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Ewan delivers at People’s Choice Classic criterium

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — OK, so Mark Cavendish wasn’t there, and neither was Marcel Kittel. And, it was only a 50km criterium, but Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge) delivered a palpitating victory Sunday in the People’s Choice Classic to confirm his status as Australia’s best export since Cooper’s beer.

Just 21, Ewan will line up at the WorldTour opener in Tuesday’s first stage at the Santos Tour Down Under as the man to beat in sprint stages. Since his stage win at the 2015 Vuelta a España, Ewan has earned a reputation as Australia’s new hope for sprinting success.

“He’s a good one,” said track gold medalist Scott McGrory, now a TV commentator. “Everyone’s excited to see how far he can go.”

Sunday’s finale provided a sneak preview of what lies in store this week, and beyond. Ewan is hoping to win a stage during the six-stage Tour Down Under as the team also targets the GC with three-time winner Simon Gerrans.

Australian fans are hungry for a new sprint star. Robbie McEwen, by far Australia’s best sprinter ever, retired in 2013. Others have had success, such as Stuart O’Grady, Baden Cooke and Matt Goss, but no Aussie sprinter has dominated the major races in nearly a decade.

Many are hopeful Ewan can develop into a world-class elite sprinter to challenge Cavendish and Kittel in the big kicks, and give Aussie fans something new to cheer about.

Orica-GreenEdge Matt White said Ewan’s win Sunday is the best way to start off the season.

“It’s great for his confidence,” White said. “These are the same guys he will be sprinting against all week, so he’s ticked off that box. He’s already won a few races this year, but this is against a WorldTour field.”

Ewan certainly has the pedigree. The son of a South Korean mother and an Australian father, Ewan showed early cycling talent as a teenaged track racer. He was junior world omnium champion, won stages at the Tour de l’Avenir, and was second at the U23 road world championships.

Already on Orica’s radar, Ewan endured a rough-and-tumble welcome to the big leagues at the 2014 Tour Down Under, which he raced as part of the Uni-SA amateur team. After finishing third in that year’s People’s Choice Criterium, Ewan was infamously barged into the fences when he tried to muscle in on a sprint against the top pros at the Tour Down Under. Ewan admitted that baptism by fire was no easy feat.

“The last time I raced here, I really struggled,” Ewan said. “I might have finished one of the stages in the bunch, but I was the last one. I struggled back then, but now I have one year experience in the pros, so I hopefully I won’t struggle this year.”

Ewan joined Orica-GreenEdge mid-season in 2014, and raced a complete season last year, delivering an impressive 11 wins. His first grand tour victory, which came a at the Vuelta, was against fast men John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) and current world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo).

“He’s got all the qualities to be a great sprint, and he already is,” White said. “The most important thing with a young sprinter is not put them under too much pressure too soon.”

White said he does not want to burn Ewan’s flame too soon, so the youngster will tackle the Giro d’Italia this year instead of racing the Tour de France.

Surprisingly for Australia, where just about everyone has a nickname, Ewan has yet to be given a universal moniker. Some called him “Jet” and others called him, “King Caleb,” but none of the names caught on. Another name making the rounds was the “Bowral Blaster,” taken from his hometown in New South Wales. Time will tell if that title becomes his namesake.

Ewan has all the qualities of a top sprinter. He has an impressive acceleration, which he demonstrated in Sunday’s race to come around Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo). Standing only 5-foot-4, Ewan bundles himself under the handlebars in the most aerodynamic position since Cavendish.

“He’s a real talent, Caleb,” said Mark Renshaw, Cavendish’s teammate at Dimension Data. “I’ve watched him the last few years. He’s got a lot of talent and natural ability. He’s got a similar build to Cavendish, but he climbs better. Maybe he doesn’t have that pure punch that Cav does. He’s got all the makings. Hopefully, they remember how old he is, and hold him back a little bit.”

The only question mark is whether he will be able to hold his position when the high-speed bumping and elbowing for position unfolds in the final charge to the line. Other than that, it looks like a clear shot to glory for Ewan. The Aussies cannot wait.