Centimetres apart, years in the making: Caleb Ewan’s first Tour win

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TOULOUSE, France (CT) – For a victory so tight, there was a sense of inevitability about Caleb Ewan’s first Tour de France win. In a career to this point defined by promise, consistency, and sometimes thwarted ambition, a throw past Dylan Groenewegen in Toulouse closed a chapter of Ewan’s career, and opened another.

The question of the day wasn’t whether stage 11 of the Tour would come down to a sprint, but rather, who the winner would be. The breakaway broke away; the breakaway got caught. And so, like a storm brewing on the horizon, the sprint trains massed to the front and began their manic dance toward the finish.

A familiar cast. Jumbo-Visma, trying to set it up for Groenewegen. Deceuninck-Quickstep for Viviani. Sunweb, trying a different tack today with Cees Bol. Bobbing like a buoy in an ocean of bigger, better-backed opponents, the shortest rider in this year’s race, Caleb Ewan.

Ewan hasn’t been regarded as the fastest sprinter of this race, but he’s certainly the most consistent. Before today, on a race stingy on sprint finishes, he’s collected two third places and a second. Today, he went one better, edging out the Dutch powerhouse Dylan Groenewegen. It was a result that was equal parts torque and tactics.

“I was on Groenewegen’s wheel for the last 3km. QuickStep came up and tried to take the wheel off me, but I knew I had the right wheel and I fought for it,” Ewan said after the race.  “It’s a hard thing, beating Dylan. He can go from a long way out. His team did a great job for him … I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to beat him.”

In the last kilometre, it was Jumbo at the front. 400 metres out, Teunissen took the lead. 150 metres later, he swung off, forcing Groenewegen to break cover a bit early, and Ewan shot across the road to jump in the slipstream. There he hung, for a crucial second or two, off the back of his more fancied rival before dipping low over his bars for the kick to the line and the throw. “I’m happy this time I could finish a few centimetres ahead of him, rather than a few centimetres behind him,” said Ewan.

In one sense, today is a fairly simple story – one sprinter, faster than some other sprinters – but it’s also a story mapped across a dual sense of scale. A victory by centimetres; a victory years in the making. Ewan was named on the shortlist for Mitchelton-Scott’s 2018 Tour squad, was vocal in his frustration after missing the cut, and has spent his 2019 building towards the Tour de France for Lotto-Soudal. “This shouldn’t have been my first Tour de France,” Ewan said today. “I believe I was ready 3 or 4 years ago … I’ve been held back.” Not with bitterness; just the matter-of-factness of an elite sportsman who knows his capabilities.

Even so, the relief in the result was palpable. At the finish, Ewan cheered, embraced teammates and finally, burst into tears. The emotional reaction, he said, was out of “disbelief, firstly. And a huge weight off my shoulders. I came to my first Tour de France as a leader for the team. I think the team hired me because they had faith I could win, and up until now I couldn’t do it for them. I’m so happy that they never gave up on me.”

There was another reason for those tears, too. One month ago, Caleb and his wife Ryann welcomed their first child into the world. “I have to thank my wife for letting me come here, and leave my young daughter in hospital,” he said after the stage today. “That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’m so happy that I could repay my young family.” Ewan has felt the push and pull of many pressures over the course of his career, but new parenthood, perhaps, is the most visceral.

For Australian fans, Ewan’s ascension onto cycling’s biggest stage has felt a foregone conclusion for close to a decade, but that decade has contained many more losses than wins.  “As a junior, I never won. I always finished second or third. But it never got to me,” Ewan said today. “I always think that if I keep working at it, I can get there.”

Today – down a wide, perfectly flat, plane tree lined boulevard in central Toulouse – he did.

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