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Giro d'Italia

Giro d’Italia: Will Caleb Ewan emerge as king of the sprints?

Australian pocket rocket wants at least one stage win as he targets all three grand tours in 2021.

Who will be king of the sprints at the 2021 Giro d’Italia?

Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) is rising his hand.

The 26-year-old Australian pocket rocket is poised to rattle off a string of victories at the season’s opening grand tour. Or, at least he is hoping so.

“I’m coming here to try to win some stages,” Ewan said Thursday. “We have a pretty strong team, and it’s my first real big objective of the year. It’s quite a good sprint field, and I am coming here pretty motivated to do well here.”

With the ambitious goal of racing all three grand tours this year, Ewan eased into the 2021 season. Despite nearly winning Milano-Sanremo, when he was second to the late-flyer by Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), it’s somewhat surprising that Ewan was victorious only once so far this year.

Also read: Caleb Ewan targets grand tour sweep

Ewan won a stage at the UAE Tour to open his 2021 account, but fell short of a stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico and at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana.

Ewan said the goal is to win at least once.

“I see at least six opportunities for sprints,” he said. “At the start of the season, I said my goal was to win a stage in every grand tour. That’s still the goal. First, I have to win a stage here, and then we’ll decide what is going to be best for the preparation for the Tour. If I am not feeling 100 percent, I don’t think I will finish the Giro.”

‘Sprints are pretty dangerous’

He won’t have it easy. Though top rivals Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) are not racing the Giro, the Italian grand tour sees some quality sprinters.

First among them is Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who is coming into the Giro on top form. Though not a pure sprinter, Sagan will be mixing it up in the sprint stages.

Others hungry for life in the fast lane include Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos), Elia Viviani (Cofidis), Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) and the controversial return of Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma).

“Actually, I did not expect such a strong field of sprinters at the Giro,” Ewan said. “In addition, Dylan Groenewegen resumes competition at the Giro. Before he got suspended, he was amongst the world’s best sprinters so it will be interesting to see at what level he returns. And then there’s always Peter Sagan to keep an eye on …  And I don’t think I have the same climbing legs as I had at Milan-Sanremo because as I prepared for the Giro, I needed to focus a little more on my final sprint.”

Also read: Ewan on Groenewegen: ‘He knows he made a mistake’

Groenewegen’s presence is a reminder of the horrific crash in last year’s Tour de Pologne, but despite a series of new safety measures, Ewan said sprinting remains just as dangerous as always.

“Sprints in general are pretty dangerous. I don’t know if there’s been any improvement,” he said. “Maybe the UCI is being a bit harsher on line deviations, but other than that, I cannot see anything that’s changed a lot since that crash.”

Ewan added an interesting observation, saying that the lack of fans lining the finish lines is inherently less safe than if the fencing is lined with masses of bodies.

“If there’s no crowd, the barriers are not as strong,” Ewan said. “If you have 5 people deep all against the barriers, and they all pushing into the barriers, so without a crowd, it is hard for a little bit of metal to stay up if you crash into it.”

Lotto-Soudal brings a mixed squad to the Giro, with Jasper De Buyst and Roger Kluge working to guide him into the sprint finishes. Thomas De Gendt and others will be chasing breakaways.

“This year, there are some five sprint opportunities for Caleb, but at Milan-Sanremo he really impressed uphill. So, depending on the race situation, there could be a few more chances,” said Lotto-Soudal sport director Mario Aerts. “In the run-up to the Giro, they have also raced together as much as possible to really work on the automatisms. The sprints at the Giro are often chaotic and quite technical, so we need to give Caleb full support.”

With such a brutal week and no final-day sprint stage waiting in Milano — the Giro concludes with a time trial — it’s unlikely that many of the sprinters will suffer all the way just to finish.

Ewan wasn’t sure how far he’ll go in this Giro, but no matter when he leaves, he wants at least one trophy to add to the mantle.