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Sprint King: Caleb Ewan’s historic Tour de France debut

Adam Phelan Tekst Adam Phelan Gepubliceerd 04 September 2019

In Paris for the final stage of the Tour de France, Caleb Ewan raised his arms into the air, celebrating victory along the famed Champs-Élysées, as he took his third stage win of the 2019 edition. In doing so, Ewan etched his name into the history books as the most successful Australian debutant ever in the Tour de France. But, the road to Paris is never easy, and for Ewan it began with a tough goodbye. 

Caleb Ewan answers my video call with an apology. It’s early in the morning in Monaco, the week after the Tour de France. “One second,” he explains, “I have to grab Lily. She has just woken up.” 

Ewan yawns as he picks up Lily, his seven-week-old daughter. He sits down and cradles her, sighs, as she dips back into sleep in his arms. 

“I don’t know if it’s really sunk in yet,” he says, as we start to talk about the Tour de France. “I guess I’ve just jumped straight into ‘Dad life’ after Paris, so I haven’t really had time to reflect on it all.”

Ewan, the 25-year-old Australian sprint sensation, is calm and relaxed for a rider who entered the Australian Tour de France history books only days earlier. But with predictions of stage victories at the Tour de France hanging over him ever since he was a teenager, perhaps relaxing is the only appropriate response now that he has claimed his third win, the one he wanted most—the one on the famed Champs-Elysées.

“It’s not that simple,” he says about those early predictions. “It’s such a long and hard road. So much can happen during your career, and it [winning stages of the Tour] certainly doesn’t happen overnight.”

Plus, he says, he felt an immense pressure to win. This pressure to perform, generated both internally, and externally through the media, fans, and his team, created an environment where Ewan saw he had “no other option” but to win in France. “If I didn’t win, it would have been a failure,” he says.

What he never could have predicted, however, was that his biggest challenge would come before the race had even begun.

his biggest challenge would come before the race had even begun.

Ewan remembers the drive out to the airport in Nice, having left the hospital only hours earlier. Lily had been born six weeks premature, and, even weeks after her birth, she still needed to be monitored. Standing at the passenger boarding gate, he still wasn’t sure if he was ready.

“I had a tough lead up to the Tour,” Ewan says. “Lily was in the hospital for a month, and, although I was still training, every other minute I was there at the hospital with Lily and my wife, Ryann.”

“I missed my planned altitude camp, and it was hard and stressful for us having our daughter in hospital, as it would be for anyone… Leaving them both behind was definitely the hardest part.”

With the Tour de France looming, Ewan knew he would be denied the opportunity to bring his daughter home to his European base in Monaco. It was a tough reality for the Australian and one that he still thinks about today.

“Every parent wants to bring their child home from hospital. And I couldn’t do that,” Ewan says, his voice heavy in the air. “Instead, I knew Ryann would have to take her to our apartment without me. That was tough to come to terms with.”

Later, when the plane landed in Brussels, Ewan recalls making a promise to himself. Let’s make this worth it, he said. For Lily, if no one else.

Photo: Chris Auld

Weeks later in Toulouse, as Australian fans sat on the edge of their seats, Ewan was punching his fists in the air. But the commentators, breathless, weren’t so sure. They showed video replay after replay. Had it been Caleb Ewan or the flying Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen who had won? Then–the official result. Video footage shows Ewan clenching his hands into fists and screaming. He had done it. He had finally entered the exclusive club of Australian Tour de France stage winners, the first to do so since Michael Matthews in 2017. 

 “I had so many different emotions after that finish line,” Ewan says. “But above all, there was relief. An intense sense of relief.”

“Often, winning is a lot nicer when it’s not expected of you, when it’s a surprise. But for me, on Stage 11, anything but a stage victory would have been a let-down, especially since I was the lead sprinter for Lotto-Soudal,” he says.

“There was a lot of joy in that celebration too—don’t get me wrong. But it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”

The ten stages prior to that win had been a tale of close calls for the sprinting ace. He opened strongly with third place in the first stage in Brussels. Three days later, he would repeat the feat with another podium finish in Stage 4. 

Then, along the streets of Chalon-sur-Saône in Stage 7, a powerful throw to line by Groenewegen denied Ewan the victory. On the eve of the first rest day, another podium would follow on Stage 10. His frustration was palpable.

His frustration was palpable.

The pressure-cooker of the Tour de France can easily boil over as the chances for victory are reduced for the sprinters. As the flatter stages pass by, and mountains loom, its pressure can build to breaking point. For Ewan, he says, he had to trust in his speed and in his team, even as the podium finishes continued to tally up without a victory.  

“In the earlier sprints of the Tour, things hadn’t gone 100% right for me. I had mistimed my sprint or I was too far back, but I still made the podium four times,” he says. 

“But within myself, I knew if everything came together, I still had the speed to beat the other sprinters. I took confidence in that.”

The night before the Toulouse stage, just before he headed off to sleep, Ewan remembers turning to his roommate, Jasper de Buyst. 

“Alright”, he said, “this is last night I am going to bed a non-Tour de France stage winner.” 

He had to verbalise it, he says, to truly believe it, or it would never have happened. The next day, amid the deafening echo of the cheering crowd, those words became a reality. He had finally proved himself worthy of the Tour de France.  

Photo: Chris Auld

Last year, Ewan’s Tour de France evaporated in front of his eyes before he even had the chance to reach the start line. In December 2017, a press release from Mitchelton-Scott, his team at the time, announced that Ewan would make his debut in the Tour de France the following July. On the eve of the race, however, came the news that Mitchelton-Scott had decided not to select Ewan for the 2018 Tour. 

The rumour mill was running hot—what led to the change in heart? Mitchelton-Scott’s justification pointed towards a lack of victories for the Australian that season, as well as shifting goals for the team. Others speculated whether Ewan was considering a move to a new team at the end of the season and if that factor played a role. In the end, Ewan just had to suck it up.

“That season [2018] was probably the hardest year of my career,” Ewan says. “I had built my whole season around the Tour… Then, when you’re left out of the team, in your best form of the year, maybe ever, and without another race for six weeks, it’s really hard mentally.”

“I was angry initially, and it left me really unmotivated. But, I quickly turned that around, and realised it was only my career that would be harmed by that type of thinking. In moments like that, especially for sprinters, your career can start going downhill if you lose your confidence. I was determined that wouldn’t happen to me.” 

Before the 2019 season, Belgian team Lotto-Soudal announced that Ewan would be joining their squad. Importantly, he would join the team as their lead sprinter with a clear view that the Tour de France was what he and they were aiming for. 

It was a big shift for the Australian, who had turned professional with Mitchelton-Scott at the end of 2014.  But it was a move that he says was necessary for his career. And in Toulouse, with his arms in the air, he had shown to himself and to his new team that the move had been vindicated. 

Photo: Chris Auld

In the last four hundred metres of stage 16, Ewan’s chances looked over. It was a hot afternoon in Nîmes, and the peloton flew past in a blur of colour. With less than three hundred metres to go, the television coverage shows Ewan several riders deep. Italian Elia Viviani is ready to pounce from second position.

But then, from behind, Ewan kicks out of the peloton. Teammate-less, he passes his rivals one by one, pedal stroke by pedal stroke. On film, it looks agonisingly slow. Sprint finishes are always a form of chaos, of adrenaline, of plans made and unmade, of sheer grit, luck, and raw determination. Time slows down. In the end, the best efforts of his stampeding, jostling, raging competitors fell short. His sheer pace, his calculated ability to accelerate at precisely the right moment, saw him cross the line ahead of them all. In the end, it had been a show of pure muscle and determination. 

Ewan’s debt to his teammates—for their hard work and unwavering belief in him—had been paid back with interest. It meant something else to him too. That was the day Lily was meant to have been born. Instead, she was snuggled up in a pram on the finish line in Nîmes with Ryann, his wife. The television cameras caught the moment Ewan reached them. He kissed Ryann first, and then bent down and nuzzled his head into the pram. The goodbye from weeks earlier had now given way to tears of happiness and genuine celebration. 

“It was incredible to have Lily and Ryann there for my second win,” he says with a smile. “When she grows up, I can’t wait to tell her that the first bike race she ever went to was the Tour de France, and her dad won a stage. I can’t wait to show her the footage of us one day.” 

“It’s pretty cool—it feels surreal even saying it. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t also thinking about Paris. Before I started the Tour, that was the stage I’d said I’d love to win. I felt less pressure after the two wins, but I still wanted that victory.” 

Photo: Chris Auld

On the final day of the Tour de France, Ewan remembers holding back tears as he bounced along the cobbled Avenue des Champs-Élysées. He had made it to Paris for the final stage of the Tour—the holy grail for sprinters, and he still had that childhood vision in his head. He wanted to win. 

As the peloton began completing the final mesmerising laps of the Champs-Élysées, the television cameras panned over Paris. The descending evening sun had begun to illuminate its famous cobbled streets and its equally famous monuments in a warm, liquid gold. It is an incredible sight. In the television footage, it’s almost as if the buildings themselves are looking on what is unfolding in the streets below.  There’s a strange kind of stillness. The Arc de Triomphe provides the perfect frame for the final battle in what has been described as the most exciting Tour de France in recent years. 

The Tour’s final act is about to commence, and there is an Australian actor keen to put on a show. 

With less than 300 metres to go, Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen flicks the switch. He edges to the front of the peloton with his head buried into his handlebars, the camera following his every movement. Italian Niccolo Bonifazio is next to show his hand. He rips past Boasson Hagen as the finish line approaches.

In the dying moments of the stage, however, as though they have been shot from a cannon, the duo of Groenewegen and Ewan break free. In that golden Parisian dusk, these two great sprinting rivals are about to have their final duel.

Replays show Ewan on the right, on the rough “unwinnable” section of the boulevard. But his speed is undeniable. His legs are pumping. He has calculated his run to perfection. And he knows it. Or has he? Time stops. Then we hear what will become Matt Keenan’s famous commentary: “It’s a photo finish… No, it’s not. It’s one for the mantelpiece. It’s Caleb Ewan. He makes it three.”

Ewan raises his arms in the air for his third Tour de France stage victory; the Arc de Tromphe melts away the golden sunset ahead of him. With the victory, he becomes only the second Australian to ever win in Paris, after the country’s most successful Tour de France sprinter Robbie McEwen’s victories in 1999 and 2002. 

He has also equalled McEwen’s record for the most individual Tour stage wins for an Australian in a single year—all in his debut, no less. 

“Even riding on to the Champs-Élysées is the most surreal experience,” Ewan says, casting his mind back to Paris. “I feel like a kid even talking about it. I still get goose-bumps. But to win there, as a sprinter? It’s something I will never forget.”

riding on to the Champs-Élysées is the most surreal experience
 

As Ewan speaks, he’s cut off by Lily crying. He looks at her, whispers something, and then begins to rock her back and forth in his arms. He has already pulled away from our interview. It’s as if now it is just him and his little daughter, alone in their apartment in Monaco. 

Moments later, as she settles again, he looks back up. He apologises and tells me that he’s tired.

“It’s great to be able to be just a father after the intensity of the Tour,” he says. “It’s just so nice.”

Looking down at his watch, Caleb tells me that he will go for a ride at some point in the afternoon. Maybe then, he’ll take a few minutes to reflect on his three weeks in France. To give himself a moment to soak it all in. To start thinking about what’s next. He might even let himself have a beer or two. It’s a great image of him I have on my computer screen. I can see him thinking. The reflection has already begun. About the race. About his daughter. Fatherhood. About his family. Life. He doesn’t even know that he’s looking down at his daughter. 

“Talk soon.” I say. “Take care.”

“Yep. You too.” 

And then he’s gone.