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STIRLING, Australia (CT) – Few rated Caleb Ewan’s chances on stage 2 of the 2018 Santos Tour Down Under. And not without reason: he’d been beaten by Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) in the People’s Choice Classic; he’d been beaten by Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) on stage 1; and the uphill drag into Stirling suited Sagan and others far more than it did the pint-sized Australian.
But in the end, Ewan didn’t just win the stage; he did so convincingly, putting himself into the ochre leader’s jersey in the process. Even better for Mitchelton-Scott, Ewan’s lead-out man Daryl Impey was second on the stage, the South African sliding into the same position on GC as a result. Sagan would have to settle for fourth, behind teammate Jay McCarthy.
The victory is Ewan’s seventh at the Tour Down Under, but the one he’s most proud of.
“It’s probably more exciting winning on a stage that you’re a little bit unsure about going into,” Ewan said. “The team … we were a little bit unsure. Obviously by this time last year I had a few wins … so I think maybe my confidence probably went down a little bit.
“But it was great to see the team’s confidence didn’t go down at all and they backed me on a finish that probably didn’t suit me that well.”
Mitchelton-Scott went into the stage with both Ewan and Impey as potential candidates for the final sprint. Ewan didn’t decide to take the reins until just a few hundred metres before the line.
“I know Daryl’s always going to be good here and I didn’t want to make the call early on because I didn’t know if I’d get halfway up the climb and start sprinting and not feel good at all,” Ewan said “So I didn’t really want to take his opportunity away and also mine, so it was a call that I had to make really late.
“I just kind of sat in there and tried to conserve as much energy as possible and I saw Daryl sitting up there pretty nicely there as well. I just followed him and then I told him to go with about 300 or 250 to go and then he got us out and then I had a clear run at the line.”
Impey launched his sprint, Sagan jumped onto the South African’s wheel, and Ewan slotted in behind the Slovakian. Impey kept sprinting left, while Ewan followed Sagan to the right before punching out of the slipstream and taking the win.
Ewan said afterwards that Impey lost track of who was who. He thought Ewan (in the white jersey of best young rider) was Sagan (in the mainly white of world champion) and continued sprinting beyond where he might have.
“I didn’t actually know that he’d got second,” Ewan said. “I thought that he had done the lead-out part and then he maybe sat up and then obviously I was just focused on beating Sagan at that point.
“He said actually that he just kept sprinting because he thought I was Sagan. I don’t think he’s too disappointed.”
While many ruled Ewan out of today’s sprint, his team always knew he’d have a chance of victory. After all, Ewan beat Sagan and John Degenkolb on an uphill finish at the 2015 Vuelta a España … in his neo-pro year. The bigger question, according to Ewan’s sports director Matt White, was whether he could overcome an illness that affected him last week.
“We didn’t say anything before the race but he actually got sick the day after Nationals and he’s had a pretty rough trot last week and came into the race … let’s say very very fresh before Sunday’s stage,” White said. “We never doubted his condition and I think we saw that. But to do that today against those guys it’s a very impressive effort by him and obviously the lead out he got off those guys today was standard Impey and standard team effort.”
How it unfolded
When stage 2 began it was the same three riders that surged off the front as the day before. Nicholas Dlamini (Dimension Data), Will Clarke (EF Education First-Drapac) and Scott Bowden (UniSA-Australia) broke away easily, before being joined by Spaniard Jaime Castrillo (Movistar). In a tightly contested sprint against Clarke, Dlamini took out the day’s only KOM after just 12.8km, ensuring he’d spend another day in the blue polka dots of KOM classification leader.
The South African returned to the peloton after that, leaving just three out front as the gap grew to 6:20 after 30km of racing. Clarke took both intermediate sprints, putting himself into the virtual lead and giving himself a chance at the overall lead by day’s end.
Lotto Soudal spent much of the first few hours on the front of the bunch, controlling things for race leader Andre Greipel. But roughly 60km into the stage, Bahrain-Merida brought their whole team up to increase the tempo.
Castrillo went it alone from the break after the second intermediate sprint, with 71.3km to go. At that stage the gap was down to roughly three minutes.
The Spanish neo-pro’s advantage would be eroded as the race entered three-and-a-half laps of the finishing circuit around Stirling, with Castrillo eventually being caught with 14km to go. A freak crash to Steve Morabito (FDJ) saw the Swiss rider dislocate his shoulder upon hitting the ground. He was able to put it back again, however, and managed to finish the stage.
EF Education First-Drapac, LottoNL-Jumbo, Bora-Hansgrohe, QuickStep and Mitchelton-Scott all contributed to the high tempo on the front of the peloton in the closing kilometres. And despite a few late attacks, it all came back together before the long uphill drag to the line.
Caleb Ewan will now get to wear the ochre jersey of Tour Down Under leader for the third time in as many years. This time around he’s likely to hold it for more than one day.
Tomorrow’s stage 3 has been shortened by 26km — two laps of the finishing circuit — due to a forecast maximum of 41ºC, but with a flat finish in Victor Harbor and not much climbing before it, it’s sure to be another finish that Ewan should feature in.
In addition to the general classification, Ewan also leads the points classification and the best young rider classification.