When Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan dropped out of the Giro d’Italia during the eighth stage because of knee pain, he was immediately slammed by cycling great Eddy Merckx.
“That Caleb Ewan bothers me a lot,” the five-time winner of both the Giro and the Tour de France told Het Nieuwsblad. His dropping out “is a total lack of professionalism and a lack of respect for the Giro and cycling. He deserves a sanction: take away all prizes.”
The criticism turned into a family pile-on when Merckx’s son Axel also rebuked Ewan, saying that “just leaving without real evidence of knee pain – that is a total lack of respect towards the organization.”
Perhaps the Merckxes did not know that Ewan had announced before the Giro that he would not finish the race and that his goal for the season was to win a stage in each of the Grand Tours this year. He had won two stages and was wearing the maglia ciclamino, or purple jersey, as the leader in the points classification when he quit the Giro.
Ewan responded to the criticism by saying that he was “more disappointed than anyone” that he had to leave the race so early, and added: “To the people who think I’ve disrespected the race, I’m sorry you feel that way. If you saw the hard work and dedication I’ve put into my preparation to honour this race and perform at my best I’m sure you wouldn’t think the same. ”
But perhaps Eddy and Alex Merckx were irked by the fact that Ewan decided to quit the race at a point in the stage just before its first real obstacle, a category 2 climb. And maybe (though neither of them specified) they were thinking that successful Grand Tour sprinters must not only be quick enough to win the sprints but also robust and fit enough to survive the mountains and complete the race.
Just a short message on my departure from the giro pic.twitter.com/AwSR8AAN01
— Caleb Ewan (@CalebEwan) May 17, 2021
Is that an old-fashioned belief? After all, many sprinters are these days paid primarily to win Grand Tour stages and are allowed by their teams to drop out of the race when remaining within the time limit becomes unrealistic or too physically demanding.
A case in point is the Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini, who won 12 stages at the Tour de France and three at the Vuelta but never finished either race. He certainly infuriated a lot of cycling purists by dropping out of the Tour before reaching the mountain stages and then releasing photographs showing him lounging on a beach while his fellow racers were struggling up a mountain.
Oddly, however, he was fit enough at the Giro to not only win 42 stages but complete the race at least four times to win its points classification title.
But perhaps Merckx was also not aware of just how high Ewan was aiming this year, for in addition to winning stages at all three Grand Tours, he will also be shooting for the green jersey title at this year’s Tour.
“The Tour offers more options for sprinters this year and that is an opportunity for me,” he told Het Nieuwsblad. “In other years I was not involved in that green battle and I only aimed for stage victories.”
If he does fight for the ŠKODA Green Jersey and finishes the Tour, it will certainly add both drama and challenge to his season and add lustre to his aim of taking stages at all three Grand Tours.
And, more important for fans, it should make this year’s battle for the Tour’s green jersey the most interesting and competitive in years, with Ewan taking on last year’s winner Sam Bennett and the newly in-form seven-time green jersey winner Peter Sagan – who, by the way, won the Giro’s points classification title this year.