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Ewan scores milestone victory against top sprinters

The 22-year-old speedster notched a win at the Abu Dhabi Tour to show he can beat the world's top sprinters.

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Caleb Ewan won more than stage 4 of the Abu Dhabi Tour for his 21st pro victory on Sunday. The Orica-Scott sprinter earned what many consider his first legitimate sprint against a top-quality field.

Despite emerging as one of the most prolific winners since turning pro in 2015, more than a few skeptics have said that Ewan still needed to prove himself against the best sprinters in the peloton. All that changed this week in Abu Dhabi.

Racing against the likes of Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors), André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Elia Viviani (Sky), and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Ewan got the win he needed to quiet the cynics.

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“If you really want to be on top, you need to beat Kittel, Cavendish, and Greipel,” Ewan said. “So I am over the moon for that.”

The victory marked an up-and-down week for the 22-year-old speedster, and it sets him up nicely for his return to Europe next month. Ewan had raced against all the big names, but never in the same race. He had a rough start in Abu Dhabi. Ewan crashed in stage 1 and then celebrated too early in what appeared to be victory in stage 2. Kittel, however, pipped him at the line with a bike throw. Racing through the rain Sunday at the Ya Marina Formula 1 Circuit, Ewan saw an expert leadout from new arrival Roger Kluge.

“I started this race on a real low with that crash, and then I finished on an absolute high,” Ewan said. “After stage 2, I’m really happy to repay my team with a win.”

The victory should give Ewan renewed confidence as he returns to Europe for a busy season. In his 21 pro wins, only three have come on European roads, leaving some to murmur if the pint-sized sprinter (5-foot-5, 134 pounds) has the brawn to stack up against the top pros of the WorldTour peloton.

In January, Ewan beat Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) at the Santos Tour Down Under, but the two-time world champion didn’t seem impressed.

“He is riding at home. He was all winter in Australia and he was training in good weather. I just finished the season in end of October and I did one month without the bike, for relax and holiday, and I started to train in December,” Sagan said. “For now, the best sprinters in the world — Kittel, Greipel, Gaviria — are not here. He is winning a lot now, because he is the best here.”

On Sunday, the top sprinters were there, and Ewan came out on top. Up next, Ewan returns to Europe and is scheduled to race the Giro d’Italia in May for his third grand tour start. He won a stage at his grand tour debut at the 2015 Vuelta a España, his biggest European win so far, and last year he sprinted to second in stage 12 at the Giro ahead of a planned exit. This year, he’ll aim to get through the Giro and win at least one stage.

“You have to remember he’s only 22,” said Orica sport director Matt White at the Tour Down Under, where Ewan won four stages. “This is the next step in his development. He needs to bring this momentum to Europe and get some big wins there.”

Ewan has received plenty of hype since his debut, with more than a few comparing him to Cavendish. His explosiveness and finish-line aerodynamic tuck are exceptional, but he still lacks some high-profile wins to earn kudos as the world’s best sprinter.

Coming into 2017, Orica signed track racer and sprinter Roger Kluge to act as Ewan’s pilot in the bunch sprints, and so far, the partnership is paying off dividends. At 6-foot-1, Kluge will help Ewan navigate the rough-and-tumble finishes.

“I think Caleb is going to have a big season,” Kluge said last month. “He is more confident and more experienced. No one is more explosive than he is, and I think we can give him the help he needs in the sprint finales.”