TANAH MERAH, Malaysia — After playing second fiddle to Andrea Guardini (Astana) on the opening two stages of the 20th Tour de Langkawi (UCI 2.HC), Orica-GreenEdge neo-pro Caleb Ewan claimed a hard-fought victory on stage 3 in Malaysia on Tuesday, March 10.
The 20-year-old boy wonder took advantage of Guardini, when the race’s 16-time stage winner and race leader faltered on the first climb, to claim his first pro win off Australian soil and lift the leader’s jersey off the 25-year-old Italian. Youcef Reguigui (MTN–Qhubeka) was second, and Leanardo Duque (Colombia) finished third.
“I saw [Guardini] at the start of the first climb and he really looked to be suffering,” said Ewan. “That’s when we made the plan if we really put the hammer down on the second climb we might drop the pure sprinters, and that’s what we did.”
It was an historic day for the weeklong Malaysian eight-stage race, which celebrated its 200th start with a 170-kilometer route from Gerik to Tanah Merah featuring two categorized climbs — both of which were claimed by current mountains classification leader Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare).
Reijnen joined Natnael Berhane (MTN-Qhubeka), who now sits second on GC, 13 seconds behind Ewan, and four other riders who launched a break within the initial 10 kilometers of the start.
Ewan and his Orica teammates Leigh Howard, Sam Bewley, and Pieter Weening led a 45-man chase group and trailed the break by as much as 3:20, with the remainder of the peloton as much as six minutes behind.
“We didn’t want to bring the break back too quickly because there would be a lot of counterattacks,” Ewan told VeloNews. “We caught them in the last 10km, but in the end there were still all the counterattacks, and it made it really stressful in the end because there was only Lee Howard still there, but he had been working really hard all day, and he was pretty tired. Pieter Weening was working also most of the day, so he was pretty tired as well.
“Luckily the guys were strong enough to keep it together — today was a total team effort.”
Ewan has enjoyed a prolific start to the season, racking up six wins in 2015 so far, including two Herald Sun Tour (UCI 2.1) stage wins last month and three non-UCI stages that secured him his second overall title at the Bay Crits Classic in the first week of January, prior to taking silver at both the Australian national criterium and road race championships.
Team sports director Matt White told VeloNews in December that the team wanted to break in Ewan slowly in his first full year as neo-pro, with a target of just five or more wins. However, Ewan was quick to tell VeloNews post-race that his three Bay Cycling Classic wins didn’t count toward the overall total.
“[White] emailed me after the first Bay Crits win and said, ‘You may have five wins by the end of next week,’ and he reminded me it was five UCI wins, so this is my third one this year, and there is two more to go, and obviously I’m not going to stop at two more, and I will keep trying to win all year,” said Ewan, who officially made his pro debut at the Tour of Beijing in October, where he placed second on stage 1 after earning the silver medal at the under-23 UCI world championships in Ponferrada, Spain.
With stages 4, 6, and 8 still providing sprinters an opportunity to record a result, Ewan knows he hasn’t seen the last of Guardini but now feels confident both he and his team have found the right formula for success.
“It’s obviously coming together,” he said. “I think a race like today suited me better with the hill in there because it makes it a lot harder for the pure sprinters.
“Obviously he’s been beating me the past two days, but I feel like I’m getting faster, and hopefully I can beat him tomorrow and the other sprint stages as well.”
Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews