Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) was in the process of talking a small group of reporters through his third-place finish on stage 1 of the Abu Dhabi Tour when an emissary from the race organisation arrived to inform his soigneur that his presence was required post-haste at the podium to receive the white jersey of best young rider.
Moments after missing out on stage victory to Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) and with a drive of over an hour and a half back to his hotel in Abu Dhabi ahead of him, Ewan could perhaps have done without this particular consolation prize, but he accepted the request with good grace.
Even in the frantic moments immediately after a stage finish, Ewan provided a most lucid analysis of a bunch sprint, and he scarcely needed the additional time granted by the podium ceremony to formulate his thoughts on the day's action. He simply hit the front a mite too early on the drag to the line, and was overhauled by Kristoff and Andrea Guardini (Bardiani-CSF) in the closing metres.
"I looked at the finish before the start today, and I knew it was going to be headwind and I saw there was a drag up to the finish so I knew that, ideally, I wanted to come from behind," Ewan explained. "But then when you want to come from behind, you run the risk of not being able to get out."
Almost as soon as Ewan opened his effort, he sensed he had erred, but he had no option but to commit to his sprint. Kristoff acknowledged afterwards that Ewan's familiar tucked position meant that he struggled to get much benefit from sprinting in his slipstream, but the Norwegian eventually came past to claim the spoils.
"When I went, the finish line looked like it was just there, but once I settled into my sprint, I realised it wasn't coming much closer," Ewan said. "After probably a few seconds of my sprint, I realised that maybe I went a bit too early and in a sprint field like this you have to be able to nail your timing to get a win. All the best sprinters are here. To win, I really I had to nail the timing."
The maddening beauty of bunch sprinting, of course, is that only the first man across the line can claim to have done everything right. Rather counter-intuitively, the wide and straight roads in the closing kilometres of stage 1 served to complicate the sprint rather than to simplify it, and Ewan can draw some solace from the fact that he navigated the finale better than some lofty names.
"The big roads actually make it a little bit more technical. I guess it's hard to explain, but there's more opportunity for sprint trains to lose form and still come back together," Ewan said. "When it's twisting, if you lose your sprint train, it's harder to come back. In a finish like this, there's so much more time for everyone to come back. But I'm happy with my sprint. I know I just went a little bit too early, but I think it's a good sign ahead of the next two stages."
Tour de France
Ewan has been racing and winning since January, with the Clasica Almeria, a stage of the Tour Down Under and the Australian criterium title already on the balance sheet for 2018. The 23-year-old's entire season is oriented around a maiden appearance at the Tour de France, and the Abu Dhabi Tour offers an early chance to measure himself against Marcel Kittel, André Greipel, Kristoff et al.
A February afternoon spent riding to and from the fringes of Rub' al Khali – the Empty Quarter of the Arabian desert – is a considerable distance, figuratively and literally, from the tumult of July, but it is difficult not to cast the mind forward to the Tour all the same.
"We're probably not going to get a sprint field this good until the Tour, so it's good to race these guys and I guess learn how they do their sprints and all that kind of stuff," Ewan said. "You can watch videos but it's not the same as racing against them. I don't think we're going to get an opportunity like this before the Tour, so it's good to race here and it would be even better to get a stage win against these guys."