FOIX, France (VN) – Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) rolls to a halt near his team bus, sits down on the steps and says: “I made it.”
The Australian sprinter who is in his first Tour de France is smiling. He hasn’t won the stage. He has finished fifth last of 164 riders, more than half an hour behind the winner. His is the smile of a survivor, of one who gets to race another day.
Ewan has also just cycled into new territory – he has never ridden this far into a grand tour – but he also knows that much more punishment awaits him, as it does for all the other sprinters still left in this year’s Tour as it leaves the Pyrénees after Sunday’s stage to Foix Prat d’Albis.
Ewan, 25, was a world away from the podium he stood proudly atop of in Toulouse last Wednesday with his arms aloft as the winner of stage 11. His teammates arrived one by one, giving him a wave as if to say “good job … well done,’ as he tried to absorb the trials of a torrid day in the saddle that set off at break-neck speed and continued as such over a route that included four mountain passes.
“It was very tough,” said Ewan.
“I got dropped, not even on the categorized climbs actually, [but] one of the climbs at the start. Luckily my whole team waited for me and brought me back. Then I got dropped on the category two climb [Col de Montségur to 60km] as well. Then we got back on over the top of that.
“Then on the first ‘cat one’ [Porte de Lers to 120km] I was dropped straight away. I was suffering.”
He was then asked what went through his mind in tough moments on Sunday when he was off the back so early, knowing that his is a race that today won’t be won in the thrill of a bunch sprint, but in a long slog to the finish where the ‘victory’ will be that he finishes inside the daily time limit.
“You’re always just trying to settle into as much of a rhythm as possible. You just really suffer so much and you really try to get to at least the gruppetto, but if you get dropped behind it, it’s a long day by yourself,” Ewan said “But I fought pretty hard to get back into gruppetto and then actually as the climbs went on, I felt a little bit better. So, the first one was the worst one for me, and then my legs kind of got better.”
Every day organizers establish the time limit as a percentage of the winner’s finishing time. The methods to establish the limit take in a number of variables, such as the type of stage (mountain, flat, hilly), and the speed on the day.
While Ewan made the time limit, he knows that will not be a given in the Alps late next week.
Ewan is the only Tour debutant among the main sprinters still in the Tour, so no matter what advice or help he gets, reaching the Champs Elysées is a challenge he will have to take responsibility for.
However, Ewan is by no means alone in having to face the challenge of having to make best of the two remaining stage winning opportunities for sprinters like him – Tuesdays’ 16th stage in Nîmes and Sunday’s 21st and final stage from Rambouillet to Paris.
In company with Ewan as the remaining flyers in the Tour peloton are Italians Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma), German Andre Greipel (Arkea-Samsic), Norwegian Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates), Australian Michael Matthews (Sunweb) and the current green points jersey wearer, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
All of them will relish Monday’s rest day in Nîmes. But after Tuesday’s 16th stage in Nîmes, all the sprinters know that for any chance of winning in Paris they will have to somehow find a way to survive through three brutal mountains stages in the Alps on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
The pressure will be immense for them all as they scrap for what is left of the Tour’s winning pie, especially for Colbrelli, Greipel, and Kristoff, who have yet to win a stage.
There is added motivation for Sagan, who continues entertain the crowds from the back of the race as it explodes up front with various antics in the mountains. On Saturday’s 14th stage, he signed a book of one roadside fan and did a wheelie down the finishing straight on the Col du Tourmalet.
For him, his intent will be to defend his green jersey and win it outright for a record seventh time.
The same could be said for the two riders closest to him on points if they can catch up on their deficits. Sagan leads the classification on 284 points. Colbrelli is second on 191 points, while Matthews, the best climber among the sprinters and the 2017 green jersey winner, is third on 187.
Thor Hushovd, a 10 time Tour stage winner and the 2005 and 2009 green jersey champion, knows what the last days through the mountains are like for a sprinter. He finished 10 of his 11 Tours.
“Mentally, it’s hard because you have to fight. You have to go so deep to survive these mountains,”
Hushovd, who was also the 2010 world road champion, told VeloNews: “And you know that the only chance [left] is in Paris where there will only be one winner. And when you really suffer it’s hard to find that little motivation. Hopefully the sprinters will stay in the race and not lose any motivation.”
His many successes aside, Hushovd was not spared days when he went to hell and back in those last days. “I had a few days where I was almost crying on a bike,” he said. “The worst days are when the body doesn’t work, if you are down a bit [moral-wise]. These days are very hard.”
Ewan’s mind was still awash with the emotional and physical fatigue of surviving three days in the Pyrénees to think about the Alps on Sunday. “No … I’ll just be trying to survive them,” Ewan said.
But Ewan did not shy from admitting how hard this Tour has been. His stage win aside, he has been one of the first, if not the first, rider to be dropped in recent stages. He also crashed two days ago. He has still got further than ever before in a grand tour.
His furthest before was mid-way into stage 15 of the 2017 Giro d’Italia in which he won a stage. That was a planned exit, as were those in the Giro of 2016 and this year when he won two stages, and the 2017 Vuelta a España where he also won a stage. But this is the Tour. And the plan is to finish in Paris – and win another stage or two along the way.
Still, from here on in at the Tour de France, Ewan is in unchartered waters, as he sits in 135th position overall at 2h 35m 29s to the French race leader, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step).
So, what did Ewan learn in the Pyrénees that may help him survive the Alps and reach Paris Sunday?
“I used to always stay in the bunch until I really blew,” he said. “Whereas now you just have to find your rhythm and never go too deep into the red because once you’re in the red, it’s really hard to recover. “So, I think knowing my limits and when to drop out of the bunch and start riding my own tempo.”