By winning Scheldeprijs on Wednesday afternoon, Lotto Soudal’s Caleb Ewan crowned himself as the unofficial sprinting world champion – at least, that’s what the organisers liked to say.
Since the Belgian one-day race was contested while Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) is racking up the wins at the Giro d’Italia against Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), it’s clear that it wasn’t exactly a level playing field in Schoten.
But Ewan and his Belgian team didn’t mind, and celebrated a nice win, although that celebration didn’t go as smoothly as hoped when Ewan struggled to open the Champagne bottle.
“I don’t know what was wrong with it. Normally they pop open quite easily. I couldn’t open it. Maybe I’m not in the Champagne-popping form that I was in the past,” Ewan said with a big smile.
Luckily, he’s still enjoying the sprinting form that earned him two stage wins at the Tour de France last month. After his sprint victory and the Champagne struggle on the podium in Schoten, next to Antwerp, the 26-year-old Australian sprinter headed to the post-race press conference where he was asked how he rated himself over the other top sprinters compared to last year, when he was considered the best sprinter in the world.
“I never really saw myself as the out-and-out best sprinter in the world last year,” he said. “I know my results were good. I probably had the best results out of all the sprinters. Last year, Sam Bennett wasn’t at the Tour. This year, Dylan Groenewegen [Jumbo-Visma] wasn’t at the Tour and Démare wasn’t at the Tour. It’s hard to tell when we’re not all together at one race.”
This year, Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Bennett showed his excellent sprinting qualities at the Tour de France, earning him the green jersey and two stage wins, while at the Giro d’Italia, Démare seems unbeatable, taking his fourth stage win on the same day as the Scheldeprijs.
“Arnaud is doing really well, and Bennett was going well the last few years, but he was denied the big races,” Ewan said. “It was always hard to judge him because we didn’t race so much together last year. I still think I’m definitely up there with the best guys, for sure.
“In my sprints at the Tour, I did get very lucky that I got through the two times that I won. If I was closer to the front and started my sprint better, I could have won one more. It’s hard to compare the last two Tours.”
No fewer than four stages of the Giro d’Italia have concluded with a bunch sprint, and obviously Ewan might have been a factor in those stages. Originally, he had planned to take part in the Italian Grand Tour, but when the team roster was announced at the end of September, Ewan no longer featured on it.
The Australian rider quickly made clear that his absence in Italy leaves him with no regrets.
“The Giro is a great race on the normal cycling calendar to give you confidence going into the Tour de France,” said Ewan. “We all know that a Tour stage is bigger than a Giro stage. I always want to win at the highest level. Although it would be nice to win some Giro stages, it was always going to be hard to go after the Tour and beat Arnaud, who’s in super form at the moment.
“Some of the sprints that he’s won so far have been really hard as well; they haven’t been straightforward sprints. Sometimes you watch it and it makes you want to be there. Other times, when you see everybody struggling on the hills, then you’re happy to be at home. The weather doesn’t look so good too,” he said with a smile.
“During the first rest day at the Tour de France, we decided not to go. There weren’t as many opportunities for the sprint as we thought at the start of the year because of the changes to the course,” he continued. “My plan was never to finish the Giro, and we saw that in the first 10 days there weren’t that many sprints to justify going.
“You probably saw at the Tour that I was struggling a lot as well. I was quite tired. I needed to rest. There were good races to do here, and it’s probably more important to get a win like this than Giro stages. The team really wanted to get a good result in one of the Classics. I’m happy that I could deliver for them,” Ewan said.
Ewan has won seven out of the team’s 10 victories so far this year, but he played his role down.
“My job for the team is to win,” he said. “Everyone has their role in the team, and they’re all important. My role is to win races, and I’m happy that I could deliver this year.”
Dropped at Gent-Wevelgem
Coming out of the Tour de France as tired as Ewan describes provides an explanation for the post-Tour racing schedule. Three weeks after the Tour, Ewan took part in Gent-Wevelgem, but abandoned. The one-day race used to be on the wish list of many sprinters, but nowadays seems to have become too tough for pure sprinters. On Sunday, Ewan pulled out of the race on the first ascent of the Kemmelberg, before the finale got under way.
“We’ve seen good sprinters in the past win there, but it’s a long and hard race,” he said. “The weather conditions were quite hard as well with the rain and the wind. I just don’t think I was in the shape to win a race like that.
“I knew I could be good for this race and could be good for the Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne [on October 21]. Gent-Wevelgem was a little bit out of reach for me – especially when we saw how it finished in the end. It ended up being a really hard race.
“I was in the front split but got dropped from there. Then I knew from there that if I couldn’t keep up, I was going to get dropped on one of the climbs. Mentally, it was hard to continue because I got dropped before one of the climbs. I didn’t want to go too deep because this was a goal. I knew I could get a good result here if I was feeling good.
“But it was good to do Gent-Wevelgem just to get back into the racing mode. It really helped for today,” Ewan said.
Three days after Gent-Wevelgem, the kermesse-like edition of the Scheldeprijs was a perfect fit for Ewan. The race no longer started in the Netherlands due to measures related to the coronavirus, which made for a less-windy edition on 10 local laps.
“It was quite hard, actually,” Ewan said. “They didn’t let the break go too far. They were always holding it around a minute. It was an uncomfortable kind of pace. I don’t know if it was just hard for me or for everyone.
“It wasn’t so easy with all the corners in the course,” he added. “In the end, when the adrenaline kicks in, then you start feeling a bit better. My team did a great job to have me right there in the finale where I wanted to be.
“We knew from the previous editions here that the sprint can be quite hectic. I actually lost my team coming down through the canal there. It was kind of hectic coming through that corner with 3km to go,” explained Ewan.
“I just stayed calm. They dropped back for me, got me and then brought me back to the front. We were where we basically had to be – really close to the front. We were out of the part of the bunch around 10 wheels, back where there’s always lots of trouble.
“They really lined out the bunch, and I could be in the wheel where I wanted to be,” he said. “When I can start my sprint when I want to, then it’s perfect.”
Being perfectly positioned, Ewan timed his sprint to perfection on Schoten’s Churchill Lane approach and beat Bora-Hansgrohe’s Pascal Ackermann by a bike length, although Schachmann was eventually relegated due to his swerve from left to right that caused several riders to crash.
“He moved off his line, but obviously he didn’t do it to harm anyone,” Ewan said. “He was moving out to do his sprint. It was unfortunate. I don’t know who it was. He was overlapping the wheel, which we see a lot in sprinting.
“If there’s a gap on the right or left, it’s normal for a sprinter to try to go through the gap and start their sprint,” he said. “We see it a lot, and unfortunately sometimes there are guys overlapping the wheel and they crash when you move.”
Next week, Ewan concludes his season at one more Belgian race. He’ll target the win at what was previously the three-day Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. The race has morphed into the one-day Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, and for his Belgian Lotto Soudal squad, it’s a home race, and Ewan is keen to win there again for his team, but he’s worried that the increasing number of coronavirus cases in Europe might yet spoil the party.
“It’s another important one for the team as it’s a WorldTour race now. Obviously, we’ll be looking to win, and I think that today gives me a lot of confidence going into that race,” he said. “Fingers crossed that it’s still going ahead because I know the situation in Belgium is not so good. I’ll have my fingers crossed that the racing can go to the end and that we can finish with De Panne before the season stops again.”
With his season stopping after the Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, it means that there’ll be no Vuelta a España for Ewan as part of this shortened cycling season.
“There was always the opportunity to go to the Vuelta, but it feels like a really long year, even though we haven’t actually raced that much,” Ewan said. “I hope that next season the cycling calendar is normal again.”
Ewan will be travelling to his European home in Monaco this week and will then head back to Belgium on Monday to prepare for his final race of the season, while afterwards he plans to remain in Monaco for the off-season, rather than travelling back to Australia.