Tour de France riders refer to luck all the time.
Sometimes it’s a more eloquent way of saying sh*t happens at the end of a stage that fell short on expectations. Other times, in a mobile, ever-changing sports arena, it’s a factor that influences results.
You do need some luck at cycling’s biggest bike race because despite all the planning, recons, training, racing and sacrifice you cannot control everything any more than you can control the weather, which also plays its part.
As the Tour returned to its traditional homeland on Tuesday, Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan was hoping for a little more luck after fortune did not favour him in Denmark. On stage two and three, which offered pure sprinters two of precious few chances at this year’s race, the 27-year-old was caught out.
He’d hoped stage four would play out differently before Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) spoiled everyone’s chances with a solo victory ahead of a chasing pack.
The odds haven’t exactly been in Ewan’s favour since the Tour started. In fact, since he crashed out of the race last year on stage three, breaking his collarbone, which is now pinned, in four places, ‘The Pocket Rocket’ has endured a string of near misses, crashes and untimely mechanicals at Grand Tours, which he isn’t accustomed to.
At Lotto Soudal, Ewan has a team with no general classification ambitions. He doesn’t have to balance, or limit, his objectives with that of a title contender.
Since he joined in 2019, bringing Roger Kluge over with him from Mitchelton-Scott, Ewan has progressively built on his lead-out. In the beginning, he respectfully declined an offer from predecessor Andre Greipel to be part of it.
“Sprinters don’t go from being one of the best sprinters in the world to next year, oh, I want to lead-out this young guy who is coming to the team,” Ewan said at the time.
Caleb Ewan sprints at the 2021 Tour de France (Image: James Startt)
Fast-forward to the end of a crash-marred 2021 season, when he was racing but keen for a holiday, and the five-time Tour stage winner was, despite being exhausted, talking about making small adjustments to his lead-out which would put it on par with that of Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl's.
“We have to use our guys a little bit too early and then in the end in the last kilometre I’m by myself. The manpower is not there,” he said in September. “With a few more guys I think that problem can be fixed.”
However, at this year’s Tour, through circumstance, that problem hasn’t been fixed. The main men Ewan has worked alongside, Kluge, Jasper De Buyst and new signing Rudi Selig, missed selection in what he described as more of a “classics style team” rather than sprint squad.
“We had a little bit of bad luck with some of the lead-out guys,” Ewan said.
De Buyst was injured, Selig wasn’t in the right shape and Kluge finished the Giro d’Italia.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be a team to do a lead-out to deliver me at 200m to go but they’ve done their job perfectly, what I’ve asked of them so far, so I can’t complain,” he said.
Ewan entered the Tour with designs on the green jersey but has since forfeited that due to his encumbered start and not being able to build a buffer on the likes of Van Aert. The focus now is purely stage wins.
“It’s annoying because I feel like I have the legs to win and both times now I haven’t been able to sprint for the win because, first, my derailleur, and then second, I was closed in on the barriers, so that is frustrating for sure,” Ewan said.
“But the door doesn’t always close on you, sometimes you get through and hopefully that happens.”
Caleb Ewan ahead of stage 3 at the 2022 Tour de France (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
A lead-out isn’t the difference between winning and losing a stage, ultimately that comes down to the sprinter, but it is highly influential to results.
Unless you have the foundation of support riders Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl does, it takes time to get into sync, build camaraderie, effective communication, and trust. Stage three winner Dylan Groenewegen quickly developed a rapport with Luka Mezgec when he joined BikeExchange-Jayco at the beginning of this season, which helped the Dutchman to assimilate and ultimately succeed.
“Every finish is different,” said Groenewegen.
“When you are in a good position and the speed stays high then you stay in position so then the lead-out is less important.
“But then the speed slows down in the last kilometre, and you have some, yeah, I call it bodyguards around you, to make some space, then it will be fine to have a good lead-out.”
It is similar in the mountains. There, lead-out men in the grupetto really do resemble bodyguards, surrounding their sprinter to ensure they get to the finish as comfortably as possible and within the time cut, conserving as much as firepower as possible for the next sprint stage.
Time will tell how effective Lotto Soudal is for Ewan in the mountains this Tour, especially on the back of his winless and crash-marred Giro d’Italia campaign where the team on stage 10 left him to fend for himself out of the back of a hilly run with around 80-kilometres remaining. Ewan finished dead last, 31 minutes and 18 seconds behind winner Biniam Girmay (Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert), with Kluge second last, 29:37 adrift of the Eritrean.
It added to his tempered but collective frustration, and when Rouleur asked why the team didn’t wait for, or go back for him that day, he referred to compatriot and sports director Allan Davis.
“You can ask Albi, he makes the call there,” Ewan said. Ewan after crashing at the Giro d'Italia earlier this season (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
Davis said there have been several “little factors” that this season has affected not just Ewan’s form but morale.
“It was the day after the rest day, he was on a bad day, actually, not on a good day at all, he had the rest day blues,” Davis recalled of the Giro.
“He went out the back with another teammate actually, at the time, Roger Kluge, and then I’m not sure what happened there. They split up a bit and it made it a harder day than what it should have been.
“It wasn’t ideal for his morale, and it zapped him of a bit of energy that he would have needed for the day after, he had a sprint day the next day.”
“It’s hard for Caleb,” Davis continued.
“He’s one of, if not the best, sprinter in the world so near misses and bad luck has been a thing that he has been dealing with, not only this year but also the Tour crash last year.
“It’s been a cumulation of a few things, but he’ll be right. We’ve got to keeping knocking on the door, keep sticking to the plans, keep committed, keep riding the way they’re doing, and it will come. Once one comes it’ll start.”
No one will go so far to say Ewan is at a comparative disadvantage to his rivals, working with some teammates for the first time at the Tour compared to calling on a drilled unit.
Deft as he is at surfing wheels and positioning with and without a rehearsed sprint train, having to do the extra grunt work inside a kilometre to go, rather than being protected by “bodyguards” until the closing few hundred metres surely does though add another dimension to the already tough task that is the Tour, no matter how many trains there are to jump from.
“I don’t mind doing it but like we’ve seen the last few days the problem with it is you need a lot of luck to be able to get out of the position that you’re in,” Ewan said.
“If you get delivered at 200m to go without having to fight for your position then obviously it’s a lot easier.
“But in the end, I think I can still win, like, [on stage three] I could have won from where I was, but I got closed in on the barrier.
“Having a lead out takes away all that guess work I’d say.
“I don’t have that, but I knew that from the start. Luck is just going to have to go a little bit more my way.”Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix