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Giro d'Italia

Commentary: Don’t blame Caleb Ewan for leaving Giro d’Italia early

Don't listen to the peanut gallery — Caleb Ewan and his quest to win stages in all three grand tours in 2021 is something to cheer for.

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For Caleb Ewan and the Giro d’Italia, it wasn’t a question of if, but rather when.

It wasn’t a surprise to see Ewan pull the plug Saturday early on his Giro adventure. Quite the contrary.

Lotto-Soudal trotted out the “sore knee” line as the reason why the Australian sprinter bailed barely a week into the season’s grand tour.

Who knows? Maybe his knee was hurting, but even if it wasn’t, everyone knew Ewan wasn’t going to ride all the way to Milano.

Also read: Caleb Ewan targets grand tour stage-win sweep in 2021

Yet his exit seemed to draw the ire of more than a few fans on social media channels. The peanut gallery was “insulted” by his exit, suggesting that Ewan lacked professionalism or respect for the Giro by parachuting out of the race.

Who isn’t insulted by something these days?

A bigger surprise would have been if Ewan rode all the way to Milano.

The 26-year-old already checked off his to-do list for this Giro, with victories in stage 5 and stage 7. And though he never said he wasn’t going to finish the Italian tour, everyone knew he wasn’t going to.

Sometimes you don’t have to say the obvious inside the peloton.

If truth be told, Ewan’s exit from the Giro will be welcome news for all the other sprinters in the race desperately hoping to hit the winner’s circle in the next two weeks.

Also read: Fewer chances for smaller teams in Giro d’Italia

Ewan’s stated goal for 2021 is to try to win stages in all three grand tours.

To win stages in all three grand tours, he must start all three grand tours. He never said anything about finishing any of them.

If fact, by leaving the Giro early will greatly enhance his ability to hit his historic goal. Safely back home, he can train and prepare for the Tour de France with reduced risk of crashing or falling ill.

If Ewan does hit the milestone of stage wins in all three grand tours in the same season — something equaled by only three riders in cycling’s long history — no one will remember when he left the Giro.

Winners of stages in all three grand tours in same season

  • Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) — 2003
  • Pierino Baffi (Ita) — 1958
  • Miguel Poblet (Spa) — 1956

Professional cyclists are mercenaries, paid to win for whatever jersey pays the most for their services. Lotto-Soudal is more than pleased with Ewan’s Giro haul. Anything the rest of the team can squeeze out of the next two weeks will be the icing on the cake.

Lotto-Soudal brass is also fully backing Ewan’s 2021 mission.

Without a real GC contender on its lineup, hitting the grand tour sweep this season would be a boon for the Belgian team that, if we’re honest, is underperforming in other parts of its roster.

Ewan’s ambition to win stages in all three grand is simply that — ambitious.

How sprinting changed since Alessandro Petacchi swept the grand tours

Cycling’s changed a lot since the days when Alessandro Petacchi was the last to win stages in all three “bigs” in the same season in 2003.

A few things stacked up for Petacchi that season. The Italian was the absolute dominant sprinter that year, with 15 of his 24 wins that he reeled off that season coming in grand tours.

Petacchi didn’t match up against a true rival that season in the sprints as Mario Cipollini’s star was fading, and up-and-comers such as Mark Cavendish had not yet arrived. The Italian also boasted a full-on sprint train to support him on a nine-rider roster.

And guess what? Petacchi only finished one — the Vuelta a España — of the three grand tours that season.

Also read: Sam Bennett still chasing monument dream

In contrast, Ewan is racing during an era of extremely deep sprinter quality.

Though a few sprinters, such as Elia Viviani, Pascal Ackermann, and Fernando Gaviria, are a bit off their top speed the past season or two, today’s sprinter field is as deep as it’s been in a generation.

Sam Bennett, Wout van Aert, Arnaud Démare, Peter Sagan and rising sprinters such as Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen can win on any day. With such depth, it’s hard for a sprinter to win one stage in a grand tour, let alone several.

The era of the 20-win season is now one from the pages of history.

That Ewan can win two stages and go home after a week is a testament to how well he’s racing right now.

And Ewan, along with today’s other sprinters, is largely contesting the sprints without a full-on sprint train. The reduction of grand tour rosters from nine to eight all but killed off the sprint train in today’s peloton.

Teams that harbor any sort of GC ambition have a hard time finding space for one sprinter, let alone a few riders to support them. Ewan packs an edge over some of his rivals that Lotto-Soudal will designate a few key riders to help him negotiate the frantic bunch gallops.

Another factor that makes Ewan’s bid for the grand tour sweep even more admirable is that grand tour course designers largely turned their back on the old-school “sprint stage” scenario.

That Petacchi could win 15 grand tour stages in one season is the best reflection of how much grand tour racing changed in 20 years.

During the past decade or so, course designers started throwing in steep climbs into most of the transition stages to “spice things up.” That’s forced sprinters to shed weight and improve their climbing.

For riders who couldn’t get over the climbs — think Tyler Farrar or Marcel Kittel — their winning percentage dropped dramatically.

Also read: Mark Cavendish and the last of the 20-win seasons

And then there’s the question of the 2021 Giro route. The way the race is stacked up this year — and most years — it will be interesting to see how many sprinters make it all the way to Milano.

The Giro likes to conclude the race with an individual time trial that comes at the sharp end of a brutally hard final week stacked with climbs across the Italian Alps and Dolomites. That’s been the Giro’s calling card going on a decade.

Giving sprinters an incentive

Caleb Ewan won stage 5 of the 2021 Giro d'Italia.
How far will other sprinters such as Nizzolo and Sagan go into the race?

It will be surprising to see any of the top sprinters not in the hunt for the sprint jersey to hang around after the final rest day. Why would they?

The last true sprint opportunity is stage 15 into Gorizia. From there, it’s a week of brutally steep mountain stages and one transition stage that has breakaway written all over it. Even the sleekest of sprinter wouldn’t be much help to their teammates hidden away in the gruppetto all day.

If Giro organizers want to see sprinters make it all the way to Milano, give them a reason to stick around.

The Tour and Vuelta both conclude with ceremonial stages ending with a sprint, giving sprinters plenty of incentive to survive Alpe d’Huez or the Angliru. Why trudge over the Dolomites if there’s no chance of winning anything?

Ewan spotted a unique opportunity in 2021.

Perhaps realizing their respective routes were getting too over the top, designers of all three grand tours eased off the vertical gas a bit in 2021, and deliver more true sprint opportunities than the sprinters have seen in years.

Ewan is already one-third along the way to carving his name in the history books. Hooray to that.

It’s hard to imagine something more respectful or professional than that.