Commentary: Why it’s premature to speak of Ewan and Gaviria taking over as the sport’s top sprinters
The emphatic victories of Caleb Ewan and Fernando Gaviria in the past week have turned the spotlight back on two young riders who had already underlined their talent in 2015.
Last Tuesday Ewan easily disposed of his rivals on stage one of the Santos Tour Down Under, biding his time into a headwind before rocketing off Mark Renshaw’s wheel, passing he and two others and finishing over two lengths clear.
He then repeated that on the final stage of the race, adopting an incredibly low sprinting positing as he blazed home.
— CyclingTips (@cyclingtips) January 24, 2016
It was his seventh win this year, adding to successes in races such as the Australian criterium championship, three stages plus the overall in the Mitchelton Wines Bay Classic and the Tour Down Under warm-up event, the People’s Choice Classic.
Meanwhile on another continent, South America to the Tour Down Under’s Australia, Gaviria was similarly impressive on day two of the Tour de San Luis. He too was imperial inside the final 200 metres, disposing of no less than world champion Peter Sagan, as well as Elia Viviani.
The bare fact of their wins wasn’t the most impressive thing, but rather the apparent simplicity with which they hit the line first. The successes were evocative of a young Mark Cavendish, who appeared to win with ease towards the end of the 2000s.
If we consider the progression of Cavendish’s own career, he had a meteoric rise in the sport. He clocked up his first Tour de France stages in 2008, picking up four wins in what was his second participation in the race.
Over the following years he continued to gather stages at a previously-unseen rate, notching up 21 between 2009 and 2013.
However, more recently that momentum has tailed off. He missed out on the chance to add to his tally in 2014, crashing out of that Tour on stage one, but returned last year and had to be satisfied with one stage win.
And while he took 14 wins in all in 2015, the sole WorldTour success was that Tour triumph.
As for Marcel Kittel, the German had a far quieter season. In recent years he has come closest to Cavendish’s former dominance, taking four stage wins in 2013 and the same again in 2014.
Last season was a write off, though; he topped the podium in just two events, the People’s Choice Classic and stage one of the Tour of Poland, and wasn’t even selected by his Giant-Alpecin team for the Tour.
In that context, some have already started to ask if Ewan and Gaviria could eclipse them this season.
It’s early days yet in 2016
Such talk, though, is premature. As was the case last year when Gaviria clocked up two stages in San Luis, beating Cavendish each time, many on Twitter and elsewhere were quick to talk about a changing of the guard. The Briton was a spent force, some claimed. He isn’t anything like the rider he used to be.
But Cavendish kept his wits calm, his head down and bounced back with a stream of wins. And even if his Tour wasn’t the swashbuckling parade of years hence, he did have a strong season.
Point is – and this is what was lost on many twelve months ago – it’s still only January.
Gaviria and Ewan hail from countries which are either close to the equator [Colombia] or in the southern hemisphere [Australia], benefiting from a climate and a culture which contrasts to the European season.
Being in strong form in January is not unusual in those places, whereas most of those in the northern hemisphere are only building form. In fact, this is underlined by the fact that Australians won every stage of the Santos Tour Down Under.
The duo might yet be riding strongly in Europe in five months’ time, but it’s misleading to make predictions based on their current form.
Alexander Kristoff won 20 races in 2015 and is one of the peloton’s fastest sprinters. CyclingTips asked him in recent days if they need more time before they are regularly able to trouble the established fastmen.
“It is a hard call,” he replied. “I think for sure in some races that if they are in top shape, they can fight with the best.
“They are growing older…for sure they are one year better this year, and they were already quite good last year. Already they are winning. But I think I remember last year that Gaviria was winning in San Luis also, and then we didn’t see too much from him until Britain again. So we will see.”
Both Gaviria and Ewan are 21 years of age. The latter turned pro one year earlier [2015 versus 2016], and has already ridden a Grand Tour. He made his debut in the Vuelta a España last August and picked up a stage win.
Races such as the Tour de France and Milan San Remo are tougher challenges, though, and Kristoff feels that it takes time to build the sort of endurance needed to take wins there.
“As regards myself, I was not fighting in the top for the first years. It took almost three or four seasons in the WorldTour to be there.
“So they don’t have any rush, although they are already winning…like Caleb in the WorldTour races. He is already quite good,” he said, smiling.
The importance of time
Ewan is seen by some as a successor to Robbie McEwen, the multiple Tour stage winner who took the green jersey in 2002, 2004 and 2006.
The latter spoke to CyclingTips last May about the younger rider, and said that he wasn’t sure that he would necessarily get quicker as he ages. However, he also underlined that absolute speed is not the limiting factor in question.
“I don’t know if his top-end speed will get much faster. He might become more resilient day to day. That is what we often see with young riders,” he stated.
“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, in getting to the sprints fresher, 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.”
In that regard, what Ewan and Gaviria do in shorter stage races is not yet an accurate indication of what they could do in races like Sanremo and the Tour.
What is clear, though, is that the two young riders are blazingly fast. They have taken some major scalps already, with Gaviria’s confident stage win ahead of Andre Greipel in last year’s Tour of Britain one such example.
Their futures seem bright and, at 21 years old each, both should grow progressively stronger in the seasons ahead.
As McEwen attests, it takes time to build resilience. Cavendish was 23 when he took his first Tour stage. Kittel was 25, and McEwen was 27. At 21, the upcoming duo are still building experience and strength.
Providing Ewan’s momentum continues, and providing Gaviria recovers well from his crash injuries in San Luis, there is little reason to doubt some big successes lie in front of them this season.
However it’s simply far too soon to make bold claims about what they can do this year.
The future may well be theirs, but riders like Kittel and Cavendish are not yet in the past.
In fact, with Greipel having his best-ever Tour showing at 33, anyone tempted to write off the peloton’s older sprinters in January is asking for trouble.
Let’s be clear: Ewan and Gaviria are heading for the top, but give them time.