Right place, wrong jersey. Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) finished his first day as a Tour de France rider in the mixed zone in the shadow of the Atomium but stretched across his back was the white jersey of best young rider rather than the maillot jaune he had visualised beforehand.
Five yards to Ewan's left, a beaming Mike Teunissen (Jumbo-Visma) was ensconced in the most precious garment of all, incredulously recounting all over again how he had deputised for teammate Dylan Groenewegen and pipped Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) to the line with an expertly timed throw of his bike. Ewan placed third, a couple of bike lengths back, more frustrated than disappointed at how his sprint had unfolded.
In the manner of the former Olympic 800 metres champion Yuriy Borzakovskiy, Ewan began his final effort from a long, long way back and had to pick his way through a mass of bodies in the finishing straight. Just as he was building up a head of steam inside the final 200 metres, however, he found his path momentarily blocked by Sagan and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) and was forced to pause at the top of his pedal stroke.
Half a beat is an eternity in a bunch sprint at the best of times, never mind on the opening day of the Tour. Ewan's momentum was irretrievably lost, and he had to settle for third place. In the mixed zone, a reporter told the Australian that no less an observer than Tom Boonen thought he had looked the fastest sprinter before his path to victory narrowed into a dead end.
"I have to agree with him. I think I definitely had the legs to win and I'm pretty disappointed that I couldn't use my full sprint today," Ewan said. "I was boxed in. I couldn't get out in the end. I had to stop pedalling. That's sprinting. It happens sometimes. Like I said, I'm disappointed because I couldn't get out because I definitely think I had the legs to win."
A professional since 2015, Ewan has waited longer than he could ever have imagined for this Tour debut. A year ago, he spent the first half of the season preparing for La Grande Boucle only to be pulled from the Mitchelton-Scott line-up at the last, ostensibly due to the team's focus on Adam Yates' GC challenge, though his imminent transfer to Lotto Soudal surely weighed heavily on that decision.
Ewan has enjoyed a solid season thus far in the red and white of Lotto, winning two stages of the Giro d'Italia, as well as claiming stages at the Tour of Turkey and UAE Tour. He warmed up for the Tour de France with a stage victory at the ZLM Tour and arrived in Brussels among the favourites for the first maillot jaune, together with Groenewegen and Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
Groenewegen crashed with a little over a kilometre to go, while Viviani lost contact with his lead-out train in the finishing straight and had to settle for 9th. Ewan avoided those pitfalls – "I think I was in front of it, I didn't see it at all, so it didn't affect me," he said of the crash – only to find himself hemmed in just as he was hitting top speed. A maddening business, sprinting.
"We came into the race to win," Ewan said. "We were going for the yellow jersey. I'm disappointed because I think I had the legs to win today."
With a team time trial to come on Sunday, Ewan's chance of wearing the maillot jaune on his Tour debut looks to have already passed. His turn of pace on the Avenue du Parc Royal on Saturday, however, suggested that he might yet garland his maiden appearance with a victory.
"For sure, there's other sprints coming up," Ewan said. "The positive signs are that my legs feel good so I think I can definitely I go for a stage win in this Tour."
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