Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan is ready to make best of all he has learned from his first and eye-opening Giro d'Italia when he lines up on Thursday for the next real opportunity to jag a win - the 181km 12th stage from Noale to Bibione.
Ewan also believes the Orica-GreenEdge riders helping him in the Giro will show the gain of having raced together more as a combination that is limited in numbers due to the team's need to Colombian overall hope Esteban Chaves.
Orica-GreenEdge won't commit a full sprint train for Ewan because of the Chaves factor. But riders like Australian Michael Hepburn and New Zealander Sam Bewley have been helping Ewan get into a strong position leading up to the sprint, while Slovenian Luka Mezgec has the task of leading him out in it.
The best result so far in this Giro for 21-year-old Ewan, from Bowral in NSW, is fourth place in last Friday's 211km seventh stage from Sulmona to Foligno.
"We are getting better with every sprint stage," Ewan told Cyclingnews. "I don't think we're far off from really nailing it if it all comes together on that stage."
Ewan believes he and Mezgec are gelling more with every sprint. Before the Giro they only raced together in Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Yorkshire.
"We have started to work really well, really quickly together," Ewan said of his combination with Mezgec who won the last stage of the 2014 Giro in a sprint.
"It's been good working with him. He is also a really experienced guy and a guy who can win stages. It's great to have a guy so experienced like that helping."
However, no matter how Ewan fares in Thursday's stage - or even how his Giro debut ends - he and his Australian team believe that he is already a far better rider now than he was when won a stage in the Vuelta a Espana last September.
Caleb Ewan hits out early on stage 7 of the Giro d'Italia... (Bettini Photo)
Ewan's Giro debut: the story so far …
Ewan was touted as a sprinter to watch for in this year's Giro before it began. His other results with a fourth on stage seven so far, and in stages that finished in a bunch sprint, were: seventh on second stage from Arnhem to Nijmegen in the Netherlands and 12th on stage three from Nijmegen to Arnhem – both over 190km - and ninth on stage, 233km five from Praia a Mare to Benevento when his run in to the sprint was hampered by a late crash that he had to ride around.
In the stage seven finale won by German Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) from Italians Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) and Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida) Ewan hit the front early after Mezgec's lead-out, but was rolled.
"By the time I got to the sprint I was already pretty pinned to be honest," explained Ewan candidly. "I couldn't really sprint. It was nowhere near like the sprint that I needed to do to win. I was too far back and had to use my energy moving up to the front again. By the time I got there I just didn't have it."
Ewan, who in his grand tour debut at last year's Vuelta won stage five, is getting closer to the pointy end of a stage finish at the Giro that began with a terrific depth of sprinters, but by the end of Saturday's stage had lost two of them - German Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) and Italian Elia Viviani (Sky).
"Feeling wise … with my form and everything … I feel quite good," Ewan said. "This time in the Vuelta last year, I was already on my hands and knees. It would have been nicer in the first part to be up there a bit closer to the front.
"But it's been a massive learning experience for me. I have been happy with that. You can only go forward from here any how."
Better now than at the Vuelta
In his second full road season as a professional, Ewan believes he is now feeling the benefits of having raced in last year's Vuelta where "heavy" roads there made for a tough entry to grand tour racing, even if he stopped after 10 days.
"Definitely," he said. "The 10 days that I did there is helping me now. I came here [to the Giro] pretty much knowing what to expect for the first half anyway.
"After another six months I am stronger. I have a bit more racing in my legs."
Orica-GreenEdge head sports director Matt White said that the big challenge for Ewan in the Giro is handling the demands of back-to-back and longer stages.
"It's all a new experience for him, sprinting after so many hours," White told Cyclingnews. "When you look at where he was at the Vuelta to where he is now … there have been big improvements. The field is a lot deeper here too."
White is happy that Ewan nonetheless still has the desire to win at this Giro.
"Anyone complacent with losing isn't going to go very far," he said. "He is only 21, but there is no reason why he shouldn't have a positive frame of mind."
Asked if he believes Ewan is a better sprinter now than he was at the Vuelta, White said: "One hundred per cent. His fitness and the level of him as a bike rider in general is improved a lot since September. Speed and strength are two different things. He has been fast for many years, but you have to be fast at the end of 200km-plus after so many days and after different terrains and weather.
"So, he is improving, for sure. He is handling the race here well."
Rupert Guinness first wrote on cycling at the 1984 Victorian road titles in Australia from the finish line on a blustery and cold hilltop with a few dozen supporters. But since 1987, he has covered 26 Tours de France, as well as numerous editions of the Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana, classics, world track and road titles and other races around the world, plus four Olympic Games (1992, 2000, 2008, 2012). He lived in Belgium and France from 1987 to 1995 writing for Winning Magazine and VeloNews, but now lives in Sydney as a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media) and contributor to Cyclingnews and select publications.
An author of 13 books, most of them on cycling, he can be seen in a Hawaiian shirt enjoying a drop of French rosé between competing in Ironman triathlons.
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