Caleb Ewan has become one of the best sprinters in the pro peloton. We hark back to his formative years as a junior racer and remind ourselves of what he was like as a teenager… this interview from December 2011 is part of RIDE’s first feature with Caleb.
– Originally published in 2012 –
Caleb Ewan was one of the first winners in the 2012 season. The junior world champion in the omnium visited the RIDE office at the end of 2011 and explained some background information on him, his cycling and what he expects out of the next few years.
Caleb Ewan Interview
23 December 2011
RIDE: The omnium win at the (junior) world title is a while ago now. Do you remember much of it?
Caleb Ewan: “Yeah, it comes back in flashes. I was pretty disappointed with my flying lap, coming fifth in that. But it was alright because I saw that, out of the top three, we could determine who was going to be marked in the points race. So I made some gains because of that; I think I was leading after the points race. I was second in that. Then I thought I had a good chance of taking the win. The only thing I was really worried about was the pursuit and the elimination.
“You do one thing wrong in the elimination and you could be gone… but I got second in that and so I was still leading [the combined] and was pleased with that.
“I’m not that great at pursuiting. My fastest 3,000m time is 3:21 – but that was on a quick track in Sydney last Summer. I haven’t gone that quick again.
“I got third in the pursuit round of the omnium at the worlds which meant that all I had to do in the scratch race was mark whoever was close to me. I had a lead of about eight points on the next best so it was a fair gap.
“We let six guys go up the track because they weren’t any threat to us. Then I won the bunch kick so I gained points on my rivals. In the kilo, I came fifth. I finished with a lead of about five points.”
The omnium can be confusing. It’s a difficult event to cover because you’re trying to take in the whole atmosphere of the championships and then in the midst of it all is a broken-down event with six competitions and, effectively, a general classification that decides the winner.
“Yeah, I understand what you mean. To break it down, this is what it is… There’s the flying lap. A full pursuit (ie. 4,000m) but it used to be 2,000m or 3,000m in the omnium. The ‘kilo’. And they’ve added the elimination which is about 50 laps long… but there are always some guys who refuse to concede and even if they’ve been eliminated they want to keep going.
“So we find that we’re rolling around with a yellow flag being shown to neutralise the race for ages. It ends up being much longer than 50 laps and it’s probably one of the harder races because it’s on the whole time. And then there’s the points race and scratch race.
“Yeah, it’s pretty stressful though. If you screw up one event it’s pretty much all over.”
The IOC took the madison out of the Olympics and justified it by saying “it was too confusing” to follow. How do you think people will cope watching the Olympics and trying to understand the omnium?
“Well, if they find the madison confusing to watch they’ll find this more so. I don’t think people will understand that not each race is the actual race. It’s all towards the one medal at the end. Then you often get the guys who are leading just marking each other and letting others get away. And it means that usually the best guys are sitting back in the scratch race or points race and doing nothing. So I can imagine people watching and saying, ‘Oh, why are they doing that?’ I think it’ll be weird.”
It is possible to make a confident young man blush: ask him to pose with a bicep flex…
Photo: RIDE Media
Did you start riding on the road or track?
“My first ever race was on the track on a mountain bike. It was up in Bowral on a banked concrete velodrome. It’s a 333 metre track. I was just about to turn 10 when I did that.
“Dad used to be a cyclist when he was younger, like in his teens and then he gave it up to go in the army. Then, about seven or eight years ago, he started up again for fitness.
“I’ve always been interested in cycling but once he started again it was the encouragement I needed to get into it. I eventually got a road bike and went from there.”
How important has Rod McGee [who owns and runs a bike shop in Bowral with two of the three other McGee brothers, Brad and Craig] been in what you do?
“I haven’t known him the whole time I’ve been riding because I’m not sure if he’s always lived in Bowral. But ever since those guys started with the bike shop, they’ve been helping me the whole time. It’s a great family.”
Is that how you met Jean-François Quenet?
“Yeah. Earlier this year, when I knew I couldn’t make the [national] road team I really wanted to go over to Europe and race on the road. As soon as I found out that they wouldn’t let the first year juniors do both road and track I asked Brad if there was any racing I could do over there. He connected me with ‘Jeff’ and it went from there.
“He helped me find the right races to do in Europe, and I could have a place to stay in Angers in France. It’s good to be there but I can’t speak French yet. I’ll start up my lessons again soon. I didn’t really pick up much, only the little things.”
I spoke with Cam Meyer after the madison nationals and he was saying that you were one of the few guys who could take on Glenn O’Shea in the sprints. And he was saying, ‘He goes well for a 16-year-old’… but how old are you?
“I’m 17 now and will be 18 in July.”
When Caleb first visited the RIDE office (in December 2011) he was fresh off a crash in a criterium at Heffron Park, thus the bandages on his elbows.
Do you think you’ll try to make a career out of cycling?
“Yeah, I’m going to try and go pro and if it doesn’t work out then I’ll see what else I can do. But it’s full-gas trying to make a career out of racing at the moment.”
What level did you get to at school?
“I got through about half of year 11. And then, because I was travelling all the time, it was just getting too much. When I was away for competition I’d always fall behind in the work and then it was a case of always trying to catch up and I wasn’t taking that much in really.
“Then, once I’d caught up again, I’d go and race somewhere and be away from school for a while. It was catch-up the whole time. I’m now doing a business course that I can do by correspondence. I can take it where I go and fit it around my cycling. I’m also studying Italian and learning some French.”
What are you going to do on the road? Are you a sprinter or do you want to go to Valkenburg later this year hoping to climb into another rainbow jersey?
“At the moment, in Australian cycling, I’m considered a good climber but I don’t know how I’ll compare with others in the future. I think I’ll probably be more of a road sprinter but right now I can get over the climbs alright.”
How was it racing in France? Did you win at all?
“I picked up one win. I was over there originally for the junior Commonwealth Games so I peaked for the world championships and then came back home for 10 days and then went back over to Europe. Then I won the [road race at the] junior Commonwealth Games. I crashed on the first lap, got back on and pretty much got into a break straight after that. We were away for a lot of the race and there was seven or eight of us and I won the sprint out of that selection.
“It was pretty big. There were about seven sports and Australia had nearly 300 people… or around that but it seemed like a pretty big deal. It was just like you’d expect: a little Commonwealth Games. Not many people know about it but it was my first big international road race. I had been overseas and raced a bit but that was in the under-17s.”
What do you like more – the road or the track? If a pro career could take you off on either option, what would you take?
“Road, for sure. Both are exciting but I find the road more compelling. Track seems to be very repetitive – the same sort of thing happens in the races and not that much can go wrong. In a road race lots of different things can happen.”
It’s great to get on the boards and ride a fixed gear bike. It ought to be something people should do every now and again just to remind themselves of what it’s like. It’s easy to commentate, but with the appreciation of the skill required to do something it offers a chance to understand it more…
“I think track is very important. That’s why I’m still doing quite a bit of it now. It’s good to keep my speed up for the road sprints. They both compliment each other but I think the more I ride, the more I’ll lean towards the road.”
How tall are you and what is your race weight?
“My weight doesn’t change much but when I’m racing it’s about 59 or 60kg. I haven’t really ever been heavier than 63…
“I’m only 166cm tall.”
How is it riding against guys who are, ah… a bit bigger than you?
“It’s a good experience. When I raced the Bay Crits last year it was my first time against the big guys and it was an experience. I’d get to the front and then just get pushed back… further and further until it was obvious that I had to sprint to move forward again. You see the pros at the back and then, somehow, in the next minute they can be at the front. If you try to do the same thing it just doesn’t happen.”
When they move forward are they shouting or talking or demanding some space? How do you think they manage to get up front so quickly?
“Usually just by speeding up through the bunch, maybe they push a few people out of the way… but they know what to do.
“Trying to defend my place on CJ’s wheel at the Cronulla criterium [in December 2011] was an experience. I had people coming in and trying to squeeze me off the wheel. That happened a few times but I managed to get back on. I really wanted to just hold it and see how I’d go against him in a sprint. I knew if I went from too far back then I would never be in with an opportunity for the win.”
It was Richie Lang giving you some grief wasn’t it?
“Yeah. And he’s quite a bit bigger than me. It doesn’t bother me. I love the argie-bargie of racing. If everyone just let you sit there and you didn’t have to do anything to hold a wheel then it’s just boring. The way it is, it’s more exciting.”
I saw you going out in the wind, losing CJ Sutton’s wheel, getting back on… if you had the perfect lead up to that sprint, how do you think you’d have gone?
“Well, I don’t know. It was early for him and he wasn’t in peak form but he’s going to be quick. He had a lot easier ride than what I did. He was on Graeme Brown’s wheel and no one was going to challenge him for it. And that makes a difference.”
The national omnium was contested independently from the track nationals. Tell me about it…
“I got second to Tirian McManus. I was going okay on the first day but had a shocker in the pursuit. I don’t know what happened. It was seven seconds slower than my time last year. I was sick leading up to it but I don’t know if that affected it but normally I’d never do that badly. It was pretty disappointing.
“I brought it back so that there was just one point between us at the ‘kilo’ but he beat me in that. The fastest until Tirian and I went off was a 1:05.8 and I knew we both could beat that. My best is around 1:04… I knew Tirian would be quicker than that.
“It was a shame to lose that because it was my first race in the world champion’s colours. I didn’t have it organised for the state or the Oceania championships.
“A week before the nationals, we had the states and I was going well in that: I won every event against Tirian but I had a horrible time in the pursuit.”
That was in the juniors, but you raced the senior madison didn’t you?
“Yeah, I did it with Jackson Law. He’s got about 20 kilos on me. I get a massive sling when we do interchanges. We’ve been doing madisons together for ages now – a year and a half – so we’re used to it.”
What’s it like being thrown in by someone who is quite a bit larger than you?
“I don’t know the exact speeds that we get up to. I probably come in at 28-30km/h and he’s probably going at about 55 and he can easily sling me up to 60km/h. I get a pretty good launch off him. Out of all the madisons I’ve done, Jackson the one partner I’m most used to riding with. It doesn’t feel right doing it with anyone else; if they’re too light it just doesn’t seem like the same sort of race.”
Can you explain the first time that you built up the courage to try a hand-sling on the track?
“The first time I ever did a madison was at training when Gary Sutton was there helping us. We had heaps of guys there and we pretty much did a madison race as training. I went underneath to do the change, then ran into the back of someone. And then crashed.
“It’s always exciting in the madison because you’re always thinking about what to do.
“There’s never a time when you just switch off: for 200 laps you’re always thinking.
“Even when you’re ‘out’ of the race, you’re thinking about when to sling in for a sprint. You have to plan it pretty much from one sprint to the next: you want to know where you’re going to be to throw the partner in. If you don’t get it perfectly, it usually doesn’t work out well. Ideally, you want to come in about one-and-a-quarter lap to go, so you have to plan it up until that point.
“It’s such a shame that it’s out of the Olympics. I reckon they’ve ruined track cycling by taking those events out… even the ‘kilo’, it should be there! And then there’s the points race and the individual pursuit… it’s a real shame. I don’t know what they were thinking.”
What’s your view of the Olympics? Generally teenagers are inspired by that concept…
“The Olympics has never really inspired me that much. I’ve never really thought of it like a really big goal. I think the Tour de France is the biggest thing; I don’t know why… it’s just that the Games don’t really grab me that much.
“Athens was when I first started watching and I remember being transfixed by watching Ryan Bayley in the sprint and keirin.”
Do you have a lot of family support?
“Yeah, I still ride with my dad when I can and he’s been great. My parent have been behind my cycling 100 per cent. I’ve also got a brother and a sister but they don’t really get into cycling too much; my brother used to race – he started a year after me but he’s stopped already.”
How important is it that you’ve got guys like the Law brother, Scott and Jackson, and guys like Alex Carver coming through the ranks with you?
“Scott Carver was my first madison partner. We won state titles together as first- and second-year juniors. But then he quit to go and study. We were best friends but we went in opposite directions. He quit cycling to study, and I quit school to do cycling. We keep in contact, he was a big influence on me. He lived in Sydney and I lived in Moss Vale – a fair way apart but we trained together a lot.
“When you have a bunch of guys coming through around the same time, every training session feels like a full on race. And because they’re so good it always inspire me to try and beat them. It’s made me so much better than I might have been otherwise. That’s what makes it work.”
We’ve been careful with how we cover the junior world championships. It comes at a key stanza in a person’s life and there are quite a lot of people who have been burned by the success they’ve had at the junior worlds. How do you feel? Now that you’ve got some rainbow stripes of your own, do you think it’s a good or bad thing to have the junior championships?
“I’m not the sort of person who lives off the past when it comes to results. It’s happened now, so it’s time to set new goals – that’s how it is for me. Having won the omnium world title doesn’t affect how I’ll approach the next race. It’s not like I think, ‘I’m the world champion now…’ I’ve got much bigger goals and that was more of a stepping stone. I’d be the same rider now if I’d come 10th instead of first in that race. It’s good to have on the resumé but it doesn’t affect how I’m going to ride in the next race; that’s what some people at a young age may lack – the ability to put things into perspective. They can get lazy after winning a junior world title.
“Cam and Travis Meyer are two riders who I’ve followed from their days as juniors. I’d always heard about how good they were, but they’ve never stopped achieving. They’d win at their club, then win at the nationals, then get a junior world title… and a senior one. That’s the sort of rider I’d like to emulate. The same goes for Leigh Howard.
“I remember watching Leigh race in Sydney on the track; he was under-19 and starting a wheelrace from a handicap of 50 metres and I thought it was amazing. But now that I’ve got up to that level, I’ve realised that I can do something that a rider who has turned pro was able to… that keeps me going.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold