An unprecedented hiatus from racing due to the coronavirus pandemic hasn't quelled Caleb Ewan's ambition to affirm himself as the best sprinter in the WorldTour. The Australian sprinter will resume racing at Milano-Torino on Wednesday opposite Lotto Soudal teammate Philippe Gilbert as a precursor to Milan-San Remo on Saturday.
La Primavera is the first major objective of Ewan's revised season, which is also set to include the Tour de Wallonie (August 16-19), Tour de France (August 29-September 20) and Giro d'Italia (October 3-25). He hasn't competed since a luckless campaign at Paris-Nice in March, which proceeded a stage win and the points classification at the UAE Tour and two stage wins at the Tour Down Under.
"It's the only Monument that I can win, or the only Monument I have some chance of winning, because the rest are too hard. And it's a goal of mine for my career, really. I'd love to have that on my palmarès when I finish. That's probably the only thing really missing that I'd really like on there as a realistic goal," Ewan told Cyclingnews in a phone interview from Monaco.
The 25-year-old is acutely aware that the 13-day turnaround between the two Grand Tours, which comprise his other primary objectives of this season, is a tall order. Yet, with the Giro offering an enticing smorgasbord that has attracted virtually every marquee sprinter, he remains insistent on competing in both.
"Like last year, the best sprinters in the world were split between the Giro and the Tour, so if I can win at the Giro and I can win at the Tour, then I beat all the best guys," Ewan said. "If I just go to the Tour this year and just win at the Tour, then I didn't beat all the best guys, so I want to try to do both.
"I'm already back to pretty much my best form," he continued. "I think with a few races, by the time the Tour comes, I'll be ready to go again. I'm already pretty confident with my form so far. I'm happy with where I'm at."
Route changes and the postponement of Milan-San Remo from its traditional March time slot are additional variables Ewan has considered in his imminent title bid – more so than his condition or entering the 299km trek on the back of primarily training over racing.
"I'm good at getting ready for racing without racing. I've got a good coach and a good feeling of what I need and don't need – if I need more intensity, or more endurance – before racing," he said.
"My coach, we have [had] a fair few discussions on how we should approach the season now with regards to building up the training to the racing. I can't say that we've nailed it, because I haven't raced yet, so we haven't put it to work yet. But if we go off numbers, then I'm in as good a form as ever. That doesn't always translate to racing but that's all we have to go off, so I hope it does translate to racing. I feel good when I'm riding, and I feel good when I'm doing my efforts, so I'm hoping I'll feel good in racing," he said.
Last Friday, Ewan reconnoitered parts of the revised Milan-San Remo route, which this year will head inland as opposed to hugging the Ligurian coast, following objections from coastal towns accustomed to welcoming the race in early spring, when Italy is quiet, and not the peak summer holiday period.
"Basically, the course doesn't come onto the coast until just before the Cipressa," Ewan said. "Looking at it, it shouldn't make too much of a difference. I didn't see the last climb, the new climb that is there just before the Cipressa. They've taken out the three Capi before the Cipressa, but they've put in one climb, which I think is probably harder than the Capi, but altogether the course before maybe was a little bit harder.
"The other thing we have to battle now is the heat," Ewan continued. "I did a course recon – of the Cipressa and the Poggio [on Friday] – and it was so hot. It was like 35-plus degrees. That also makes it way harder.
"With a new course, at a new time of year, it's going to be pretty strange," he said.
Whether the changes work in Ewan's favour remains to be seen. He finished 29th at the race last year and was second behind Vincenzo Nibali in 2018.
"One thing that doesn't play into my favour is that usually at this time of year around here the wind is coming in from the sea, which means it's going to be a tailwind up the climbs, and that's not what I want," Ewan said.
"I'm hoping for no wind. If there is going to be wind, I hope it's coming from the front, not the back, because when it's tailwind it will be quite hard. A fair few things have to go my way for me to win it. I hope it goes the sprinters' way this year."
Ewan is accustomed to handling pressure, as his unparalleled debut at the Tour de France last year – when he took three stage wins – demonstrated, but he will shoulder the weight of expectation with Gilbert, 38, in Italy.
Asked who else he thought is in shape for the race, the seven-time Grand Tour stage winner offered only one other name.
"Gilbert, my teammate," he said. "It's going to work well, because if the race is too hard for me to get to the finish, then it's perfect for him, but if the race is easy enough that I get to the finish, then it's not hard enough for him.
"San Remo is hard, one way or another. It's either really hard, with tailwind up the climbs, and hard all day, and a select group of guys, like Phil, will get to the finish. Or it will be a bit of an easier day, with headwinds up the climbs, and you'll see 40 or 50 guys get to the finish.
"It takes a little bit of pressure off me that the whole team's focus is not just on me because the weather conditions change my chances," Ewan continued. "If the weather conditions aren't in my favour, then at least we have another option, so it's not so stressful for me."
'I don't enjoy riding for the sake of riding; I enjoy having a goal'
Ewan is a Monaco resident and for a stint was unable to train outdoors during the sovereign city-state's lockdown, which he now sees more as an advantage than not.
"I was a bit worried for a while because in the Netherlands and Belgium, those guys could train, so, you know, I was sitting here in Monaco, trapped in my apartment, and on social media I see guys doing 300km rides and I was like, 'Shit, maybe,'" Ewan said.
"As far as professional life goes, there wasn't much going on. I did a whole bunch of ergo, Zwift kind of stuff, which is quite boring," he added. "I don't enjoy riding my bike for the sake of riding my bike. I enjoy having a goal and working towards a goal, so in that sense it was hard because I had nothing to work towards.
"I knew the season was probably going to restart at some stage, so there was always the motivation that I needed to keep things going, but until there was an actual date or a race that I was going to do, it was hard to work towards something.
"But if I could look at the positive side of it," Ewan countered, "I think the season is going to be much longer than normal. We're going to have a lot more important races on later on in the season, so I think guys in my situation, where we weren't allowed to go out and train, will be better off in the second part of the season."