The wait is over. Twelve months ago, Caleb Ewan watched the sprints of the Tour de France from his couch, mulling over his omission from Mitchelton-Scott's selection for the race. The Australian's entire season had been built around La Grande Boucle, but he found himself unceremoniously deemed surplus to requirements a little over a week before the race.
Officially, at least, Ewan was left out because Mitchelton-Scott wanted to focus on the general classification ambitions of Adam Yates, but it seems likely that his impending transfer to Lotto Soudal for the 2019 campaign had weighed just as heavily on the decision.
Even before he turned professional in 2015, Ewan had been touted as a Tour de France-calibre sprinter, but he had to bide his time patiently to fulfil that potential as the GreenEdge set-up steadily shifted its priorities towards the general classification at Grand Tours. Ewan won sprints at the Vuelta a España (2015) and the Giro d'Italia (2017), but was never given the nod in July, as Adam and Simon Yates developed into podium contenders.
Ewan's Tour debut finally arrived this year, his first at Lotto Soudal. Buoyed by a brace of stage wins at the Giro, he set out from Brussels with justifiable confidence, but had to settle for near misses – second place in Chalon-sur-Sâone, third in Brussels, Nancy and Albi – before finally opening his account by pipping Jumbo-Visma's Dylan Groenewegen in Toulouse on stage 11.
"It's taken longer than I had hoped. If I'd had it my way, I would have done the Tour de France as a neo-pro but maybe, in the end, it was good I didn't," Ewan said.
"This shouldn't have been my first Tour de France. I believe that I was ready three or four years ago. I'm always eager to go straight to the top and race at the highest level. I've been held back, but now finally I've got my chance and finally I could prove myself."
Ewan has been growing up – and winning – in public for so long that it is easy to forget that he is still only 24 years of age. That fact certainly escaped the minds of some journalists on stage 1 in Brussels, who waited at the Lotto Soudal team bus for Ewan after the stage, not realising that he was at the podium being awarded the white jersey of the best young rider.
"Ever since I won at the Bay Crits as a 17-year-old, people immediately said if I could do that, I could win at the highest level," Ewan said. "Ever since then, seven or eight years ago, there's been expectation that I would be able to come here and win."
That expectation ratcheted up several notches this season when Ewan left the GreenEdge set-up where he had developed to take on the rank of team leader at Lotto Soudal. For the bones of a decade, André Greipel had shouldered the Belgian squad's sprint hopes, amassing 11 Tour stage victories, and now it was Ewan's task to match that kind of strike rate.
"The team basically hired me because they had faith that I could win at the highest level, and this is the highest level," Ewan said. "Up until now, I hadn't been able to do it for them. That's a lot of pressure, especially for my first Tour de France, to come here as a leader and win for them. I'm so happy they never gave up on me and I could pay them back with a victory."
Ewan was briefly interrupted by his fellow countryman Robbie McEwen, who made a point of visiting the press conference truck to pass on his congratulations after finishing his duties for the day in the commentary gantry. Eleven of McEwen's 12 Tour de France stage wins came in the colours of Lotto and under the stewardship of Marc Sergeant, who made a point of sitting down privately with Ewan during Tuesday's rest day.
"It was such a calming discussion," Ewan said. "You never feel stressed if you talk to him. He's worked with so many sprinters in the past, so he knows what we're like, and he takes the pressure away from us."
Ewan will now head into the high mountains unfettered by the pressure of needing to win a stage to salvage his race. The Sydney native has never completed a Grand Tour in his career to date, but he will bid to survive the Pyrenees and Alps in the hopes of emulating McEwen by winning on the Champs-Élysées.
"If I hadn't won today there'd have only been two sprint opportunities left, and I'd have had that on my mind going up every mountain. My team won't like me saying this but now if I go home with one win, my Tour will already have been a success," Ewan said. "But I'm not going to stop now. I'm going to go for the next opportunities full gas."