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Still just 20 years of age, Caleb Ewan’s superb progress thus far sees him rated as one of the top sprinters in the latest edition of the Tour de Langkawi.
Standing 1.65 metres tall, Ewan has regularly beaten bigger, more muscular riders during the course of his short career. Past results include three wins on stages in the Tour de l’Avenir, runner-up slots in both the junior and under 23 world road race championships and the Australian under 23 and road race titles in 2014.
This year has been a very successful on thus far, with first place overall plus victories on stages one, two and three in the Mitchelton Wines Bay Classic being followed by runner up slots in the national criterium and road race championships, then by success on stages two and three in the Herald Sun Tour.
Now he’s in Malaysia, ready to tackle a race which could have up to seven sprints in eight days, and is determined to make a big impression.
“Obviously the team has come here and are planning to win stages. It is certainly not going to be easy with the company that I have here, but we will try,” he pledged at the pre-race press conference on Saturday. “Hopefully we will come away with a stage win or maybe more.”
Ewan’s strong performances thus far have put him in a motivated frame of mind. He’s also tried to structure things to ensure that he is fresh enough to perform, with his Orica GreenEdge team giving him a solid race programme that doesn’t require him to do too much, too soon.
“It has been a really good start to the season so far,” he said. “I have had a few good places. I think my form is still increasing. I am coming in here pretty confident. The team will be working for me in the sprints. We have got a great team for the sprints and a few strong guys to bring back breaks if that needs to happen.
“I am really happy with the team and I am really happy to start working with Leigh Howard and Adam Blythe in the sprints as well.”
One of the riders who is aiming to complicate things for Ewan – by winning himself – is Andrea Guardini. The Italian is the all time record holder in the race, having notched up 14 stage wins in four consecutive participations.
This is a clear improvement on the previous record of nine stages, as amassed by the Australian Graeme Brown.
Despite his successes in Malaysia, though, there have been times in recent seasons where Guardini has appeared to lack confidence and to repeatedly come up short.
He gave a very different impression on Saturday, though, with his self-belief clear.
That’s due in part to the fine start to the season he has had; since starting racing in February, the Astana rider has already notched up six top three finishes in races, including first on stage one of the Tour of Oman and runner up slots there, in the Dubai Tour and in the Tour of Qatar.
Asked if he was in his top condition ever, he said he wasn’t sure whether to accept that compliment. “Best form of my life? I don’t know,” he said. “But for sure I am in good shape. I have worked a lot. After the participation in the Vuelta a España last year, I had a really good winter and really good training.
“I have started my season really good. I have a lot of placings and one victory in the Tour of Oman. I think I can make a good result here.”
Three years ago Guardini underlined his promise when he won six stages. Asked if he could do better this time around, he said that it would be difficult to achieve for two reasons.
“This year there are two stages less than last year, although [there are] a lot of stages for sprinters. Always we cannot go for six, seven stages in the sprint as sometimes there is the breakaway.
“But we need to try to sprint from the first to the last stage. And maybe for sure don’t make the mistakes of last year in the first stage [when a breakaway stayed clear].”
Ewan could well be his toughest rival in the Tour de Langkawi. He too has the benefit of strong early season form and motivation; in addition to that, he has also been riding in hot temperatures.
“I think out of all the guys who have come from Europe, I will probably be used to the heat more than they would be,” he said. “I had a lot of time in between my races since I was in Australia so I have had time to bring up my condition for the races.”
Two others with past successes in the race are Alessandro Petacchi, who won a stage in 1998 and took the King of the Mountains in 1999, plus the Malaysian rider Anuar Manan.
The latter took the sprints classification in 2008 and then returned two years later to scoop stage five plus the points ranking.
Both also spoke at the pre-race conference, with Manan confirming he had lost weight and also recovered from an injury which hampered him last season. “This year I have good training and good team-mates also. My team all have good condition. We have all been preparing well for this race.”
Petacchi is riding for the Southeast team. He’s one of the most successful sprinters of all time but, at 41 years of age, said that he’s willing to do leadout duties if required.
“I am happy to come here again. I am an old rider but I am happy to be here with my new team. I will ride for [Jakub] Mareczko, a fast guy in this Tour. In Malaysia I think we can do something.
“We will try to make a sprint tomorrow because for me it is the first time we will see him in the race. With the lineup we have got, I think it is a good team for the final. I think we will do the first and the second stage for Mareczko. After that we will see. If a stage is too hard for him, maybe I will try.”
Both he and Manan will likely contend for stage wins, but the smart betting money is on Guardini and Ewan. The duo are extremely quick and, having already tasted victory this year, want to make their campaigns in Malaysia as successful as possible.