Ewan helps Lotto Soudal to recover from disastrous start to the Tour

SISTERON, France (Reuters) - Lotto Soudal recovered from a nightmare start to the Tour de France when their pocket-size sprinter Caleb Ewan finessed his way to victory in the third stage on Monday.

Cycling - Tour de France - Stage 3 - Nice to Sisteron - France - August 31, 2020. Lotto Soudal rider Caleb Ewan of Australia celebrates with teammate Steff Cras of Belgium after winning the stage. Pool via REUTERS/Vincent Kalut

The Australian hit 69 kph as he slalomed through his rivals, riding dangerously close to the barrier before whizzing around Sam Bennett for a career fourth stage win.

“It’s always nice for the whole team, we have a win and we can relax a bit and it’s when there’s a more relaxed atmosphere that you perform the best,” Ewan told a news conference.

Lotto Soudal came close to not even starting the Tour as four staff members were sent home after a mechanic and a caretaker tested positive for coronavirus.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) had just relaxed the rules on potential exclusions from the event, ruling that two riders or more testing positive within a seven-day period would lead to the whole outfit being sent packing.

But the French health authorities early on Saturday toughened the stance, reverting the rule to its original form -- should two members of the team, staffers included, test positive for coronavirus, the outfit would be excluded from the race.

The rule was not retroactive, however, and the Belgian team were allowed to start in Nice on Saturday, but it was not the end of their misfortunes.

Former Paris-Roubaix champion John Degenkolb was eliminated after finishing the rain-hit, crash-marred opening stage outside the time limit and former world champion Philippe Gilbert abandoned with a broken kneecap.

That day, Ewan had been tipped to win the stage and take the first yellow jersey but nothing went according to plan for the Australian.

“It was a pretty terrible start for the team,” he said.

“We came here to win stages and get the yellow jersey in the first stage and we lost two riders. The morale was down after losing two good riders, Phil and John having a lot of experience.”

Ewan should have a chance to add to his four stage wins, and further boost the team’s morale, at the end of Friday’s seventh stage which is expected to be decided in a bunch sprint.

Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Clare Fallon