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Caleb Ewan: The Tour de France’s Missing Sprinter

The Lost Boys of the Tour de France: Part 7

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There’s one rider who is being sorely missed at the Tour’s mass-sprint finishes—including those coming up in Valence, Nîmes, Libourne and Paris. That rider is Australian sprint ace Caleb Ewan of Lotto-Soudal, who crashed out of the Tour at the height of the stage 3 sprint finish in Pontivy. Reflecting on  how that sprint developed on the lazy-S-shaped finish, he told Velon: “I wanted to go quite early in the chicane. I started and we were sprinting on the left. I then saw that the guys on the front were closing to the right, so I had to stop sprinting…and then I came next to Peter [Sagan]…and we were quite close together on the wheel, and when [Tim] Merlier went again to the right I just touched the wheel and then, yeah, went down. It all happened quite quickly.”

The overhead TV images showed that in the middle of the “S” before the second sweeping curve to the right, Ewan was right behind Sagan, who was following Merlier and his lead-out man Jasper Philipsen. The Aussie then aimed at the corner with about 140 meters to go, clearly planning to overtake Merlier on the inside. But the gap between the Belgian and the barriers suddenly disappeared, and Ewan’s front tire briefly clipped Merlier’s rear tire. His wheel instantly turned through 90 degrees and the bike skidded sideways. Sagan T-boned Ewan and both riders ended up in a heap. Ewan’s right collarbone was fractured in four places. 

Ewan’s 2021 Tour ended with a broken collarbone on stage 3. Image: Chris Auld.

Before the start of stage 4 the next morning in Redon, Mark Cavendish said to a TV interviewer: “It’s so unfortunate for Caleb, out with a broken collarbone…I was really looking forward to going head-to-head with him. He’s a mini-me; I’m a big fan of his. And I tell you, the Tour de France would want to see me and him going head-to-head. That’s a real, real shame for the Tour and for the public.”

Ewan and Cavendish had been competing against each other just two weeks earlier at the Baloise Belgium Tour: Ewan won two stages, Cavendish one. But when the British legend last won a Tour stage, his 30th, in 2016, Ewan had yet to make his Tour debut. That came in 2019, when he won three stages (at Toulouse, Nîmes and Paris), followed by two more last year (at Sisteron and Poitiers). No doubt, there would have been two or three more wins this year—probably at Pontivy (if he hadn’t crashed), Nîmes (again) and perhaps Paris.

Ewan winning stage 5 of the 2021 Giro d’Italia. Image: Chris Auld.

Cavendish sees something of himself in Ewan, because of many factors. First, they have a similar build. Ewan is just under 5-foot-6 and 152 pounds; Cavendish almost 5-foot-9 and 154 pounds. Next, they sprint in the same way, liking a strong lead-out before surfing between riders and unleashing a sudden acceleration—not a steady surge like the bigger sprinters (say, Arnaud Démare today or Mario Cipollini in the past). And because of their small stature they both adopt a low, aerodynamic position on the bike, while their high power-to-weight ratio helps them score their best victories on slightly uphill finishes. Another similarity is their expertise in middle-distance track racing . Ewan won the omnium gold medal at the 2011 junior worlds; Cavendish won three world Madison titles and took an Olympic silver in the omnium at Rio 2016. Also, they both began racing before they were 10 years old. 

Ewan has an interesting heritage; his mother was the daughter of a Korean immigrant named Gwang-sun Noh, while his Australian father was a former bike racer. Before turning professional in 2015, Ewan won three stages of the under-23’s Tour de l’Avenir. He has since won stages at most of the stage races he has competed in. This year, he planned to become one of the few riders to win stages of all three grand tours in the same season. He won two stages in the first week of the 2021 Giro d’Italia before dropping out with a knee injury. He’ll probably win some stages of the Vuelta a España next month; but that spectacular crash in Pontivy has robbed him of his expected successes at the Tour. So, that Ewan-Cav head-to-head will have to wait until next year’s Tour.

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After stage 9, 19 riders had left the Tour, reducing the 184-strong starting field to 165. (See “Rest Day 1: The 19 Lost Boys of the Tour.”)

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