The plan was hatched in 2017 and revealed to the world that December. After victories at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, Caleb Ewan would make his Tour de France debut in 2018.
“If there’s any race that you want to do when you’re growing up as an aspiring young cyclist, it would be the Tour de France,” Ewan said in a press release announcing the news. “I’ve been itching to get there ever since I turned professional.”
Ewan’s impending appearance at the Tour would become a key narrative in the early months of 2018. He was asked about it after winning his third-straight Australian criterium title in early January, likewise after winning a stage at the Santos Tour Down Under. It was an obvious focus when Ewan ran second at Milan-San Remo in March, comfortably winning the bunch sprint behind solo victor Vincenzo Nibali.
And then, a few weeks out from the Tour, the dream was over.
In an Instagram post on June 21, Ewan revealed that he’d been overlooked for Tour selection. “Devastated is an understatement,” he began. “I was on track to being more than ready for my TDF debut. So much hard work has gone into this …”
Rather than targeting the sprints (with Ewan) and the general classification (with Adam Yates), Mitchelton-Scott had decided to throw all their eggs into a GC-shaped basket. Yates would lead the Australian squad, with hopes of upgrading his fourth place and best young rider in 2016 to a higher GC placing in 2018.
The record books will show a wholly unremarkable Tour for Mitchelton-Scott. It was a Tour in which Yates fell out of contention in the Alps due to a hydration mistake*, ending the team’s hopes of a strong GC result. The team switched gears, going into stage-hunting mode, and looked dangerous on occasion. But the closest they got to victory was a third place to Yates on stage 16; a stage he was leading when he crashed on the final descent to the line.
The team left the Tour with little to show for its efforts, with questions about Ewan’s non-selection trailing them as they went. In a Tour that saw nearly all of the big-name sprinters abandon due to crashes and missed time cuts, great opportunities presented themselves for the few fastmen that managed to stay upright and on the right side of the broom wagon.
In that context, it’s logical to question whether Mitchelton-Scott made a mistake in leaving Ewan at home. Sports director Matt White doesn’t believe so.
“No, I am happy with how we approached the Tour,” White told CyclingTips. “The day that Adam had his bad day, Mikel Nieve finished fifth. He also went close to winning a stage. We certainly weren’t one-dimensional. And in the second half of the Tour, the guys rode really well.
“I think with the reduction in numbers in teams [ed. From nine riders to eight in 2018], it is really hard to have multiple objectives. OK, a couple of teams did it this year in the Tour, but they got their results early and then their sprinters went home anyway. LottoNL-Jumbo won two stages with [Dylan] Groenewegen, but then he was out of there pretty early. [Marcel] Kittel was out of there — he had no results. [Ilnur] Zakarin’s results were OK, scraping the top 10 in the last week.
“It is going to be hard to really specialise doing two things at the Tour. One rider [less] does make a difference.”
A fortnight before Ewan revealed he’d been left off Mitchelton-Scott’s Tour squad, rumours had started circulating of Ewan’s imminent departure from the team. The then-23-year-old had been linked to Lotto Soudal, a team that, we now know, is losing marquee sprinter Andre Greipel in 2019. When Ewan was left off the Tour squad, an obvious question presented itself: had Ewan been overlooked because he was leaving the team at season’s end?
“No,” said White. “Look, we would be crazy not to have taken him if we’d believed he could guarantee us a stage win in the first week. Two years ago, Michael Matthews – we knew he was leaving the team. We took him to the Tour de France and he won a stage.
“At the end of the day, we have got to make a decision. Our plan changed from our original plan at the end of last year, when we announced that Caleb was one of a group of guys going to the Tour.”
Matt White says Ewan’s non-selection for the Tour was a case of poor results in the lead-up. That the team didn’t have enough faith in him to deliver a stage win against a deep field of the world’s best sprinters. A look at Ewan’s results for 2018 lends weight to White’s words.
Ewan snagged a stage win at the Tour Down Under in January, then took victory at the Clasica de Almeria in early February. But despite going close on several occasions since then — particularly at Milan-San Remo — Ewan still has just two individual victories for the year. Had he converted some of his 10 podiums into victories, he might well have raced the Tour.
“If Caleb had won five races in the lead-up to the Tour de France – or even one or two – he probably would have been on the start line,” said White. “But the facts are that Caleb hadn’t the year that he would have liked. He has only had one WorldTour win this year, and that was in January. And the last race he won was in February, the Clasica de Almeria. That was a long time ago.
“Sprinters get paid to win. We had to make a decision whether we would put all our eggs into one basket with our ambitions. It is not an easy decision by any means. We put a lot of effort over the last couple of years into developing Caleb. We were trying to put a team around him so he could win as much as possible, and it just didn’t work out how we would have liked this year.”
Ewan himself has opted to stay out of the media spotlight in recent months. An interview request from CyclingTips was denied. But Ewan’s manager, Jason Bakker, has been willing to speak on his client’s behalf. He says that a lack of victories in early 2018 only tells part of the story.
“Let’s look at the bigger picture of the year,” Bakker told CyclingTips. “The clear goals set for Caleb with the team were Milan-San Remo and the Tour de France, with lots of races in between that you want to do well at. If you look through the races in the Middle East, he podiumed a lot of times without really threatening the win. But he was consistent — he was getting stronger, building strength.
“So he was building all the way to peaking … and then clearly he peaked on that day [Milan-San Remo] … and rode a brilliant race. So if not for a brilliant performance by Nibali, and maybe the last few k’s playing out a bit differently, then Caleb wins Milan-San Remo.
“I think a similar strategy was adopted in the lead up to the Tour de France with not trying to peak too early. [Tour of] California and [Tour of] Slovenia … just to use some examples, came on the back of some serious altitude training. He wasn’t at his peak — he was still [on the] podium, he was still top three most races without winning, but he was building up to be right in July.
“I think he was aiming to perform well at the targets that were set, or that he set in conjunction with the team.”
Ewan began his professional career with Orica-GreenEdge (now Mitchelton-Scott) in October 2014 and has ridden with the Australian outfit since. He’s developed and matured in that time, becoming one of the world’s best sprinters. The team, too, has developed in that time.
Where once it targeted sprints, one-day races and stage victories, it’s the general classification at Grand Tours that is now the squad’s biggest focus.
“Like most teams we work within a budget — you have got to make choices,” said White. “The team we have now is a different team than we had in 2012 [ed. when the team began]. We have to utilise our resources and at the moment we are going in more of a general classification trend, as well as looking at the WorldTour races. That is something we are morphing into as well.
“I think people forget as well that since we have started the journey to become a team that rides GC, we have had seven top-20s and two podiums in the Giro and the Vuelta already. We have a young group of guys – the Yates boys at 25, Esteban [Chaves] at 27 or 28 … There is still a lot of improvement with those guys, and it is exciting.”
Another reasonable question, then: given the team’s waning focus on sprint victories, did it make the decision not to renew Ewan’s contract? Is that why he’s leaving? Matt White says it was Ewan’s decision to leave, rather than a case of him not being wanted.
“We didn’t get a chance to make him an offer,” he said. “Whenever he has made up his mind, he has made up his mind. But we would have loved to have kept him. It was always going to be difficult with a combination of the Yates brothers re-signing with Caleb at the same time. But we had planned on keeping Caleb for a period of time.
“We tried. Like I said, he started off the season well. He was unlucky in a couple of stages in Down Under. He won one stage, in February he was going well. But sometimes your sprinters have a season like that. Sometimes everything goes perfect, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
It would seem that Ewan saw the writing on the wall. That he didn’t see opportunities — and support — for himself in a team that was becoming increasingly focused on general classification racing. Bakker’s perspective certainly seems to suggest as much.
“Caleb’s spent quite a bit of time over the last six to 12 months … thinking about his future and the direction and [whether] that direction [marries] up with the direction of the team,” he said. “I think the team’s been quite quite vocal and quite public with their desire to be a Grand Tour contender. And that’s absolutely and totally their prerogative. But is that going to suit Caleb’s goals? Is that going to help him? Is that the right environment for him moving forward to achieve his goals?
“I think there’s probably a fork in the road there where you get to a point where you can conduct frivolous negotiations and talk, but realistically are both parties on the same path? You’d probably have to say not.”
Bakker suggests that despite Ewan’s disappointment about his Tour de France non-selection, there’s no animosity or tension between the sprinter and his team.
“I think it’s just clearly two parties on a different path,” he said. “That happens, and that’s actually OK, and Caleb’s OK with that. I think it’s just probably best to acknowledge that, best to be upfront about that, and you move forward.”
Which raises the question: with smaller team sizes at the Grand Tours (and some talk of shrinking teams even further) and Mitchelton-Scott’s increased focus on the general classification, does Matt White see Mitchelton-Scott investing in another marquee sprinter to replace Ewan?
“No, I don’t, actually,” he says. “We haven’t got a pure sprinter in our ranks, but we have got some fast guys. Luka Mezgec, Matteo Trentin and Daryl Impey — all are capable of winning races. They are not as fast as Caleb, but they can win different style races as well.”
There’s a certain tension that needs to be navigated when a rider has signed to a rival team with several months still remaining in the season. While it’s a situation that all teams handle every single season, it can be difficult to motivate riders that are unhappy with how they’ve been treated. At the same time, it’s not uncommon to see management giving riders quieter schedules for the second half of the year.
It would seem that Ewan will get several opportunities in the few months that remain of the 2018 season. White says it will be up to Ewan what he makes of those chances.
“Well, the ball is in his court,” White said. “We are sending him to races as our leader. We are taking a sprint group around him. So the attitude he comes back to competition with is in his control. But we want to finish off the season with wins for him, because otherwise we wouldn’t be sending him to races at all. Or we wouldn’t be sending him to races that suit him.
“He is going to the Binck Bank Tour. He is going to be the sprint leader for the Tour of Britain. That’s six or seven opportunities for him. He has known his programme for a while, what he is doing until the the middle of September. After that, we will have to see what we do with him. We have got Italian one-day races and [the Tour of] Guangxi and the Japan Cup.”
Bakker has no doubt Ewan will return to racing with the right attitude.
“Both the team and Caleb are both committed to achieving wins in the remaining races of the year,” Bakker said. “He dealt with the disappointment of the Tour de France non-selection pretty swiftly and got back in the training and and I reckon that shows a real resilience to him and also a commitment that he wants to get something out of the remaining two to three months of the season, as you’d expect.”
Ewan will be back in action at the seven-stage Binck Bank Tour (formerly the Eneco Tour) on Monday August 13, after which he’ll head to the Tour of Britain on September 2. It’s not yet clear when his new contract will be announced — Bakker wouldn’t say — but if Ewan is destined for Lotto Soudal, as many predict, that would seem to bode well for his chances of making his Tour de France debut in 2019.
The Belgian squad doesn’t have a GC focus at the Grand Tours and with Andre Greipel departing, Ewan looks set to be the team’s number-one sprinter. And what race could be more important for your number-one sprinter than the biggest bike race on the planet?
* “He made a mistake in hydration one day and paid for it,” White said of Yates on stage 11. “Unfortunately for us the next day wasn’t a flat day or a TT day, it was actually the Alpe d’Huez stage. So he didn’t have time to recover. He had gone too deep on a stage that was extremely hot.”