GIVEN FREE REIN: Team Lotto-Soudal's Caleb Ewan shows his joy after taking out stage eight of the Giro d'Italia on May 18 in Pesaro, Italy.
GIVEN FREE REIN: Team Lotto-Soudal's Caleb Ewan shows his joy after taking out stage eight of the Giro d'Italia on May 18 in Pesaro, Italy. Tim de Waele

Ewan taken off the leash at last for Tour de France

CALEB Ewan is pumping - he's won two stages of the Giro and he's ready for "the big time".

Cycling expert Michael Tomalaris backs Australian "pocket rocket" Ewan, who will make his Tour de France debut as a genuine contender for the yellow jersey on at least several stages at the July 6-29 event.

It's a big call, but the man making it certainly knows his peloton from his puncheur.

Tomalaris reckons Ewan - who will turn 25 on stage11 during the 106th edition of the Tour, in his first year at Lotto-Soudal - can pack a real punch for his squad after having his talents ignored by Mitchelton-Scott during the off-season.

"Ewan was quietly confident he would ride the 2018 (Tour de France) as he had been promised, and devastated when his former team kept him on leash and out of the Tour de France and did not allow him to taste the fruits of his labour," he said.

"He had been slated to make his Tour debut in 2018 but was surprisingly left out of the selection on the eve of the race."

Since 1996, Tomalaris has been covering the race that even the most disinterested can't ignore and his knowledge of the sport is encyclopaedic.

So when he starts talking cycling, everyone in the sport sits up and takes notice.

"Caleb reminds me of Robbie McEwan in every way," he said.

"His style is like a panther about to pounce on a rabbit and he looks so good on the bike."

Australian McEwan, aka "Rocket Robbie", was a triple winner of the points classification in the Tour de France and at his peak possibly the fastest sprinter in the world.

McEwan is now part of the SBS commentary team for the race, along with Tomalaris and Matthew Keenan.

Tomalaris also feels that Ewan's marriage last year and becoming a father for the first time have further grounded the talented sprinter.

"Now Caleb has free rein," Tomalaris said.

"This time out he will look to be in the mix for the first maillot jaune (yellow jersey) on stage one in Brussels."

Ewan decided to take an early exit from the Giro d'Italia in May on a high note after securing two stage wins in order to adequately prepare for the Tour de France.

It was the right decision as Lotto-Soudal confirmed he was in the squad, on June 25.

 

Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan. Picture: Peter Ristevski
Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan. Picture: Peter Ristevski

 

Ewan himself is simply aiming to get off to a flyer in tonight's opening stage - flat 194km opener around the Flemish countryside in Belgium.

It will mark the 50th anniversary of Brussels native Eddie Mercx's first overall Tour victory.

"I'm relaxed now but come Saturday morning I will be nervous," Ewan told reporters this week.

"I'm just excited to experience what the race is like.

"It's a massive motivation for me that it (the first stage) is in Brussels.

"Obviously it's never going to start in Australia so the next best thing would be to start in the home country of your team and it's pretty special my first stage is this one.

"If there was any stage I would pick to win this year, it would be this one, because it means the yellow jersey too.

"I would say it wasn't ideal that my wife gave birth in between the Giro and now, but I think I've managed it quite well and I'm pretty much in my top shape, although maybe I haven't been able to rest as much as I would have liked."

 

 

Tomalaris says Ewan is experienced in playing mind games to psyche out an opponent.

His cycling career started when he was 10, and in 2010 he became the Junior National Road Race Champion - taking out multiple disciplines at the Junior National Track Championships.

A year later he became omnium world champion at the Junior Track World Championships.

Now Tomalaris is hoping Ewan's natural talent, impressive work ethic and steely determination will speak for themselves - and show his former team just what they have missed.

"Fingers crossed for him at the Tour to shut people up and to send a message to Green Edge/Mitchelton-Scott for keeping him on a leash all these years," Tomalaris said.

And with four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome an early scratching after suffering fractures on a recon ride at the Criterium du Dauphine last month - and three of last year's top four to miss this year's edition - Tomalaris thinks this Tour could be one of the most interesting races we have seen in years.

"The field for overall honours now Froome (Ineos) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) are out is wide open," he said.

"It will be a fresh race, exciting and unpredictable and the most open field for at least a decade."

Tomalaris said Tour director Christian Prudhomme had again blended a judicious mix of tradition and innovation on this year's routes, making all 21 stages essential viewing.

"The 2019 Tour will have many hills and climbs as well as good blend of sprints," he said.

"Traditionally there are many long stages, which are endurance tests for riders and the viewers.

"It's a global TV event so he is mixing it up to make it interesting for viewers and competitors."