Caleb Ewan is arguably the fastest sprinter in the world, but often that does not matter as his team, Lotto-Soudal, have struggled to consistently deliver Ewan in a good position to win in sprints in the last two years. In the Giro d’Italia stages 3 and 6, Lotto-Soudal used two different tactics for positioning Ewan before the sprint, which we will analyse in this article.
Lotto-Soudal are without Jasper de Buyst at this year’s Giro d’Italia, after a crash in the Tour of Turkey left him injured, a big blow for Lotto as he is typically their last man. Without him, everyone’s role moves one rung forward in the hierarchy, with Selig going from 750 metre man to last man etc. In stage 3 the Lotto-Soudal sprint train for Ewan, which includes Roger Kluge, Michael Schwarzmann and Rudiger Selig, was sitting in the peloton until the 3 kilometre mark.
After 3 km to go they moved up as the peloton split in two parts. In the left side there was the Alpecin-Fenix train, and in the right the Israel Premier-Tech train, but in the middle was nothing. Lotto-Soudal went to the middle and had Ewan behind Groupama-FDJ who were working for Arnaud Demare, whilst Kluge was eating the wind.
As the tempo increased and every sprint team tried to move forward, the Lotto-Soudal train for Ewan completely shattered in two parts, which practically meant game over for Ewan’s chances to win as he was deeper in the peloton with just over 60 seconds left in the sprint.
When with 1.5 km to go, the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl train hit the wind and started to go full-gas, Ewan was forced to move deeper in the peloton due to the washing machine effect as many riders surpassed him, trying to get to the front. With 0.9 km to go Ewan was so deep in the peloton that he was nowhere to be seen.
With 500 metres to go it was finally possible to see Ewan, who was far back in the peloton, while his teammate Schwarzmann was working hard to close the gap to the front riders. Rudiger Selig was higher in the peloton than Ewan and Schwarzmann and was looking around, wondering where his teammates were.
Ewan despite the horrible positioning, still finished 8th, trying to overcome as many riders as possible at the right open side of the road. Cavendish won the stage, thanks to a solid Quick-Step lead-out, which was not 100% perfect as Cavendish needed to start to sprint with 300 metres, but his position was way better than Ewan’s and gave him a fighting chance to win the stage.
Compared to the lead-out trains of Groupama-FDJ and Quickstep, Lotto-Soudal do not have the firepower to move up with 2000-15000 metres to go with just three lead-out men and deliver Ewan at 200 metres to go. They do not have de Buyst here and Schwarzmann and Kluge no longer have the ability to move Ewan forwards at Grand Tour level in the last 1500 metres of sprint stages. Most of the time when they try the approach of relying on their own train, they are swarmed late, Ewan is shuffled back and cannot open up his sprint from a competitive position, as shown in Saudi Tour Stage 3.
Israel Premier-tech have suffered from a similar issue for the last few years, first with Greipel and now with Nizzolo, where they adopt a traditional HTC High Road / Quickstep train pacing strategy leading from the front in the last 2000m but without the firepower to actually pull that off successfully.
In stage 6, Lotto-Soudal adopted a different strategy to deliver Ewan in at least a competitive position for his sprint. Kluge was moved to the front much earlier, pulling long before other 3rd last men had begun their work such as Scotson (FDJ) and Ballerini (Quickstep). Here you can see Lotto positioned next to the Quickstep train, with Ewan just in front of Cavendish.
Once Kluge was finished, with 3 km to go Lotto had relinquished control of the front of the peloton and Ewan had slid onto Cavendish’ wheel, with Schwarzmann and Selig both acting as sweepers on either side of Ewan’s back wheel.
The strategy appeared to be that if you yourself do not have the best lead-out in the race, the next best thing is to sit your sprinter on the wheel of the man who does – Cavendish being leadout by Mørkøv. This sounds easy in theory, but other riders also have this idea, many of whom are significantly bigger than Ewan. This is why Selig and Schwarzmann not doing their own lead-out but acting as bodyguards on Ewan’s wheel is essential for this strategy to pay off, and it worked, with Ewan keeping Cavendish’ wheel all the way to the final kilometre of the sprint as Quickstep began their lead-out in earnest.
Were it not for Cimolai obstructing the Quickstep train as they moved up Cavendish, the stowaway Caleb Ewan probably would have won this stage, as Mørkøv had to regather momentum when moving past Demare with 500 metres to go.
Nonetheless it was an almost perfect position for Ewan, being delivered by Cavendish with clean air in front of him after Quick-Step once again finished their lead-out too early. Ewan easily surpassed him but unfortunately had Demare in his wheel.
It came down to a bike throw, with Demare benefitting from the draft (albeit small) of Ewan and a resurgence of form, nailing the Australian with in the last few metres to win by a slim margin.
Despite the loss, Lotto-Soudal should be much happier with the result of the sprint today as compared to stage 3. They adopted the best possible tactic, executed it well by positioning Ewan behind a strong lead-out and gave Ewan a chance to compete for victory. If they can repeat the process of this stage 6 in the remaining sprint stages at this year’s Giro, then Ewan will surely not come away empty handed.