The first race of the road cycling season, Australia’s Tour Down Under, tends to be an imprecise predictor of future form for climbers and all-rounders. A rider who is keyed in and prepared to tackle Old Wilunga Hill at the season-opening kangaroo fest (really) will not necessarily be able to carry that form into, say, the Tour de France in six months. Climbing peaks soften, riders get tired. It’s impossible to hold top form for that long. Podium finishers at the Tour Down Under do not tend to be podium finishers at Grand Tours later in the season.
The same cannot be said for sprinters. As VeloNews recently noted, the race attracts a higher class of sprinters than it does climbers, and good sprinting form at the TDU is roughly correlated to good sprinting form later in the season. The TDU is far away, on the map and on a calendar, from cycling’s premier races, but it does provide an early window on which sprinters are preparing for a big season.
All of which is to say: Caleb Ewan looks like a star.
Ewan is just 22 but he’s already amassed an impressive list of wins. As a junior, Ewan won a track world championship, three stages at the Tour de l’Avenir (essentially the kiddie Tour de France), and finished in the top-four twice at U-23 World Championsips. Ewan turned pro at the end of 2014 with hometown Australian powerhouse squad Orica-GreenEDGE and wasted no time piling up wins, including a Vuelta a España stage, four stages at the Tour de Korea, and the points competition at the Tour de Langkawi in his first full professional season.
Now winning in Korea (his mother’s native country) and Malaysia isn’t that significant, but for a rider as young as Ewan, the mere fact that he was winning sprints against seasoned pros as a 20-year-old indicated something special about him. At 5-foot-4, Ewan is smaller than any other top-level sprinter in cycling. Mark Cavendish, perhaps the greatest sprinter of all-time, is famous for his diminutive stature and trademark over-the-bars style. Cav’s shorter and can’t generate as much power as hulks like Marcel Kittell or Andre Greipel, but he can get into more aerodynamic positions than them because he’s so tiny. Ewan is half a foot shorter than Cavendish and he is races like a more extreme version of Cav. Check out how close his nose is to his front wheel when he’s in full flight.
With Matthews gone, Ewan is finally getting his turn as Orica’s leader this year. If Tour Down Under results are a meaningful yardstick, this year will be a big one for him. Ewan has won four of the race’s five stages (including the prologue) in dominant fashion. There is a competitive group of sprinters at this year’s race, including Ben Swift, Danny van Poppel, and two-time defending world champion Peter Sagan. None of them have come close to beating Ewan. Sagan excels at tough uphill finishes. Look at how easily Ewan won the prologue despite leading Sagan out.
With Orica reportedly swinging for the General Classification at the Tour de France this year and leaving pure sprinters at home, Ewan will probably have to wait until 2018 to make his debut. That’s fine, since Ewan is just 22, but he appears to have the talent to tangle with the sport’s best. He’s already whooping Peter Sagan right now, and his record of near-misses against the current crop of elite sprinters coupled with his apparent improvement indicates that he could probably hold his own against them. He’s going to get his chances this year with a strong team behind him, but even then, Caleb Ewan will just be getting started.