The last few years in the peloton have not been kind to Caleb Ewan. His departure from Lotto-Dstny at the end of last season was messy and public, with the Australian eventually ending his contract with the team a year earlier than planned. Rifts between Ewan and management were widely reported, but the final straw in an already fractured relationship was Lotto-Dstny CEO Stéphane Heulot’s comments about Ewan leaving the Tour de France last season.
“He just hung his head. In a way that I can't say a good word about,” Heulot commented to Belgian outlet HNL a few weeks after the Tour. “A real champion lifts his team, he doesn't do this.”
So, a change for Ewan was in order. A homecoming of sorts, as he returned to the team he started his WorldTour career in Jayco-Alula for 2024. With the familiarity of those who know him best around him, the conditions seemed perfect for Ewan to flourish once more. It looked the move had worked wonders a few weeks ago, when Ewan threw his hands up in the air at the Australian Criterium Championships after a textbook exhibition lead out by his Jayco teammates. As he crossed the line first ahead of riders like Sam Welsford and Jensen Plowright, it seemed as if Caleb Ewan, just might, be back.
The pressure then came before the Tour Down Under, Jayco-Alula’s home race. Luke Plapp told Rouleur that the team was planning to win every stage, as well as the general classification. A lot of that ambition lay with Ewan as sprinter – the first four stages of the race were ones that the 29-year-old could target, and the likes of Plapp and Campbell Stewart backed him to do it.Sam Welsford wins the third stage of the Tour Down Under 2023 (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
But murmurings of Ewan’s illness a few days before the race was due to begin swirled around Adelaide when the Australian rider skipped the Tour Down Under Classic criterium, and didn’t show up to the Jayco press event the day before stage one. What exactly the illness entailed wasn’t ever confirmed by the team, but it was far from the ideal lead up to one of the biggest events on his team's calendar.
Stage one rolled round and Ewan’s fourth place finish was a sign that he wasn’t at his best. There were question marks over whether there was residual illness or teething problems with his new lead-out train, but either way, Jayco-Alula and Ewan appeared a long way off the dominant train of Bora-Hansgrohe.
“Sometimes Caleb does his own thing in the finals and sometimes he wants a direct lead out.” Matt White, Jayco-Alula’s Director of High Performance commented after the race. “We’ve had zero practice at lead outs. Campbell met Caleb here, so none. Campbell’s got experience leading out but they’ve just never worked together, the things that you pick up and people’s reactions when they’re fatigued, they’re things you only learn in a race anyway. You can go out and do some sprints to a sign post out on the side of the road, but it’s certainly not the same as race situations and race feel.”
White added that the team would go back to the hotel and watch back what went wrong in their lead-out with the aim of a better chance the following day, which looked like it could be better suited to Ewan with a few climbs along the route. There was the surprise breakaway of Isaac del Toro that scuppered Jayco’s plans in stage two, however, another reset was due after that, too. Luckily, Ewan is a rider who has learnt to be adept at resetting after disappointment during his career so far.
The third day of the race was a straightforward sprint – another chance to try again for the Jayco team. But as Luke Plapp crashed hard on the run into Campbelltown, victim to a pile up in the gorge that followed the finish line, it was an early sign that this stage wasn’t going to be the retribution that Jayco were looking for. Ewan finished with his worst result of the race yet: sixth place behind a flying Sam Welsford who, once again, timed things to perfection with his Bora teammates. Ewan was understandably dejected after the finish.
Luke Plapp after crashing in the third stage of the Tour Down Under (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
“It was pretty hectic going down the gorge,” he said. “It was pretty hard staying in position and we lost Plapp pretty early, so there were just three of us left there trying to get as close to the finish as possible. I was on Sam’s wheel coming into the last kilometre, but all the other sprinters were dropping the sprint teams off on his wheel so it got super messy on the right hand barrier.
“When I wanted to open up again I was stuck in the middle, so it was a bit of an average sprint. I think the good thing is that I felt a bit better today but I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t actually open up the sprint.”
Unless he climbs spectacularly well on the weekend’s hilly stages, only one chance remains in this race for Ewan to change Jayco-Alula’s fortunes in an event which they so greatly want – and need – success from. What’s the key to the Australian turning things around? The answer is far from straightforward.
It could be time that is needed – more chances to get to know his teammates and for them to start to understand what Ewan needs as a sprinter. Experience is essential when it comes to executing a perfect sprint, and Jayco have only had a couple of chances to try so far this season. On the other hand, it might not be his lead-out that’s the problem for the 29-year-old, it could simply be his form that needs work. Days of illness leading up to this event are undoubtedly going to have an impact on how Ewan is feeling and, with three top six placings, he’s not far off victory. If Ewan was in full health and his team had better luck, Jayco’s Tour Down Under could have looked very different at this point.
If there’s one thing that this sport is victim of, though, it’s counting out sprinters far too early. The resurgence of Mark Cavendish should have taught us that a few subpar seasons don’t need to be career ending – determination, patience and belief can change fortunes. When it comes to belief, Jayco-Alula has that in spades for Ewan, as do his rivals. "I still think Caleb is one of the best sprinters. On our day, all of the best sprinters in the world are very close," Sam Welsford said after winning stage three of the Tour Down Under.
All that remains is for Ewan to ensure he holds on to that belief himself.