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Neo-pro Ewan in the spotlight at Tour de Langkawi

The Orica-GreenEdge rider comes up short in the opening two stages of the Malaysian race

LANGKAWI, Malaysia (VN) —The cycling world may have been tuned into Europe this past weekend with Strade Bianche and Paris-Nice taking center stage, but all eyes are focused on Australian neo-pro Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge) at the 20th edition of the Tour de Langkawi.

After two stages, Ewan is sitting second on general classification behind race leader and Langkawi’s all-time leading stage winner (16) Andrea Guardini (Astana), who has out-sprinted Ewan to claim the first two stages.

“I tried to come off him this time but he’s still too quick in the end,” said Ewan post-race on Monday after employing a different tactic on stage 2 and turning the table on Guardini, who came off Ewan’s wheel the day before. “I’m gonna have to try to figure out something else to beat him as he’s going quite well at the moment.”

Guardini returns to Langkawi for a fifth straight year after recording an exceptional month of February that included three top-four points classification finishes in the Middle East, including third at the Dubai Tour, fourth at the Tour of Qatar, and first at the Tour of Oman.

“I knew something could have changed from yesterday’s sprint,” said Guardini, who followed Orica’s sprint train on stage 1. “Every sprint is different anyway, and today the best train was the Southeast team.”

As for Ewan, the 20-year-old New South Wales native now embarks on his first full season in the UCI WorldTour after he officially made his pro debut at the Tour of Beijing last year, where he placed second on stage 1 after earning the silver medal at the under-23 UCI world championships in Ponferrada, Spain.

He will immediately test his mettle at the eight-day stage race against a formidable startlist that aside from Guardini includes 41-year-old sprint veteran Alessandro Petacchi (Southeast), who captured the first of this 100 pro career wins at Langkawi on stage 6 in 1998 before returning the following year to claim the mountains classification, and 2011 Vuelta a España stage winner and fellow Aussie Chris Sutton (Sky).

“A good result here would boost my confidence going into Europe,” Ewan told VeloNews. “Plus, its pretty cool to come here to a race where there are some good guys to sprint against.”

Rubbing shoulders with the world’s best is nothing new to Ewan, who showed exceptional prowess in 2013 prior to the start of the Santos Tour Down Under at the People’s Choice Classic when he finished third behind André Greipel and race winner Marcel Kittel.

Fast forward two years and it’s already been a relatively long season for Ewan, who raced a heavy schedule over the scorching Australian summer. Ewan took the first three — of four — stages to claim overall and capture his second Bay Crits title the opening week of the year, before backing up for two silver medals at the national criterium and road race championships just days later.

Ewan skipped the Tour Down Under and instead contested the inaugural Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, which he was unable to finish. He wasted little time dwelling on his poor performance under heavy crosswinds and immediately rebounded with two stage wins at the Herald Sun Tour and claimed second on points before rebooting to prepare for Langkawi.

“Cadel’s race didn’t go too well for me,” admitted Ewan. “It was a tough race, but I think it wasn’t my form that let me down, it was more about my positioning.

“It wasn’t really a blow to my confidence, as it was a tactical error rather than a form error.

“I’ve had quite a while off racing so it might take me a few days to get back into it. I still feel that in my sprint that I’m not going as good as I could be and hopefully in a few days it will come back to me and I get a bit quicker.”

Of the 22 teams on the startlist at Langkawi, only four WorldTour squads are signed on — all of which are utilizing their second guard while their first units are racing the top-tier races in Europe this week.

However, Ewan, who has failed to unseat Guardini in the opening stages, understands that a win in Langkawi could provide a major boost for the rest of the season, and already feels confident as the team’s go-to guy with a solid supporting lineup led by race roommate Damien Howson, Sam Bewley, Adam Blythe, Leigh Howard, and team GC rider Pieter Weening, who returns to Malaysia for the third year in a row and will likely be fighting Sebastian Henao (Sky) for the overall win in the more mountainous stages.

“This may not be the biggest race of the year, but Orica has put a really good team around me and they want Adam, Leigh, and I to start working together pretty early and I think this is the perfect race for it,” said Ewan, who told VeloNews in December the team has targeted 5-10 wins for him this season.

“There are quite a few sprint stages and we have time to really work out the order we want to conduct leadouts and learn how to work together, and I think Langkawi is better suited for us to develop our chemistry rather than say [Volta a] Catalunya or [Tour of] Turkey, where the field may be even deeper and the pressure higher.”

The Tour de Langkawi resumes Tuesday with a 170km scenic stage 3 featuring a tough 1,006-meter Category 1 climb up Titiwangsa before riders such as Ewan have another shot at a sprint finish in Tanah Merah.

“Caleb is a really strong guy,” admitted Guardini. “Maybe tomorrow will be his turn because there are two climbs in the first part of the race and I suspect Orica to be willing to try and drop us out.”

For Ewan, it’s back to the original plan.

“I’ve never really had a leadout train so to have them in the finish is great,” said Ewan. “I need to learn them a bit more. I couldn’t beat [Guardini] coming off him so I think it’s better to learn to come off the leadout train so I think we will stick with that now.”

Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews.