Let’s take another minute to celebrate the brilliant performances of Richie Porte and Caleb Ewan at last week’s Tour Down Under. The pair picked off all six stages and took home the ochre and red jerseys respectively. Porte was the master of the hilly terrain choosing moments to attack with rehearsed precision. The Tasmanian’s well-versed in tactical warfare but his victories were reduced to simple displays of strength and power. On Stage 2’s Paracombe climb few thought the short uphill finale would suit the diesel-like Porte but he ended up completing the 2km climb with a 19 second advantage. Ewan experienced similar dominance in the bunch sprints. Orica would take him to within striking distance before the diminutive sprinter would transform into his unique shape and motor clear of his rivals. The two were, without doubt, a class apart in the first race of the season. But have they both just taken their biggest wins of 2017? Is the only way down?
Another element of similarity between the two Australians was the presence of a quality rival beaten into second place. Porte had Esteban Chaves – arguably the most impressive GC rider of 2016 – whilst Ewan had World Champion Peter Sagan.
Porte and Chaves barely met last year with the Tour-centric Porte undertaking a more traditional schedule than his Colombian junior. When they did meet (at the Volta Catalunya) Chaves appeared to ride at half-effort and finished a distant 48th. A showdown between Porte and Chaves should have been an evenly matched contest but this wasn’t to be. Not in January, not in Adelaide and certainly not on Willunga Hill. Porte had levels of form, experience and focus that Chaves simply couldn’t match. The next time they meet (which could be in 2018 depending on their choice of spring stage races) things will be much different.
The same can be said of Ewan and Sagan. They’ll come a time – perhaps Milan-San Remo or the Tour – when Sagan will pose a much greater threat. The World Champion transitioned from Sam Bennett’s leadout man, to sprinter, to Jay McCarthy’s domestique and then back to sprinter over the course of the week in what was a very muddled debut for Bora-Hansgrohe. He actually looked to be getting closer to Ewan and deserves credit for readily beating the race’s next best sprinters including Sky’s Danny Van Poppel.
I’m not looking to dismiss the performances of the dangerous Australian duo but January could prove to be their most fruitful month of the year.
Ewan burst to four World Tour victories by January 22nd. Last year he took three all year, just one coming after the Tour Down Under. The last time we saw him he was struggling to contend at the Eneco Tour finishing 14th in a bunch sprint on the wide roads of Ardooie. Ironically, that day saw Sagan and Van Poppel take the top two spots; the riders Ewan has beaten comfortably all week.
We are left wondering how great a role superior conditioning played in Ewan’s total domination of Australian roads. There’s no doubt he has seriously lofty potential but his four victories have left me more curious than ever. I want to see him up against the powerful European sprinters as soon as possible. The big Germans are, in many ways, the anti-Ewans. They are bunch sprint ‘bullies’ with frightening power and straight-line speed. Mark Cavendish has championed the small sprinter for so long now; is the 22-year old Ewan ready to take over?
And what about Porte? What does his January peak suggest for the upcoming season? I predicted he wouldn’t go full gas for the Tour Down Under naively ignoring what three near-misses can do to a pro cyclist. We saw in 2015 the effect of an overly-aggressive early season. Porte went hard at the Tour Down Under, Algarve, Paris-Nice, Catalunya and Trentino. His only memorable performance after leaving the Giro d’Italia early was when helping Chris Froome to distance Quintana on La Pierre-Saint-Martin.
Last year Porte relaxed through February before beginning to establish his summer form at Paris-Nice (arguably his favourite race after the Tour Down Under). Porte’s 31 now and needs to make the 2017 season the best of his career. The sum total of his season must be far greater than the destruction of a sleepy peloton on Willunga Hill. I’m not being harsh on Porte; he will be the first to admit that bigger targets lie ahead. The sight of Porte sprinting up Willunga Hill has been one of my favourite moments of each of the past three seasons. He, like Ewan, has a recognisable style when out of the saddle. He is never as tall as Alberto Contador, instead leaning further forwards with a steely expression. The whole thing is fantastic to watch. It isn’t, however, comparable to racing Froome across the Alps.
A handful of last year’s Tour de France faces will travel to the Giro this year and Porte will start a podium favourite in July. He is unlikely to wear the yellow jersey but a competitive podium spot would constitute success. He must make sure the modest Willunga Hill is not the high point of his season. There’s plenty of work to be done.