Road

Caleb Ewan, cycling’s next best sprinter?

The 21-year-old Australian has 14 professional victories and is now in his third pro season. His next big test is the Giro d'Italia.

Arms aloft, confetti flying, Caleb Ewan stands atop the Vuelta a España podium as the victor of its fifth stage. His young, smiling face is level with the smiling faces of the two podium hostesses standing a foot below him. It is his 11th professional victory in his first year as a WorldTour rider, his first grand tour stage win in his first grand tour, and comes three months after his 21st birthday. He’ll say later that he didn’t fully comprehend, in that particular moment, the consequences of the accomplishment.

Neither do we, really. All signs point to Ewan being the greatest of a generation, one of the greatest ever. But signs can be misleading.

Hype builds with each podium appearance, and Ewan’s had a lot of them. It presses in on the young and talented as ambition presses out, a pressure cooker of athletic realization. It’s unavoidable. Sometimes greatness puts its hand on a rider’s back and pushes him into the world. It doesn’t ask if he’s ready.

“It’s pretty easy to get ahead of yourself,” Ewan says, less than 48 hours from the start of Tirreno-Adriatico, a one-week stage race that is part of the slow build-up toward his first Giro d’Italia. He has three wins this season. By the time you read this, he’ll probably have more.

To understand where he’s going, it helps to look back. Ewan was raised in Sydney by his Korean mother and Australian father. He was always an athletic kid, he says. But he’s too small for most ball sports. He toed his first start line at age 10, and shone as he passed through Australia’s track-centric development programs. Even a partial list of his amateur titles is astounding: 2010 junior national road race and 2011 national time trial gold; two-time world junior omnium champion; winner of multiple stages of the Tour de l’Avenir, often called the espoirs Tour de France; 2014 under-23 omnium, points race, and Madison national champion; two stages of the Tour de Langkawi. All of that came before his 21st birthday. In 2014, he signed with Orica – GreenEdge as a stagiaire. It was a natural fit after coming up through the Aussie system, including a stint on the Team UniSA – Australia national team, and quickly turned into a pro contract. Last year, he added the Vuelta stage win. This year, he took his first elite national criterium title and won a stage of the Santos Tour Down Under.

“He’s already a great sprinter, and he’s only 21,” says Cannondale sport director Fabrizio Guidi. “I expect him to be the top sprinter over the next 10 years. You can see he has explosive power and he’s very dynamic. It’s just the beginning.”

Given the physical similarities to his missile-shaped rival Mark Cavendish — stocky build, low sprint style, and explosiveness in the final meters — the comparisons between the two are understandable. Even as Cav’s dominance slowly wanes, he’s still the yardstick by which his rivals are measured.

But Ewan isn’t Cav. Athletic ability aside, the latter can be crass and fond of mouthing off to the media and his own teammates. Ewan is quieter. His sense of humor is decidedly Australian, says friend and Team Sky pro Ian Boswell. He’s good-natured and positive.

Ewan doesn’t like drawing such contrasts between athletes, anyway. He doesn’t want to be the next Cavendish, he says. His motivation doesn’t come from chasing the careers of those who came before him, but from a desire to see how far his own body can take him.

“You can make comparisons all day, but at the end of the day I’m the one who has to put in the hard work,” he says. “The comparisons and the hype don’t really put a whole lot more pressure on me. A lot of my pressure comes from me. I know what I want to achieve in this sport, and I know all the hard work I have to do to get there.”

Though Ewan is a sprinter, he’s a versatile one. He does well in hard finishes, like the slowly climbing final meters of his victorious Vuelta stage. But he wins fast sprints, too. That’s thanks in large part to his aerodynamics. He’s petite, just 5-foot-4, and has trained himself to sprint with an impossibly low position, his face almost below his bars.

“I’ve always known that I should sprint like that, because the lower you get the more aero you are. But it was always hard when you’re actually sprinting,” Ewan says. Getting low is simply pragmatic. Ewan can’t produce the massive power of a rider like Marcel Kittel, but with his tiny frontal area, he doesn’t need to. Sprinting low is something he’s trained himself to do, fully aware that he’ll need every edge in the big leagues.

Watch him sprint next to Kittel’s hulking form, and it’s difficult to believe such dissimilar characteristics can both bring such success. “Naturally, you look for more power, and the way you get more power is to go upright,” Ewan says. “It’s hard to get your head around going down rather than going up. It’s easy to do in your training because you can prepare yourself to do it, and think about it, but in a race it’s the last thing you’re thinking about. I’ve gotten better at it over time. I’ve been practicing it since the start of last year.”

It’s working. After dipping his chin below his handlebars, he took his first win of the season at the Santos Tour Down Under. Ewan’s professional victory count is up to 14, at press time. As a reference point, when Cavendish was 21 years old, his was zero.

It would, indeed, be easy for Ewan to get ahead of himself. He could believe the hype that he’s the next world-beater, the next Cavendish or Kittel, that his rise to the top is all but inevitable. He could believe that all those junior and under-23 wins will translate directly into WorldTour success. But Ewan is relaxed and humble.

“I think I know what I’m capable of. I guess that’s what motivates me now,” he says. “Going into some races that are hard, I put pressure on myself. Going into the Giro this year, I’m going to have a whole lot of pressure on myself to do well there. I want to back up the Vuelta stage with a Giro stage. There are going to be guys that are hard to beat. I think most of the pressure will come from me.”

It’s early September, another sunny day in Spain. Orica director Neil Stephens takes his right hand off the steering wheel and grabs his race radio. “After the banner at 4k to go, fast roundabout, then after the roundabout, last chance to move up,” he says. The finish line of the Vuelta’s fifth stage is 10 minutes away, and with it the best chance all month for an Orica victory. En masse, a group of white, blue, and green kits makes its way to the front of the field, a precious cargo tucked in behind. They swerve through a series of roundabouts and curves, holding off Giant – Alpecin’s sprint train until the final kilometer, setting up a drag race between Ewan, John Degenkolb, and Peter Sagan.

Ewan wins. It’s his first grand tour stage victory. He throws his head back, almost in disbelief, as his team and staff gather around him, whooping, hollering, ecstatic.

“It’s been such an honor to not have to prove myself to them. They respect me, that’s the main thing for me,” he said after the win. “The difference between me and a lot of other neo-pros is a team that supports them 100 percent.”

For a sprinter, team support is everything. Ewan has enjoyed backing unheard of for such a young rider. It’s a major contributor to his success and comes, in large part, because he’s already proven himself.

“Caleb is a big talent, and you could see he is very savvy for a young rider,” says Simon Gerrans, one of Orica’s most prolific riders. “He’s earned his right to be here. I’m excited to see what he can do the next few seasons.”

Ewan’s Orica team, chock-full of Australian track riders, has always felt like a world-beating sprint train waiting to happen. But it has never had a real sting at its tail. Riders like Michael Matthews are versatile but can’t routinely beat the likes of Cavendish or Kittel head-to-head. With Ewan, Orica found its finisher. The team quickly recognized its good fortune.

“I started delivering early on. Since then my relationship with the team has only gotten stronger,” Ewan says. “Whenever I ask them to help me, they’re always more than happy to do so.”

It would have been all too easy to overestimate Ewan’s athletic maturity and throw him into the deep end. There’s a good chance he would have learned to swim just fine. But Orica has been careful with its prized, pint-sized sprinter. Treading the fine line between developing a talent and pushing it into injury or mental exhaustion, the team has been conservative. After bringing him on as a stagiaire in 2014, Ewan was left to lower-level races for the better part of two years, let loose over each Australian summer and then reigned in as he returned to Europe. Even when the team finally let him start the Vuelta, the plan was never to let him ride the full three weeks. He pulled out in stage 10.

“Ewan wants to race everything,” says Orica sport director Matt White. “But it’s better to go slow. I’d rather be holding guys back, than giving them a kick up the bum.”

If Orica was holding Ewan back, he seems to understand why. “People are always saying, ‘You should do the [Tour de France].’ But at the end of the day I guess I am still pretty young, and I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me,” Ewan says. “I’ll take my time and make sure when I go to the races like that I’m really ready for it.”

That has meant that, until this year, Ewan has faced the sport’s top sprinters infrequently. Head-to-head, he’s beaten Degenkolb and Sagan at the Vuelta and Andrea Guardini in Langkawi. He lost to Kittel at the Tour of Poland by half a wheel. He lost to Cavendish at the Tour of Turkey by inches. For the most part, his wins have come over a handful of second-tier sprinters.

In 2016, that is set to change. Orica has taken off the chain and is letting him loose against the best in the world. The team let him start in Kuurne, a sprinter’s classic he wants to win someday. At the Giro, he’ll face Kittel and other top sprinters in his first Italian tour. If he can topple the German, who is back to his winning ways in 2016, he will have truly arrived.

Ewan won’t turn 22 until July, but there is no more hiding behind youth and development. The hype train is barreling forward, on a collision course with the sport’s fastest men. It’s time to find out just how good Caleb Ewan really is.