A 21-year-old neo-professional riding in his first Grand Tour is usually treated with kid gloves by his team, but Orica-GreenEdge directeur sportif Neil Stephens was succinct when asked if he had expected Caleb Ewan to be able to win a stage in his debut Vuelta a España.
“Yep, that’s why we brought him here,” Stephens said matter-of-factly outside the team bus shortly after Ewan had claimed victory on Wednesday afternoon. “The first stage into Malaga was always going to be a bit of a risk and that’s the way it turned out, but fortunately he was able to pull it off today.”
The sharp uphill finish in Alcalá de Guadaira was expected to be the scene of a duel between John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), and that illustrious pair was duly present and correct in the finale.
They were both out-stripped and upstaged, however, by the precocious Ewan, who tucked himself onto Degenkolb’s wheel in the finishing straight, and then swooped around him in the final 100 metres to claim the win.
Long before the Vuelta began, the stiffly rising Calle Duquesa de Talavera was to the forefront of Orica-GreenEdge’s thinking. Indeed, it was one of the principal reasons for Ewan’s presence in the nine-man roster in the first place.
“We came here with him, just for today. There are very limited sprint stages in the Vuelta, Malaga was a possibility but we knew today was more realistic,” Orica-GreenEdge directeur sportif Julian Dean told reporters afterwards. “The whole team was good. We had a well thought-out plan at the finish and it was a good effort from the boys and Caleb especially. Hopefully there’s more to come in the future.”
For Ewan’s debut campaign at the top level, Orica-GreenEdge tailored a race programme that offered him plenty of opportunities to win, rather than pitching him into the cut and thrust of WorldTour action from the outset.
Manager Matt White resisted the temptation to field Ewan at the Tour Down Under in January, for instance, despite the clamour that followed dominance of the Bay Crits series at the turn of the year and his silver medal in the National Championships.
Instead, Ewan steadily clocked up 10 wins from his outings at the Herald Sun Tour, Tour de Langkawi, Vuelta a la Rioja and Tour de Korea, in preparation for an assault on the rarefied atmosphere of the WorldTour later in the campaign.
“He’s got big aspirations,” Mat Hayman told Cyclingnews on crossing the line. “He’s got a programme this year that’s been able to let him win some races, but he wanted to win a big level race, a WorldTour race. It didn’t happen in Poland, but he’s done it here. He’s super hungry and he’s a really good kid so it’s nice to see him get up there.”
A determined delegation from Orica-GreenEdge muscled to the head of the peloton as the pace ratcheted upwards on the run-in to Alcalá de Guadaira, on the fringes of Seville, but rather than adopt a straightforward train, the team trusted Ewan to pick the best path on the rise through town.
“We do our homework like everyone, and we got some information when we were out on the road and the internet is out there too,” Hayman said of his team’s virtual reconnaissance. “Though it’s not the same, because I was told the last 200 metres were pretty flat. This finish has got Sagan written all over it and Caleb’s won it.”
Ewan, Degenkolb and Sagan’s speed was such that they finished two seconds clear of the peloton, which itself fragmented on the approach to the line. The end result was that Esteban Chaves lost his hold on the red jersey of race leader to Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) by just one second, but the Colombian, too, wore a broad smile when he arrived at the team bus afterwards.
“It has been a great start to the Vuelta,” Dean said. “We missed the team time trial by a second, but certainly we’ve made up for it. We wish we’d had the luck we’re having now at the Tour but so be it.”
Ewan inadvertently found himself making headlines already in this Vuelta after Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) had mistakenly singled him out as the rider who caused the mass crash on stage 2 to Caminito del Rey.
“If you look at the video it wasn’t him,” Stephens told Cyclingnews. “And if you’re not sure about something don’t say it, but that’s the problem with this social media: you can just put out whatever you think at the time instead of waiting to prove the facts.
“But anyway, whoever it was, do you think the poor guy who caused the crash wanted to do that? Nobody wants to cause a crash.”
In public, Ewan dealt coolly with the case of mistaken identity, calmly denying Nibali’s allegation when speaking with reporters the following morning, and again in his winner’s press conference on Wednesday afternoon.
Behind closed doors, too, Ewan was apparently unperturbed by the furore. “Nah,” Stephens said. “He just blew it off.”