In years past, Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) would have taken a look at the course for the upcoming UCI Road World Championships in Wollongong, totted up the altitude gain, and concluded that he wouldn’t be in with a shot at the rainbow jersey. Now, however, the 27-year-old feels he has improved his climbing to the extent that he can realistically dream of landing a world title on home soil in September.
Ewan has long established himself as one of the leading bunch sprinters in the pro peloton but feels his all-round strength is improving year-on-year, broadening the net when it comes to the range of races in which he can utilise that finishing kick.
Gent-Wevelgem has been added to his programme this year, and Milan-San Remo will again be a major objective, but it’s the Worlds that’s now being brought into focus.
Organisers recently unveiled the course for the road race in Wollongong, and what had been rumoured to be a sprinters’ parcours turned out to look rather more selective, with several climbs including a loop centred around Mount Keira, 8.7km long at an average gradient of five per cent.
"If I’m honest, it’s harder than I’d want, but I think it’s definitely something within my capabilities. I’ll have to be going very, very good to be able to win there, but that’s my plan," Ewan told reporters on Saturday.
"If I was speaking to the organisers and they were listening to me, then we wouldn’t have the course that we have, but they can’t really take riders’ input. I did hear the UCI wanted a sprint, but Wollongong didn’t because it would suit an Australian, so I’m a bit disappointed in that. I’ll prove them wrong and try to win anyway. I’m up for a challenge and if there’s a sprinter who can do it, then it’s me."
Ewan does not have a big reputation for being the versatile sort of sprinter who can survive hillier terrain, but he pointed out he’s had it in his locker since his pre-professional days. With age, it’s coming to the fore once again and, as he looked back at a 2021 campaign tinged with regret, he picked out his improved climbing as the main highlight.
"To be honest, when I was younger, the Worlds courses I did in the U23s, one was Ponferrada in 2014, where I was second on a super hilly hard course, and the year before was Florence, which was another really hard course," he explained. "I think I had capabilities to do short climbs but once I turned pro, my focus was purely on sprints and I couldn’t focus on other things because to be a good sprinter in the WorldTour, you have to just focus on that. But as I got older, maturing a bit and with my body getting stronger, I feel I can climb a lot better.
"One of the main things is I felt I got stronger as a rider last year. I could get over maybe some of the harder courses that I wouldn’t usually be able to get over, so that changed my plans a bit for this year. It gives me a lot of confidence going into Milan-San Remo knowing I can get over the climbs pretty well. Also, Gent-Wevelgem is probably a race that didn’t suit me before but maybe can suit me now."
For a sprinter, climbing gains are usually a double-edged sword, the trade-off being a loss of top-end finishing speed.
"It hasn’t taken away from my sprint at all," Ewan countered. "My sprint is still getting better. Every year my power numbers say I’m getting faster. To be honest, I don’t know what the big change is, it’s just me maturing and getting stronger as I get older."
2022: Milan-San Remo, Giro, Tour, Worlds
Ewan confirmed his 2022 race programme on Saturday, which will take in the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France as well as Worlds. He will start out in the Middle East in February at the Saudi Tour and UAE Tour before returning to Europe to race Tirreno-Adriatico in the build-up to Milan-San Remo on March 19. He’ll then dip his toes in the Belgian spring with De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem, followed by a break ahead of the Giro d'Italia-Tour de France double.
After his bid for stage wins in all three Grand Tours was undone in 2021 by his crash on stage 3 of the Tour de France, Ewan will not look to repeat the feat as it stands, preferring a quieter build-up to Worlds via the Commonwealth Games in the UK in August. However, he didn’t rule out a trip to the Vuelta a España if he does come away from the Giro and Tour with wins in the bag. Either way, the Tour will be the only Grand Tour he’d finish in 2022, as he confirmed he cannot afford to ride the whole Giro, despite being criticised by Eddy Merckx for his early withdrawal after winning two stages last year.
“I really like Giro-Tour combo, but doing all three really puts a stress on your season,” he said. “I’d also love to finish the Giro one year but this is not the year.”
The Grand Tour double will form what Ewan describes as the second ‘phase’ of his season, and there’s no doubt what takes priority in the first phase: Milan-San Remo. Twice, Ewan has led home a group sprint on the Via Roma but twice it has been in the wake of a solo winner.
“I definitely want to win it in my career,” he said. “They say it’s the easiest to finish but the hardest to win, and I definitely feel that’s the case. You really need luck on your side. The two times I was second, I was unlucky. Hopefully luck is on my side this year.
“I think I’ve mastered it as much as I can, but when attacks are going, I can’t follow every move. I have to wait and hope it comes back. It’s been out of my control before. Hopefully, I can have a teammate with me and that can make a big difference because then he can shut down those moves and make sure it’s a sprint.”
Ewan did not specify a teammate but the obvious name is Philippe Gilbert, who needs La Primavera to complete his Monument trophy cabinet. In the final season of a glittering career, will the Belgian really set aside his shot at history to tee up Ewan? After all, having a teammate as the fastest sprinter in the group is a perfect platform to slip away solo.
“With Phil, if we’re both there over the top of Poggio, I think Phil is realistic enough to know that in a sprint situation I’m going be faster than him so I think he will help me,” Ewan said. “I think he’d want to keep it together to make sure it’s a sprint.”
Lead-out train and UCI points scramble
When the Grand Tours come around, Ewan will also be able to call upon a stronger lead-out train than he’s ever had before.
Jasper De Buyst and Roger Kluge remain as his two key launch-men, but the train has been strengthened by the signings of Rüdgier Selig and Michael Schwarzmann from Bora-Hansgrohe, while young compatriots Harry Sweeny and Jarrad Drizners are being brought into the fold.
“Selig is going to sit third man and that’s the spot we were missing, because two guys is not really enough - you need at least three or four,” Ewan explained. “We have options now, whereas before we had to go all the races with the same guys, even if it didn’t suit them as well. This is a super strong team.”
Still, Ewan will have to finish it off, and that’s perhaps now more vital than ever. The Australian has been a hit since he joined in 2019 but the rest of the team has fallen below par and they now find themselves languishing near the bottom of the WorldTour rankings and fighting for their place in the sport’s top tier.
“I don’t feel any pressure because of that. Every year I’m expected to win a lot anyway,” Ewan said.
“If I have a really good year and some of the young guys step up - which I think they will - we shouldn’t have a problem. We definitely can’t have any setbacks for the leaders but you need to go into the season with a positive mindset that it’s not going to be a problem and that everyone is going to step up and play a role in scoring points.”
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Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist, and former deputy editor of Cyclingnews, who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.