It’s one of the biggest questions for a young professional: when is the right time to jump in the deep end and ride that first Grand Tour?
Caleb Ewan just turned 21 last month and is still in his first pro season, but the sprinter received a major vote of confidence from the Orica GreenEdge team when he was named as one of nine riders to compete in the Vuelta a España.
The young Australian will get his first Grand Tour underway on Saturday, lining out in the team time trial to begin the next stage of his career.
Ewan knows it is a step up and will likely push him harder than any other race thus far. However, rather than being intimidated, he said on the eve of the race that getting the green light to take part showed the progress he has made this season.
“It was always a possibility during the year, but they really wanted to make sure that if I came here that I was ready,” Ewan said, speaking to CyclingTips on Friday.
“I think with a few good results in Poland I showed I could do pretty well at the WorldTour level. That is what really sealed the deal for me to come here.
“I am really excited to be here and it will be a good race, I think.”
Ewan has long been regarded as a huge talent but, conscious of the rider’s age and lack of experience, Orica GreenEdge general manager Shayne Bannan said in June that a Vuelta start was far from being guaranteed.
“There are a lot of things to take in as a first year professional,” he explained then to CyclingTips.
“I probably see this as more important than winning races at a young age. So I think it would be a little bit premature of us to put him in the big race starts before we address the stuff that is going to build the foundation for the future.
“He has certainly got age on his side. We are just sort of following his progression on a weekly basis.
“We will make sure that we make good decision when it comes time to do so in terms of what races he is doing and not doing.”
Since then Ewan rode the Tour de Pologne, finishing just behind Marcel Kittel to place second on stage one. He also clocked up fourth place on stage four.
Those performances plus his earlier displays showed that he is swimming rather than sinking. Bannan and others have been encouraged by this, and this in turn has led to the Vuelta start.
“The team said at the start of the season that they wanted or expected five wins from me. I have won ten now,” Ewan said. “So the first half of the season has been really good.
“They have put me in races that I can do well in and obviously races that I am challenged in as well. I have come close to some of the best sprinters in the world.”
Reassuringly, he believes things are still on the up rather than fatigue setting in.
“I am really happy with how the first half of the season has gone,” he said, assessing his progress thus far. “I feel stronger in this second half of the season as well.
“I think I had a really good block in Poland. I think I have come out of it good. I have had some good rest between now and then, and hopefully I am in my best form of the year now in the Vuelta.”
“Obviously it would be nice to get a win here”
Whatever way things go in Spain, he’s already had a superb season.
He hit form early on, taking three stages plus the overall in the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic. Although 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.
Ewan travelled from Malaysia to Europe and while he was a non-finisher on stage three of the Volta a Catalunya, he bounced back from that to win the Vuelta a La Rioja.
He then finished second on a stage of the Presidential Tour of Turkey and notched up two runner-up slots in the Tour of Norway.
More victories followed in the 2.1-ranked Tour de Korea, where he was first on four stages and nabbed the final overall victory. A break from racing then followed, giving him time to recharge batteries and to build back up for the second half of the season.
Poland showed his work had gone well and now he’s set for the Vuelta start.
“The wins thus far are all pretty equal,” he said, reflecting on what he has achieved in 2015. “The race in Spain that I won when I first got over here was probably one of the most special ones because I had guys like Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey leading me out.
“These were guys that I have been looking up to for the past five, six, seven years. So to have them in front committing for me to win the race is pretty cool.
“That made it one of the most special results. But winning the overall in Korea was also pretty cool. It’s been good.”
Ewan has a proven winner’s instinct, but he’s not quite sure what to expect of himself – and from the race – in the Vuelta.
“I think the first half is really quite tough,” he said. “I think there will be maybe just two sprints for pure sprinters. It is a tough one. Even a lot of the easier stages finish on an uphill.”
Asked how far he plans to go in the race, he said that is undecided. “It is kind of up in the air at the moment, to be honest,” he said.
“No-one really knows, including myself, as to how I am going to go in the first week or week and a half. It is a level up from what I am used to. And especially with the strong GC teams here, the pace up the climbs is going to be super hard.
“I think we will just take it stage by stage and see where I end up. But I don’t think that I will do more than ten days. That is probably the maximum that I will do…I think it is a good goal for me to try to reach that.”
Ewan sees sense in that: he notes that in the past other riders have dug in very deep to try to go as far as possible in the Vuelta and have paid a price as a result. They have been ‘wrecked,’ he says.
Instead, he believes it’s wiser to take things more slowly. Completing a three week race in 2016 is, he believes, a more logical goal.
In the meantime, he’ll aim high in the Vuelta without being obsessed by chasing a particular result.
“Obviously it would be nice to get a win here. But the main thing is I get the experience,” he stated.
“It is different racing a Grand Tour. Next year I want to maybe do the Giro and then do the Vuelta again. Hopefully then I am ready to win stages.
“Basically, I am here now to learn how it all goes. I think that is the main goal. This year it is more of a development thing than anything.
“But,” he added, showing his sprinters’ ambition, “obviously I have come here and I want to win as well.”