Toulouse, Nimes, Paris? Caleb Ewan’s growing confidence

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NIMES, France (CT): Backing up his stage 11 victory, Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) again showed his formidable pace and tactical smarts to overcome both the heat and a hectic finish in Nimes on Tuesday.

On a mostly flat parcours in stifling conditions, stage 16 was predestined for a sprint finish.

Despite the bravest efforts of a five-man breakaway, the race was back together 2km from the finish line. On the menu: a stage finish in a gritty industrial zone on the outskirts of the otherwise beautiful Roman city of Nimes.

Two main players: Jumbo-Visma, working for Dylan Groenewegen; Deceuninck-Quickstep, taking a break from the GC battle to give Elia Viviani another chance. As in Toulouse, Caleb Ewan was in the mix, but floating around with a view to capitalise where he could. And as in Toulouse, Ewan wasn’t just the fastest sprinter, but the smartest, too.

It didn’t look like Ewan’s day. Struggling through the baking conditions, Ewan was close to writing it off. “I felt so bad today,” Ewan said after the finish. “The heat really got to me.” It’s been tough for him since Toulouse, actually, with a crash on stage 12 and a brutal Pyrenean stretch pushing him to the limit. Nimes was a rare chance for sprint redemption, but redemption in the Tour de France is earned, not given lightly.

With a kilometre to go, the young Australian found himself poorly positioned in third wheel. “We were too far forward,” he explained. “I had Jasper (de Buyst) on the front with [Jumbo-Visma rival] Dylan (Groenewegen) on the wheel … we weren’t in an ideal situation.”

Rounding the final corner in a whoosh of expensive carbon fibre and exertion, Deceuninck-Quickstep made their move, sending Maximiliano Richeze to the front and upping the tempo. Ewan went from third wheel, to seventh. “I lost a few more positions than I wanted to,” he said. On the final straight, past a nondescript procession of supermarkets and bad boulangeries and a rough-looking McDonalds having its best day of the year, Ewan waited, then kicked.

He’s a studious rider, Caleb Ewan. At the stage start, he described to media how he optimised his famously low-slung sprinting position in a wind-tunnel. At the stage’s conclusion, he explained how he’d targeted this stage. “I looked at this finish before and played all the scenarios, and one of the scenarios was if I was too far back. I think if you watch it, I laid off the wheel and took a run at it by starting sprinting before the rest of the guys,” he said.

Flicking left to dodge a sketchy swing-off by Richeze, reeling in the line with an air of inevitability, Ewan finished comfortably ahead of Viviani and Groenewegen. Two fists in the air; roughly 50% delighted and 50% stunned. “It’s a dream to be here for a second time,” an elated Ewan said at the finish. “I’m so happy.”

After his victory in Toulouse, Ewan told media that he “want(s) to win on the Champs Elysees because that’s the biggest stage for a sprinter.” For sprinters, as the Tour de France heads to the Alps, Paris is both near, and so far. Ewan made a strong case today that he should be considered a favourite for the stage win at the race’s end, but is taking nothing for granted. On stage 15, he battled through the rain to finish 31’31” behind on Prat d’Albis. On stage 14, he finished 21’04” back on the Tourmalet. In the stage 13 time-trial, he was equal last.

A bad enough day in the Alps and Ewan may still slip outside the time limit and head home early to his wife and newborn daughter. “It’s definitely a possibility that we don’t make the time cut,” he said this morning. “All the sprinters have the motivation to get to Paris, and so do I. I’ll be trying my best to get through. At the end of the day, if you don’t make time cut, you don’t make time cut. But I’ll be trying my best to get through.”

Still just 25 years of age, Caleb Ewan has been touted as a big name since his teens. He’s won a lot, but his path through the sport hasn’t always been smooth. It’s clear that at Lotto-Soudal, he’s found a tranquillity that was lacking before. On stage 11, he credited sports director Marc Sergeant’s influence. “He lowers [my] stress. We speak together … I go in and talk to him and I don’t come out stressed anymore,” he said.

Under a baking sun on the outskirts of Nimes, streaking to an assured second Tour de France stage win, Caleb Ewan showcased both growing maturity and considerable class. In the process, Lotto-Soudal’s glorious Tour de France got even better.

Next stop, Paris? Maybe. No stress.

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