The shadow of Mark Cavendish looms large when it comes to Caleb Ewan.
The young Australian has elicited frequent comparisons to the Manxman, who is arguably the greatest sprinter of all time.
Much of that commentary relates to his super-low sprinting position, which takes Cavendish’s own naturally aerodynamic sprint stance and pushes it to the nth degree, to a point where some have argued it is dangerously unstable.
Ewan’s super low sprint position sets him apart from the other sprinters (credit: Sunada)
Ewan himself, when asked, names Cavendish as his sprinting idol — illustrative of the nine years in age between them.
And at the Abu Dhabi Tour this year, the pair went shoulder-to-shoulder for the first time with the Australian coming out ahead — twice.
>>> Watch: Cavendish and Ewan in final rain-lashed sprint battle at the Abu Dhabi Tour (video)
After the first occasion, Cavendish said:
“I’ve never sprinted off Caleb before and it’s the first time I can understand what it’s like for people to sit on my wheel.
“When you’re so small there’s no difference when you move out of his slipstream from being on the wheel.”
Learning curve: Kittel (left) gets the edge on Ewan in Abu Dhabi
But if those comparisons are to continue then Ewan may soon have to start winning at a similar rate to the Manxman’s early career.
This year he will turn 23. As Cav turned 23 he racked up five victories at the Tour de France in a season in which he won 17 races.
However, while Ewan is flattered by the comparison he feels no pressure to emulate him in this way. “I don’t feel any added pressure someone comparing me to Cav,” he says.
“Cav is the best sprinter, I think, ever, so to be compared to a guy like that is flattering.
Watch now: Caleb Ewan on sprinting
“However, you can compare someone all you want but at the end of the day you’ve still got to get the results.
“I know there’s a lot of hard work that goes into that and I’ve probably got a way to go to get to his level.”
He adds: “I think every season you go into there is always an expectation to do better to make an obvious improvement from the year before.
“I felt like last year wasn’t as good as I had hoped; I started off well and, it didn’t go downhill exactly, but I was getting a lot of seconds or thirds and not first places. If you’re not first you’re nowhere really.”
Last year Ewan won two stages of the Tour Down Under in January but was unable to win again until the Hamburg Cyclassics in late August and then a stage of the Tour of Britain in September.
This year he has started off even stronger, winning four stages of the Tour Down Under and beating a field including Cavendish, André Greipel and Marcel Kittel to take a stage win in Abu Dhabi.
Home hero: Ewan takes stage four of the 2017 Tour Down Under (Credit: Sunada)
“I know last year was also a good start but then going into Down Under it was going to be hard with the expectation of going better than last year so to do better again was a boost of confidence,” he says.
That better start hasn’t been propelled by any special preparation either, rather it’s just a natural progression for the Australian.
Having wrapped up his season in October at the World Championship road race — which he didn’t finish — he didn’t return to training until mid-November.
“It was a bit of a rushed build-up,” he says.
“The previous year I finished the Vuelta after 10 stages and that was my season done so I had a big build-up.
“This year there were no cruise-y rides into it, it was straight into hard efforts.”
In one respect he is looking to emulate Cavendish at this point in his career, though more by coincidence than design, taking his first Giro stage win.
Ewan went to the Giro last year but never placed higher than second in a field containing Greipel, Kittel and Elia Viviani; he had hoped for more.
>>> Giro d’Italia 2017 start list
“I was hoping for at least a stage win in the Giro especially after winning a stage in my first Grand Tour.
“Obviously the calibre of the sprinters at the Giro was higher than at the Vuelta when I won a stage. I got close, but…”
Hoping for a better Giro this year (Credit Sunada)
When asked what constitutes success in 2017, Ewan says:
“Probably just winning constantly throughout the season. I know I did improve last year but it was just a step up with WorldTour races.
“In my first year I did a lot of smaller races and if I had gone back to those I’m sure I could have won more.”
He adds: “In WorldTour racing it all happens differently, if you want to be there,” he gestures to a point about five metres ahead of him.
“It’s a lot harder to get there than in a smaller race. In a WorldTour race there is much more thinking because there are another 10 guys in a race that are just as fast as you.”
>>> Caleb Ewan: ‘It’s pretty scary in my sprinting position’ (video)
This positioning and moving around the bunch, particularly in the final kilometres of a race, is the thing that Ewan identifies as the big single area where he can make gains.
But he also says simply gaining strength and age will improve him.
“Probably the biggest gain is to come to the sprint fresher, I think that’ll happen as I get older and stronger and get to the sprints in better condition than I do now.
“A lot of the good sprinters now, if the lead-out doesn’t go perfect for them and they have to do a bit extra in the wind they can still win,” he says.
“I’m slowly getting to that point. In Down Under there were a few situations where the lead-out wasn’t perfect and I still won.
“Also, when you are fresher it’s easier to make decisions as well.”
Winning in all conditions at the 2017 Abu Dhabi tour (Credit: Sunada)
At 5ft 4in it’s perhaps unsurprising that when Ewan, who was raised on the far outskirts of Sydney, was coming up through the scene he thought he would be a climber in the mould of other diminutive riders such as Alberto Contador or Joaquim Rodríguez.
He would chase King of the Mountains classification points and race compatriots to the top of local climbs.
During this time he wound his way through the Australian Institute of Sport system, racing on the track.
He picked up a Junior Omnium World Championship in 2011 and went on to race for the Jayco-AIS academy team on the road in 2013 before turning pro in 2015.
Ewan says he still likes to get back to the track when he can.
“Every year I go back to Australia and I think I should get back on the track and do a little bit.
“For sure as a sprinter that kind of stuff really sharpens you up. Last year Cav had his best year in the Tour that he has had for a while, [Fernando] Gaviria — all he does on the track… it is something that if I had more time I’d do.”
Ewan raced the National Madison Championships with compatriot Mark Renshaw over the Australian summer, placing eighth.
However, he says the pair only did one session together before the race itself and so it wasn’t enough to really make any difference to his training.
Last year the UCI changed the format of the omnium, cutting out the timed events, partly to make it more exciting and partly to encourage road starts to return to the track in the way Cavendish and Italian Elia Viviani did so successfully for the Rio Olympics.
>>> Track events get major overhaul in new UCI rule change
When asked if he’d like to follow in Cavendish’s footsteps and return to the track for a tilt at an omnium title at a future Olympics or World Championships Ewan says he likes the event — he has fond memories of his junior world title win — and would consider it but he thinks it’s quite unlikely to happen.
“The way the Australian team focus on the Olympics is 95 per cent team pursuit and five per cent omnium,” he says, echoing the same question mark that hung over Cavendish’s spot on the GB squad last spring and early summer.
“When I was a junior I went to the Worlds on the track and did the omnium and it was pretty clear then that I didn’t have a place in the team because with my height in the team pursuit no one can sit on me and you definitely have to be a team pursuit rider.”
Caleb Ewan wins Stage 8 of the 2016 Tour of Britain (Credit: Watson)
Secret of success
So for the foreseeable future his duties for Orica-Scott will remain his focus, a good return on investment for the squad, which has celebrated considerable success with developing young talent in recent years with Ewan in the sprints and the Yates brothers and Esteban Chaves on general classification.
What, in Ewan’s view, has been the secret of the team’s success at this?
“I think, obviously, these guys haven’t come from nowhere and come good, they were good before they came to the team and it’s the team coming together at the time they want and not putting pressure on them, like me.”
He adds: “They give you leadership but it’s not the same as if they gave Gerro [veteran sprinter Simon Gerrans] leadership and if you don’t deliver it’s fine.”
Caleb Ewan on stage three of the 2016 Tour de Yorkshire (Credit: Watson)
It’s this unusual mixture of responsibility without excessive pressure that seems to bolster Ewan’s confidence when CW asks if he feels ready to take the full responsibility of going to a Grand Tour with a full team behind him rather than sharing leadership with one of the squad’s GC contenders.
Ewan pauses for a minute and then says:
“To be honest I would probably feel just as much pressure going to the Giro this year with, I don’t know, half the team that I would feel with a full team, so I’d be pretty comfortable with it. I feel I handle pressure quite well.
“I put more pressure on myself than anyone around me.”
But Ewan isn’t getting ahead of himself; he says he’d prefer not to go to the Tour de France this year (and indeed it’s quite unlikely he will) because he feels he still needs to prove himself in Grand Tours and there are other riders, like Chaves, who have earned the right to have the team’s full support.
If Ewan continues to progress as he has, it won’t be long before be commands that sort of support and at that point, the professional peloton may just find that it has a new sprinter at the top of the pecking order.