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GANGJIN, South Korea — Representing the only WorldTour team on the start list, there’s no question that Orica-GreenEdge neo-pro Caleb Ewan is the class of the field in a sprinter-friendly Tour de Korea that has seen the 20-year-old New South Wales native nab three stages — including stage 5 on Thursday.
The 2014 under-23 worlds runner-up has taken three of the past four stages and has increased his overall race lead by eight seconds over nearest rival and stage 4 winner Patrick Bevin (Avanti Racing Team).
Prior to the start of the eight-day UCI 2.1 Asia Tour race on Sunday, Orica-GreenEdge sport director David McPartland told VeloNews the team had at least one stage win targeted prior to the race with general classification goals a second — or even third — priority. Following the win in Gangjin after the 175-kilometer race from the coastal town of Yeosu, McPartland is telling a different story.
“It does change things to be honest,” McPartland told VeloNews. “It’s turning into a two-team race with Avanti and us. Their goals are similar to ours and they have a super-fast guy and we have super-fast guy. We are happy to take them on one-on-one, and they’ve shown until now that they are happy to take us on one-on-one. We are hoping they will want to continue to do the same thing.
“We came into this race with a goal of wining a stage and now we have three — that was the priority, not GC,” he continued. “Now we have the jersey, we are not going to throw it away for sure.”
However, Ewan is a bit more conservative with his answers when pressed by media regarding his GC aspirations.
“We came here to win stages, not ride for the yellow jersey,” Ewan told VeloNews after the race. “We will line up the next three days for stage wins and if the yellow jersey comes with it then it’s a massive bonus.”
Stage wins and GC were not the only goals for Orica. According to McPartland, there are more long-term factors at play — including team chemistry.
“We came into this race with another priority, which was to gel this team train that we are working so hard to develop for the future — not just this year or next year,” he said. “We have 26 riders on the team, and we have to find the right combination that fits Caleb [Ewan] for the long haul.”
Of the five riders brought in to support Ewan in his mother’s native Korea, including Adam Blythe, Leigh Howard, Michael Hepburn, and Jens Mouris, perhaps none is any more important that Australian Mitchell Docker. The 28-year-old GreenEdge veteran has proven himself vital to Ewan and the team as road captain.
“Mitch [Docker] brings a positive vibe to the team and really motivates the guys,” explained Ewan, who also gave credit to his other teammates. “He is a great road captain and keeps cool under pressure.
“He’s been a great person for me to work with because he’s very experienced in the sprints. He’s also a guy you can talk to about anything which is what a neo-pro [like me] needs at a race.”
Both Ewan and Docker hit the deck and lost skin on the opening stage when Docker made contact with compatriot and Olympic gold medalist Graeme Brown (Drapac) on Sunday.
The multi-rider crash resulted in a bruised body and several abrasions for Docker and Ewan. But nothing was going to keep Docker from clicking in the pedals and riding for Ewan.
“The ribs are pretty bruised up and the hip is buckled,” said Docker, who finds motivation in a ring designed by his brother and bearing a family crest that combines his English and Scottish lineage. “The scrapes aren’t too bad, but the internal bruising is painful. Once you get going and get into the race, you get on with it and forget about it.
“If you didn’t have that focus, you’d have more time to feel sorry for yourself, and that’s not me.”
The race continues on Friday with a 193.7km stage 6 from Gangjin to Gunsan.
“All of us in Korea have the understanding no one can have a bad day,” Docker shared with VeloNews. “We have a couple of guys doing two jobs — riding up at the front and then doing the sprint at the end.
“We all have to do our job to help each other, and there is no slacking off,” he concluded. “And this week is about riding for Caleb and our job is not finished yet.”
Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews