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He’s a three time winner of the Tour de France’s green jersey and also clocked up twelve stage wins during his long professional career. Robbie McEwen is one of Australia’s best-ever riders and has given a thumbs up to what he has seen thus far from Caleb Ewan in his debut pro season.
“He is a great young talent,” McEwen told CyclingTips, speaking about the 20 year old Orica GreenEdge rider and how he has fared thus far in the peloton.
“I know that the aim for the team in his first year as a professional is to get as many wins as possible and give him a balance between races at this level and WorldTour. It is great to see his progression from the under 23 ranks, where he was identified as a massive talent, and to turn that into wins.
“He opened things up at the Bay Crits in Australia, the Herald Sun Tour and then stepped it up another level at Langkawi and got two stage wins and a good stint in yellow and the points jersey.
“It is a perfect start for a neo pro’s career. I expect him to go onwards and upwards from here and to improve. How far can he go? Who knows, but he is going in the right way.”
McEwen has masses of experience as a rider, having competed professionally from 1996 to 2012. Since then he has worked as a television commentator, using his analytical ability to dissect what is going on in races.
Those elements plus his strong history as a sprinter put him in a perfect position to assess Ewan’s promise.
He’s very encouraged thus far and knows the young Australian could beat his own debut season tally of 11 wins.
Ewen got things off to a strong start when he won three stages plus the overall in the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic. While that was not a UCI-ranked race, he notched up his first 2015 win in that category when he won two stages in the Jayco Herald Sun Tour.
He then travelled to the Tour de Langkawi where he clocked up two stage wins, led the race for several days and took the final green jersey.
With four UCI wins to his credit, Ewan has made quick progress. Asked if this was better than McEwen anticipated, he shows the high regard he holds the young rider in by saying he isn’t surprised.
“It’s not better, it has been about in line with what was expected by many, I think,” he said, speaking after the final stage of the recent Tour de Langkawi.
“Some people tend to get a little bit over-excited about new talents. They start talking about Grand Tour winners and points competition jerseys in Grand Tours. But take it one step at a time – the kid is only 20.
“It is in line, I would say, with what was expected and I think what Orica GreenEdge expect of him…to be able to win at this level and then to step up to the WorldTour races and gain more experience.
“Who knows, he might be able to win a race or two at WorldTour level. But for him it is all about gaining that experience and taking himself to the next level physically.”
Raw sprinting speed just one element in equation
In the past Ewan has shown solid ability on varied terrain. He showed strongly against the professionals last year whilst competing as a Orica GreenEdge stagiaire in race such as the RideLondon Classic, revealing an ability to fare well on lumpy terrain.
He also showed similar attributes as an amateur, including taking second on a selective course at the under 23 world championships in Florence in 2013.
“He is a bit of a multi-talent,” said McEwen when asked to weigh up his abilities. “People talk about him being a sprinter. He is not a pure sprinter. That is why he has had trouble with Guardini here [in Malaysia]. In straight head to head sprints he has been beaten 3-1 in sprints like that. Guardini is a bit faster. But Caleb can get over quite a big hill that is put in front of him, like he did on the Cat 1 on stage three which he won.
“So I think he will be a sort of punchy rider who can win races from a limited group like he did here, a 35 man group. When he goes back to Europe, I think we could see him surviving tough stages in a 60 to 80 man group and taking wins in that fashion.
“And maybe going on to become a handy Classics rider, something that suits his punchy style.”
Given that he is so young, it is logical to believe that Ewan will continue to improve in the years ahead. According to McEwen, his raw velocity might not built too much more, but all the other attributes will likely move up a level and thus put him in a better position to make the most of his natural oomph inside the final 200 metres.
“I don’t know if his top-end speed will get much faster,” he said, but then qualified that evaluation. “He might become more resilient day to day. That is what we often see with young riders. Through my career, I don’t think my speed changed a lot from when I started to when I finished. Maybe in the last couple of years it was a bit less.
“But it seems to be more that pure power and getting to the sprints fresher that you can actually hit your top speeds. So it is not the sprint itself that changes, but as you get stronger, every time when you get to the sprint you are doing 100 percent of your capability. I think that is the big change that happens with riders.”
In fact, McEwen said that resilience plus the experience he built up over his career explained why he reached his top form when he did, many years after he first reached his peak speed.
“When you have the experience to still be able to win when you are only 85 percent fit, that is when you know a rider has really reached their peak,” he said, making clear that there are many other factors than pure speed over 200 metres.
“It’s when a rider can say themselves they are not really going that well, but they can put themselves in the right position and can still win races when they are not at 100 percent.
“Caleb is only very young. From my own experience, I didn’t start reaching my real peak until I was 29. Caleb is probably a bit ahead of the game in that sense, getting going very quickly. He is very young and is already at this level, so how far can he go? Who knows…”
He’s encouraged by how Orica GreenEdge have handled things thus far. “They are looking after him in the team, obviously, not setting the goals too high in his first season. They are just letting him evolve, and that’s the right way to do it.”
“We have plenty of guys coming through…”
Of course, there is a lot more to the future of Australian cycling than any one rider. McEwen is well aware of this and, indeed, the fact will be a welcome one to Ewan too as it means the pressure is shared rather than shouldered.
“At that same sort of age, there are some young guys who are going very well,” stated McEwen. “Campbell Flakemore is another great talent. He had a very good Tour Down Under. He was the under 23 world time trial champion, as was Damien Howson. That’s another guy who did a great ride here working for the team.”
He warned that patience was needed with those riders. “It often takes those guys a little bit longer to mature than the sprinters…it is a little bit of a different playing field when you are going for Classics, time trials and even in the climbs,” he said.
“The sprinters seem to be able to step up a little bit quicker because it is down to raw speed.”
The important thing is that there are several talented riders in the system.
“They can come from everywhere, and we have got plenty of guys coming through,” he pointed out.
What’s most encouraging for Australian cycling is that there are strong riders across a range of ages. McEwen has already mentioned some of the top young talents in men’s cycling; at the other end of the scale, Simon Gerrans is in his mid-30s and is one of the top one day riders in the world.
There are others who are established professionals but who still have plenty of time to improve athletically and progress in terms of achievements.
Luke Dubridge is one; Michael Matthews, past stage winner in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, is another.
When asked about the latter, McEwen sees him as a big prospect.
“Matthews is going into his fifth pro season now. He is doing really good things,” he said.
“He had a stage win and the leader’s jersey in Paris-Nice, leading the green jersey competition there, a stage winner at the Giro, a stage winner at the Vuelta. He is moving along and is ticking those things off as he goes. His next goal will be to win a Tour de France stage.
“He is a great young rider with I think still plenty of room to improve. I think he is a future Classics contender – he is not a pure sprinter, but a guy who can really get over a tough climb or multiple smaller climbs like he did in the Classics, and then use his finishing speed.”
McEwen was speaking prior to Milan-San Remo, but his assessment of Matthews’ talent was perfectly borne out there. Despite being just 24 years of age and thus lacking the kind of amassed endurance which builds up year after year racing in the bunch, Matthews finished a superb third in the race.
He ended that believing that he can return to the event in the future and go for the win; McEwen will agree, knowing that his own best result of fourth place in 2007 shows just how good Matthews is at this early part of his career.