Caleb Ewan has long been destined for the top. He beat the best Aussie pros when he was still a junior, he was a Vuelta stage winner at 21; now, his sights are on toppling Kittel, Cavendish and company.
The Australian stands out: in a world of brawny fast men, he is a 5’4” pipsqueak with lightning in his legs and a radical, aquiline position. Honed in the wind tunnel, he assumes the tuck when he’s hitting the front as aerodynamic victory insurance.
Back flat, hands on the drops, his head goes lower and lower till his nose is nearing the front brake. The next king of bunch sprinting talks us through the minutiae of a bunch sprint and his Tour de France dreams.
Is sprinting an art or a trade?
Well, I think you have to be born with it. You have to have the natural talent and the fast-twitch muscles to start. You’ll never see Quintana winning a bunch sprint, no matter how hard he tried! Then the other part is learning how to do it properly. No one can just jump on a bike and become a great sprinter. There are years and years of practice, getting to know your position and all that kind of stuff before you can really become good at it.
When you started racing, were you good immediately?
I was always pretty good but never really good. I was up there – top fives, second, third it but I couldn’t win anything till I was 17. I guess at that age, it’s all about development; once we all caught up to each other at 18, 19, that’s when I started winning more.
A lot of the stronger kids back then just go onto the front of the bunch in track races with two laps to go, stay there and win. They didn’t have to think about it at all. Because I was never strong enough to win like that, I always had to think about what I was doing. It was probably one of the best things that’s happened to me in my career so far, because it really teaches you how to race in the bunch.
Talk us through the process of a sprint and the different stages you go through in the last 50 kilometres of a Grand Tour flat finish.
Most of the day, you’re switched off, cruising around. Sometimes I go to the back of the bunch and try to relax as much as possible. If you’re switched on for the whole day, it’s five hours of complete focus.
You start switching on with about 50 kilometres left. 30km to go, you start gathering some team-mates and moving into position. And from there, it builds slowly. All the teams are starting to move up. Maybe 20km to go, it’s a fight to hold position.
It’s really bunched up and kind of sketchy; no one really wants to commit, it’s too far to go, but everyone wants to be at the front. It’s not really hard yet, so everyone can be there.
Depending on the run-in, 15 to 10 kilometres to go is when teams start really ramping it up. I guess you want to hit the front with your team with five kilometres to go, at the earliest.
Between five and four to go, depending on the finish: if the last 10k is coming into a city and there are lots of turns, you can afford to go way earlier because your guy on the front can stay on there way longer, because he’s getting a rest through the corners.
You’re still fighting for your position but there’s enough respect from most of the guys in the peloton that you shouldn’t really push a guy off his own lead-out if he’s on him. You see more of the boxing happening when, say there’s an obvious lead-out and everyone else is lined out behind that sprinter.
Are you shouting any instructions to your lead-out men?
Sometimes, but I prefer not to. I want to be concentrating 100 per cent on the sprint, not wasting energy by doing that. Everyone should know their role and exactly how to do it, their markers of where they need to be.
Ideally, you take the front and no team can come round you from there. Your lead-out man will drop you off 200 metres to go. You don’t really want to be going any earlier than 250 metres because, unless you’re super strong on the day, you’re probably not going to hold the best sprinters in a race off.
Can you put the feeling of victory into words?
It’s a little bit of a relief. And excitement. My heart rate is 200bpm, so I’m absolutely exhausted, but you don’t really feel that when you win. I feel way more tired when I sprint and don’t win because there’s no adrenaline rush, because I’ve just lost. I feel every bit of pain.
You’re doing 75km/h, it’s over in about ten seconds. How does your mind process it at the time?
It feels like it goes really slow. Even my cadence, when I’m sprinting, it feels super slow. I look at the video replay afterwards and it’s 110rpm, higher even. But it feels like I’m doing 50 and struggling towards the line. And when you’re leading out a sprint, you can’t really see anyone coming round you unless you’re looking around. Usually, it’s head down, going full gas for the line. You’re just thinking to yourself ‘I hope no one comes around me right now.’
I’m so focused on it and processing 100 little things at a time that when it’s finished, I can’t remember any of it. But then I’ll watch the sprint on replay and it all comes back.
You’re just at the start of your career. What kind of ambitions do you have for it?
It’s hard to put a number of race wins on it or a certain race. I just want to look back at my career and believe that I did everything I could possible to do my best. If I look back and realise I didn’t train that hard or give it a proper go, I’d be pretty pissed off. Maybe I’ll never win a race again. Or maybe I’ll win a few stages of the Tour.
Do you think Kittel and the big sprinters are worried about you as the young guy coming up?
Yeah, I guess so. And I think I’m definitely much closer to them than I was in previous years. It’s down to natural change: I started with a new coach [Kevin Poulton] last year and he’s really built my endurance up. I think the main difference is I’m probably not any faster but I’m getting to the end of the races a lot fresher than I used to.
As for the Tour de France, have you asked the team to go?
Yeah – every year since I turned pro! [in 2015] I’d love to do it, I guess it’s the one race any young rider wants to do. I think in my career, if I can be a successful Tour de France rider, that’d be my career done: that’s what I want to do. I don’t really like them not putting me in it, but I know their reasons.
What are they?
Well, they wanna go full gas for GC. It’s hard for me to argue with that because the guys they have for GC are really top-class. Saying that, I think I’ve also proven myself to be one of the top-class sprinters as well. It’s up to them, their decision.
Were you into the Tour growing up?
In Australia, the Tour de France is still the one everyone knows. As a teenager, if I was on school holidays in July, I used to always stay up at three o’clock in the morning to watch it. Or I’d go to sleep and wake up to watch the last hour.
The first Tour de France I really followed was 2003; I was eight or nine, I didn’t really understand what was going on. It was the year [Bradley] McGee got yellow in the prologue and McEwen and Cooke were going for the green jersey, it was decided in the last sprint on the Champs-Elysées. Lance won his fifth tour and I remember Jan Ullrich crashing in the time-trial and all the sparks flying off his bike.
This article first appeared in Rouleur 17.4 under the title Caleb Ewan in motion