Caleb Ewan’s management has labelled Lotto-Dstny’s criticism of the Australian sprinter, just hours after he abandoned the Tour de France on Friday, as “staggering” and “disgusting”.
Ewan withdrew from the Tour during stage 13, with Lotto-Dstny later citing fatigue in a short statement.
Speaking to Cyclingnews on Saturday morning, Signature Sport director Jason Bakker said his immediate concern was not about Ewan’s future at Lotto-Dstny, which he is contracted at until the end of 2024, rather his well being, questioning what motivation recently-appointed team CEO Stephane Heulot had in publicly kicking the 29-year-old when he was already down.
“To sink the boots in on somebody, one of your own riders, in that way is very distasteful,” Bakker said from Australia.
“I’m staggered that he would think that airing those comments in a public forum at this time is the right thing to do without speaking to myself, and, as far as I know, Caleb. My focus right now is to see that Caleb is OK."
The 29-year-old rider didn’t speak to media in the teams’ paddock post-race on Friday, but Heulot was quoted by several European press outlets as questioning the character and resolve of the five-time Tour stage winner, who made his race debut with the squad four years ago.
"He knows what the Tour means physically, but mentally he was not in great shape,” Heulot told Sporza. “The Tour confirms the image of what we saw of him this spring and also last year. The first sprints were still satisfactory, the other opportunities were not.
“Caleb wanted to give up yesterday [stage 12], but [teammate] Jasper [de Buyst] supported him. We wanted to see him in Paris. A rider not only has rights, but also obligations. We have the right to ask for a different commitment.”
Bakker decried Heulot’s commentary, adding it was dangerous and did not take into account the challenges Ewan faced in the lead into and during the 110th edition, where his lead-out in the first week was decimated.
"I want to make sure that he is OK, that his mental well being is OK. That doesn’t seem to be something of that much importance to the team, but that’s my focus right now. I’m not thinking about where is he going to ride, what is he going to do, I’m quite concerned for him,” Bakker said.
“Caleb, he’s at a low ebb. I mean, you’ve abandoned the Tour, you’re not feeling great, and then to flippantly talk about his mental wellbeing coming into the race, or his mental approach, at such a time, I think is dangerous. A dangerous path to take for a person in such a role, a general manager role, for anyone, and outdated.
“[It’s] an outdated, insensitive way of commenting about a rider within his team. And a rider who has been there for four years, committed. The last 12-18 months haven’t been the high point of his time there, but he’s certainly had some outstanding results for the team.”
Bakker encouraged Heulot to call him.
“I’m quite disgusted by it to be honest. I look forward to him contacting me and talking through it with us, rather than talking through it publicly with the media,” he said.
Ewan, whose wife is pregnant and expecting their third child soon, was motivated to return to the Tour, having been deprived of his usual diet of WorldTour stage races in the lead-up.
Bakker said Ewan paid his own way to Australia to compete with the national team at the Tour Down Under in January, after Lotto-Dstny opted not to go, having been relegated to the sport’s second tier at the end of 2022. The team also passed on the Giro d’Italia, which Ewan would normally compete in before the Tour.
Ewan asked the squad if he could race the Critérium du Dauphiné, a traditional litmus test for the Tour in June, but the request, he claimed, was denied without a reason.
“It’s probably the only race of the year that I get excited for,” Ewan said of the Tour in the build up to it. “I love the big stage, high pressure, it’s a big event and I like that. I much prefer that than doing smaller races in Belgium, it doesn’t really excite me that much to be honest.”
One team insider told Cyclingnews that someone of Ewan’s calibre should have been at marquee events like the Dauphiné, as opposed to smaller stage races such as the Tour of Belgium, which he entered the Tour on the back of, suggesting the team was pushing back on a lot of his requests.
Asked if there had been any simmering tension between the team and Ewan, Bakker said: “I think there’s probably a feeling they’ve lost some belief in Caleb, or they’re not fully supportive of him, or been backing him.
“I think as an athlete if you don’t feel like you’ve got the support or the belief of your team it’s very hard to perform.”
Ewan at no period within that time publicly criticized the team, and leading into the Tour said he was happy with his preparation, even if he did have a question mark over how he would stack up against the field here, given it was different.
Bakker, in defending his client, noted that two of Ewan’s lead-out men were injured in the first four days of racing at the Tour. De Buyst hurt his wrist in a crash on stage two and did not participate in Ewan’s lead-out the next two days, where he finished third and then second to the in-form Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck).
“I think everyone saw in those first two sprint stages he was the guy who threatened Jasper Philipsen the most,” Bakker said.
“Certainly, without the lead-out that Jasper was getting from [Mathieu] van der Poel, I thought he did a couple of exceptional performances in the sprints. And rather than sort of be encouraged, and excited, and grasp onto that momentum, I don’t think the team, I don’t think that happened.
“I think were was more pressure applied to Caleb because he didn’t get the wins, rather than taking the approach that they were very, very close.”
Jacopo Guanieri then abandoned after fracturing his collarbone in a crash on stage four.
On stage 13 when Ewan exited, Lotto-Dstny had a man in the winning breakaway, a tactic Bakker labelled “interesting”.
“He could have gone to any team. He had a lot of opportunities, and he chose Lotto four years ago, he was exceptional for Lotto in the first few years. It hasn’t gone to plan the last year or two, but it hasn’t been the most stable environment either,” Bakker said.
“They’ve had three changes of management in four years. It was Marc Sergeant, then John Lelangue, then this guy [Heulot]. It hasn’t been overly stable. And then if we look at this Tour … Basically, his leadout is gone in one foul swoop.”
Bakker described Ewan as “much-loved by his teammates and the broader peloton” and defended his work ethic.
“I don’t think anyone would ever say he’s a guy who takes shortcuts or he fluctuates with his training. He’s an incredibly committed guy,” Bakker said. “He’s not a quitter, as has been referred to or suggested. Caleb is a tough guy. He’s come back from some horrific crashes. Some devastating, disappointing losses, a couple of close seconds at Milan-San Remo and what happened to him at the Tour a couple of years ago. But he’s never wavered from the fact he wants to get back to his best. He hasn’t quite got there yet but he’s never gone out and looked to blame anybody or point the finger, such has been done here.
“So, we’ll make sure that he’s OK and wrap our arms around him and show him some love. Then we’ll have to see what happens when the dust settles on all of this.”