some big races at 22."
Ewan's Giro debut ended in disappointment a year ago. Sprint opportunities were similarly infrequent, and second place in Bibione was all he had to show for his efforts before catching the plane home with most of the fast men the following day. For White, victory in Alberobello was simply an affirmation of Ewan's natural progression.
"I think physically he's a much more complete bike rider than he was twelve months ago but that's natural, he was 21. Most guys aren't professional at 21, let alone going for the win in Grand Tours," White said. "We know he's fast. he's won a lot of races easily when he's fresh and it's short, but now he's going to another level. This is what, day seven, and a long stage: a year ago he couldn't do that. He's definitely matured physically. Now he's got the monkey off his back here, there's more wins to come."
At this phase in his development, Ewan can rely on his natural acceleration, but will face something of a balancing act as his maturation continues. Striking a balance between improving endurance and maintaining top-end speed is a conundrum that many fast men have faced before him, some more successfully than others.
"He's years away from being at his physical best, but it's always a tricky balance with sprinters," White said. "His biggest talent is his speed but when they work so much on their endurance they lose that top end. André Greipel is a lot stronger athlete than he was six or seven years ago: maybe not as snappy, but a hell of a lot stronger. The key is to keep your speed. You see it in all sprinters. The young guys start out very fast but when they work on their endurance, they lose their biggest quality, their speed."
By White's reckoning, Ewan will have two more opportunities to chase stage victory at this Giro, on stage 12 to Reggio Emilia and the following day to Tortona. After that, the Giro faces into the high mountains, and, as per tradition, many of the fast men will be minded to leave the race discreetly at that point. Asked if the team was planning for Ewan to make it as far as the time trial in Milan on the final day, White broke into a smile: "He's more than welcome to try."
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