Giro d'Italia: Caleb Ewan hoping altitude build-up is key to ending Grand Tour drought

It has been three years since Jayco AlUla’s sprinter last won a Grand Tour stage, but with his climbing ‘better than normal,’ he is all set for the next opportunity

ClockUpdated 13:00, Sunday 12th May 2024. Published 13:42, Sunday 12th May 2024
Caleb Ewan sprinting on stage 5 of the Giro d'Italia

© Getty Images

Caleb Ewan sprinting on stage 5 of the Giro d'Italia

Caleb Ewan is on the comeback trail at this year’s Giro d’Italia, of that there is no doubt. The Australian sprinter is without a Grand Tour stage win in three years and endured a rotten final season with Lotto Dstny in 2023. Back amongst old friends and colleagues at Jayco AlUla, though, the 29-year-old looks to be trending in the right direction as the second week beckons.

There is no stage win to speak of yet, but Ewan was well in the mix as the peloton sprinted for secondary honours on stage 5, and conversations with several riders in the bunch gives the impression that the Australian is riding as well as ever seen.

Free from the stress of stage-hunting or mountain survival, Caleb Ewan was in relaxed spirits before Friday’s time trial in Foligno. Escaping the heat of the Umbrian sun, the Australian perched on the boot of a nearby team car and discussed his Giro d’Italia to date with GCN.

“I do feel better than normal climbing-wise, for sure,” he said. “I think that's probably because I did an altitude camp, which I normally don't. So I think that's definitely helped my climbing, but at the end of the day I'm not here to climb a bit better.

“I'm here to sprint and I still haven't got a win yet, but I think maybe as the race goes on, everyone's legs are going to tire so hopefully I don't tire as fast and that I can be a bit more competitive in some of the sprints.”

Ewan’s focus is clear. He is here not only to finish the race - which would be a first at the Giro - but to come away with at least one stage win. There are many opportunities to come, not least Sunday’s stage into Naples, but as ever with Grand Tours, the sprinters will be tasked with surviving a tough parcours should they want to reach the chances that might fall their way later in the race.

Less racing and more kilometres in the snow-capped mountains

The mountainous last two weeks of the Giro have necessitated a different approach to training for Ewan in his sixth career participation.

“Usually I would have some sort of a race to build up and that's why usually in the past I never really did an altitude camp before the Tour, because I always had the Giro to prepare and then maybe another smaller race in between.

"I knew coming into this that I wouldn't have so much racing so that's why we decided that an altitude camp would probably be best.”

The 29-year-old headed to the cold slopes of Isola 2000 in early April, clocking up the hours spent in the mountains and accustoming himself with the conditions that will face the peloton over the next two weeks. Unlike past Tours de France, Ewan has not been able to use the first week of the Giro d’Italia to prepare his legs before dropping out of the race and taking some time to recover.

Jayco AlUla’s director of high performance and racing, Matt White, explained that the altitude camp was the most important difference with his preparations of previous years.

“He did an altitude block before here, which I don't think he's ever done at this time of the year in his career. So that was the difference. So that was to work on his aerobic capacity,” he told GCN earlier in the week.

“Then we gave him a little touch-up last week in Eschborn-Frankfurt. Just some competition before he came in and now he'll finish the race here. And he should get better as the race goes on,” he added, with an assured look of confidence when eyeing up the rest of the race.

What will be important now is converting the success of his time at altitude into success over the finish line at the Giro d’Italia. Still only eight days into the race, Ewan has not yet had the chance to push a pedal in anger in regard to a stage win.

Jayco AlUla’s lead-out train heading ‘in the right direction’

Placing 13th and 12th in the first bunch sprints of the race, Ewan cut a frustrated figure beyond the line on both occasions, unable to truly test his legs against the day’s winners - Tim Merlier (Soudal Quick-Step) and Jonathan Milan (Lidl-Trek). The Australian’s relative anonymity in the two finales was put down to his Jayco AlUla lead-out not being ‘dialled-in.’

“It was always going to be hard to come straight away and be able to nail it straight away with this team because a lot of the guys I haven't raced with yet this year. Even Luka [Mezgec] my last man, I haven't raced with him yet since we were teammates five years ago. So it takes me time to get everything dialled in.”

The five-time Giro stage winner was relieved, then, to see his team perform much stronger on the stage 5 finish in Lucca. It was not to be for the sprinters on the day, with a four-man breakaway holding off the peloton to produce an upset victory for Benjamin Thomas (Cofidis), but Ewan was the second-fastest to the line from the bunch and placed sixth behind Milan.

It was a good sign for the Aussie sprinter.

“The next day we were much better,” he said of stage 5. “I think we’re definitely going in the right direction.

“Max got me onto Milan’s wheel, which was really good and I didn't quite get to open up my sprint properly, but it was just good to be in the mix there because the days before I wasn't really in the mix at all.”

Tough to identify the best wheel to follow in sprints

It be Milan and Merlier who might prove Ewan’s biggest obstacle to adding to his tally of Giro stage wins, such has been the impressive start to the race made by both riders. Their talents have not escaped the attention of Ewan as he looks to recapture his old crown of being one of the world’s best sprinters.

“I think we knew coming in that Jonathan Milan was going to be one of the best ones here. Same with Tim Merlier, both of them had really good starts this season and they're two of the best in the world. So we knew that they were going to be strong. Most of the guys are going pretty good and if you don't nail your sprints, you've got no chance.”

With Milan currently holding a 37-point lead in the ciclamino points jersey after his three top-five placings earlier this week, Ewan admitted that his ambition to ‘have ciclamino in mind’ has now been extinguished, with the 29-year-old no longer contesting intermediate sprints.

His greatest concern is reserved for trying to beat the points jersey wearer and his fellow rivals in the sprint that matters the most - at the end of the stage.

"We've also got [Olav] Kooj here as well, who's had a really good start to the season, who's really quick as well,” noted Ewan. “I think that's the difficult part now, before there was always kind of like one reference sprinter for me, one guy who was going to have the best lead-out, who was going to be one of the fastest. When you lost your team, it was like, ‘right, I'll follow that guy and his team will probably get him to where he needs to be.’

“Whereas, now it's hard to tell which team's going to nail it. It might be Merlier with his team one day and then Milan with his team another day. So it's really hard when you get dropped off on your own to know which ones to follow.”

With his training having gone to plan, his Jayco AlUla team becoming more accustomed with one another by the day and his form clearly in a good place, however, it is a challenge that Ewan is keen to take on. A sixth career Giro stage win is in the Australian’s sights and with his pedigree, it would be no surprise to see Ewan with his arms raised by the end of the race in Rome.

“It's been a few years since I've had a really really big win so it would be nice. I’ve prepared as well as I could prepare and I'm feeling good. So there's no reason why I don't think I can go for a win, especially if I'm in a good position for it."

For everything you need to know about the 2024 Giro d'Italia, from the history of the race to this year's route and start list, be sure to check out our dedicated race hub.

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