NEW ORLEANS — Orica-GreenEdge sport director Matt White set a simple target for Australian Caleb Ewan last year: five wins. The 21-year-old won 11, including a stage at the Vuelta a España in August. Ewan had plenty of time to savor those victories during an extended off-season break at his European base, Monaco, following his September Vuelta performance, before returning to action earlier this month to capture three of four stages at the 2016 Mitchelton Wines Bay Classic — a race he won overall for the third time in four years.
Two days later, the young sprinter was once again on top of the podium, this time to receive gold after winning the Australian elite men’s criterium championship in Ballarat, Victoria.
“I didn’t know if I was going to feel a bit rusty,” Ewan told VeloNews after the victory. “I’ve never had this long off racing before, but the only thing I was really worried about was my intensity, and that’s still pretty good, and I’m really happy how things are going.”
Last year’s Australian road race silver medalist and 2014 under-23 winner didn’t fare as well in the elite men’s national road race championships Sunday, joining 112 other riders who did not finish the race, which was won by Jack Bobridge (Trek-Segafredo) after an epic 90-kilometer solo break.
— Caleb Ewan (@CalebEwan) January 11, 2016
But with the UCI WorldTour kicking off at the Santos Tour Down Under in Adelaide Tuesday, Ewan will not have to wait until 2017 for another shot at a win on home soil. Aside from the People’s Choice Classic criterium on Sunday, stages 1 and 6 could play to Ewan’s favor and help the New South Wales native double his WorldTour win count from last year.
Sprint favorite Marcel Kittel (Etixx – Quick-Step), who won the People’s Choice Classic the past two years, will not be in attendance and neither will fellow German, 16-time stage winner, and two-time overall TDU champ André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal).
However, last year’s stage 6 winner, Wouter Wippert of Cannondale, will prove a threat, as will former Tinkoff-Saxo sprinter Marko Kump, who makes his return to the WorldTour with Lampre-Merida. Fellow Australian and Mark Cavendish lead-out specialist Mark Renshaw (Dimension Data) will also be in contention.
“I’m actually really excited for the Tour Down Under,” said Ewan. “I did it a couple years ago with UniSA-Australia, and it was a really good atmosphere to be in, and the crowds are really good.
“Having a home crowd as well makes it a lot more enjoyable for us Aussies racing,” he continued. “Being the only WorldTour team in Australia is really cool; doing it with them this time and with such a super-strong team — it should be pretty good.”
Joining Ewan for the six-day stage race are teammates Michael Albasini, Daryl Impey, and fellow Aussies Michael Hepburn, Mathew Hayman, and three-time race winner Simon Gerrans.
With Orica-GreenEdge’s sprint train now bolstered by 27-year-old 2014 Giro d’Italia stage winner Luka Mezgec, who played a key role in the success of Kittel and John Degenkolb at Giant-Alpecin, the team is expecting more WorldTour wins and another grand tour stage win this year. “I’m really excited to have Luka Mezgec coming in this year, and it will be good having him as he has a lot of experience with sprint trains after having been a lead-out for Kittel and Degenkolb,” said Ewan. “We also have Alex Edmondson who has lead me out a couple times already, and he’s been great. I’ve been working with Mitch Docker a fair bit as well, which is good.”
White told VeloNews in November that he still feels five is the magic number for Ewan, but that the quality of those results will need to be raised.
“For Caleb, I think a pretty realistic goal will be five WorldTour wins and a stage in a grand tour,” said White of the 2014 U23 road worlds silver medalist. “This year  he had one WorldTour win, and it was a stage in the Vuelta, and that was a very impressive one.
“This year it was clearly about development and getting him confident in the sprint group around him because U23 sprinting is very, very different to WorldTour sprinting.
“There were some races like Tour of Korea where he cleaned up, which he should have, but it was the harder races like Poland and Spain that really opened his eyes and will make him a more successful rider in 2016.”
A “stronger” more “mature” Ewan is unfazed by the team’s loftier goals and told VeloNews his own personal expectations exceed that of the team. “I think I probably have higher expectations than Matty [White] anyway, so it’s nothing new or anything like that,” admitted Ewan, who has set his sights on a “stage or two” at the Giro d’Italia in May. “I want to achieve that anyway, so it’s not like I have any added pressure placed on me, so it doesn’t really affect me to be honest.
“The reality is that I’m stepping up in my races and doing more WorldTour races this year,” he continued. “I think I just have to lift more than I had to last year, but I’ve got a full season under my belt now, and I’m a bit stronger and obviously a bit more mature, so I think this season will be pretty good.”
Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews