By Martyn Herman
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Australian speedster Caleb Ewan is aiming to start his Tour de France career with a bang and sprint to victory in Saturday’s opening stage which starts and finishes in Brussels.
The 24-year-old joined Belgian outfit Lotto-Soudal as a replacement for German sprint king Andre Greipel who won 11 Tour de France stages for the team.
He has a lot to live up to but Saturday’s flat 194km opener around the Flemish countryside will almost certainly be decided in a bunch sprint in front of the royal palace.
Which is why the man they call the Pocket Rocket cannot wait to reward the faith of a team which has been put together to offer him the chance for stage wins.
“It is a stage that I can win and I know the team and I really want to win the first stage,” he said at the team’s pre-race media conference at the Brussels Expo on Thursday.
The significance of riding for a Belgian team on the 50th anniversary of Brussels native Eddie Mercx’s first overall Tour victory is not lost on Ewan.
“I’m relaxed now but come Saturday morning I will be nervous,” Ewan, who grew up thinking the Tour de France was the only cycle race because that was all Australian TV showed, said. “I’m just excited to experience what the race is like.
“It’s a massive motivation for me that it’s 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.”
With the likes of Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and Nacer Bouhanni not in this year’s Tour, there is even talk of Ewan being a contender for the sprinters’ green jersey.
“I don’t really think about that,” he said. “I just want to win a lot of rides. If I succeed, I might start thinking about it. But for now the goal is to win stages.
“You never really know until we’ve had a few sprints who the top sprinters are going to be.”
Team mate Tim Wellens, who will concentrate on being in breakaways, says helping Ewan will be the priority.
“He is the rider in our team who has the best chance of a stage win,” he said. “So if a mass sprint arrives, we work 200% for him. He looks good and believes in it.”
Ewan, who has stage wins on both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta de Espana, says his preparation has been slightly unusual after becoming a father, but hopes that will not slow him down.
“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,” he said.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Alison Williams)