Friday Feature: Farewell Robbie, the peloton won’t be the same without you

One final race for McEwen (image courtesy of GreenEDGE)

This Sunday, May 20th, Robbie McEwen will end his road racing career on the last stage of the Tour of California, in front of LA’s Staples Center. I, for one, am hoping that he will end it with his arms raised as he wins his final sprint finish. I wonder if he ever imagined that would be where he would retire, one month off 40, when he was growing up in Brisbane, Queensland. I doubt it. But one thing he probably was sure of was that whatever he did, he would be a success.

Sprinters really don’t intrigue me that much but I’ve always had a soft spot for Robbie McEwen. When I first starting watching cycling during the 2004 Tour de France, I had no idea what was going on, but I did know that what Robbie McEwen could do in the last few hundred metres of a race was something special. Just how special, I didn’t realise until I began to learn what sprinting was all about.

Robbie won sprints he shouldn’t even have been contesting – we’ll get to one of the most famous in a minute. He never really worked with a sprint train – not, he says in his autobiography One Way Road, because he didn’t want one, but because the teams that he rode for just never seemed to be able to allocate that kind of firepower for him. So if he wanted to win races, he had to make damn sure he could jump from wheel to wheel and deliver himself to the line. That said, he also acknowledges in his book that, although he might not have had an all-singing, all-dancing sprint train like Cipo, he couldn’t have gotten anywhere near the finish of those races if his teammates hadn’t ridden to shelter him from the wind, helped put him into the right position and generally take care of all that unseen business that happens during a race before it starts to really sharpen up.

Win Win Win

He is one of the most driven winners you have ever met … But the career he has had over such a long period, to keep that drive, that winning mentality to the death – he is still trying to think about winning a stage in the Tour of California. It’s about, ‘win, win, win’.

Matt White, directeur sportif, Orica-GreenEDGE, speaking to WA Today.

Always a canny rider, Robbie started out on BMX bikes, which gave him supreme confidence in his bike-handling skills and strengthened his already fearless nature – of the utmost importance for sneaking through the tiniest gaps on the way to the finish line. In his day, McEwen was one of the most talented sprinters in the peloton and certainly his palmares attests to that. A few of the highlights include:

  • Winning the maillot vert (green jersey) in the Tour de France three times:  2002, 2004 and 2006. He has also worn both the overall leader’s maillot jaune at the Tour (2004) and the maglia rosa at the Giro d’Italia (2005).
  • 12 stage victories in the Tour de France, 12 stages in the Giro d’Italia and 12 stages in the Tour Down Under.
  • Twice Australian road race champion: 2002 and 2005.

This clip is of Robbie’s first Tour de France stage win – on the Champs-Elysees in 1999. [Note: it’s a long clip, you can fast-forward to minute 16 to see his win – but keep watching for Robbie’s ecstatic reaction during his interview – Ed.]

His great rival at the beginning of his career was Erik Zabel – Robbie put an end to his domination of the green jersey in 2002.  Zabel, by that time, had won six green jerseys but never won another after 2002, yet was always there or thereabouts in the years when Robbie won them. As Robbie got the measure of the man and started consistently to beat Zabel, another Australian made the green jersey competition a hard-fought one: Baden Cooke, who took the green jersey in 2003, with Robbie in second and Zabel third. Add to that mix, two big powerful sprinters in Tom Boonen and Thor Hushovd vying for the accolade as well and you really have quite a varied sprinting field – which made it just that much more exciting.This clip shows Robbie winning a stage in the 2006 Tour, with Zabel, Boonen and Hushovd all in the mix as well.

The Canterbury tale

When cycling fans and teammates are asked what victory comes to mind when thinking about Robbie’s sprinting, invariably stage one of the 2007 Tour into Canterbury is repeated over and over again. This was a miraculous stage for Robbie and he devoted the first chapter of his autobiography to it. I remember it clearly: Robbie went down in a crash, no one reckoned he had a chance and then, all of a sudden, he took off his invisibility cloak and won the sprint.

What I did in Canterbury, what my team did, was impossible, a miracle. I felt like the fastest man in the world.

Personality

Robbie’s never been short of a thing to say – either in interviews or on Twitter (he was an early adopter among cyclists and still gives good tweet). And he certainly has a lot to say if he thinks someone is taking liberties, like this young fan who grabbed his bidon from his bike in the 2004 Tour de France.

But, once he retires, Robbie isn’t going to ride into the sunset and live a quiet life. His dream of an Australian national team came true this year with the formation of GreenEDGE (now Orica-GreenEDGE – or GreenEdge&Ham as we like to call it here at VV Towers) and he will be taking on the role of sprinting coach and mentor for the team once the Tour of California ends. Here are his thoughts on his impending retirement, from an interview at this year’s Tour Down Under:

Sprinters come and go – at the moment, we’re in another golden age with Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel, Peter Sagan, Matt Goss and of course Mark Cavendish, but for me, most of the time, a sprint is a sprint is a sprint is a sprint and I can’t get too worked up about it. But in his heyday, Robbie McEwen would have me leaping out of my chair and screaming at the television set, cheering him on to win. Hell, if I were Elvis, I’d probably have shot the TV in my excitement. Just going through all the YouTube footage to select clips for this piece had me riveted to the screen.

Robbie’s style, his speed, his grit, his no-nonsense attitude, his miraculous recoveries … for me, sprinting was its most exciting when McEwen was hiding in the pack. I, for one, will really miss him in the peloton.

2 thoughts on “Friday Feature: Farewell Robbie, the peloton won’t be the same without you

  1. A fitting tribute to one of my all-time favourites. ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ was always one of the best and most unpredictable elements in a bunch sprint, and whenever he won you always knew he had earned it the hard way, without a full team working for him. His keen tactical sense of knowing whose wheels to ride and when and where to make his move was always marvellous to watch.

    Among the current crop, I’d say only Cav comes close to having that level of street-smartness, but thanks to his lad-out trains he doesn’t have to rely on ducking and diving as his stock-in-trade the way Robbie has had to. But the peloton’s loss will be GreenEDGE’s gain – I’m sure his insight and advice wil lhelp Goss and co to many more victories, just as Zabel did for Cav.

    Godspeed, Robbie. We’ll always have Canterbury … 🙂

  2. Sheree says:

    I too saw him win Canterbury and upset the Tom Boonen fan club, who were stading next to me, by saying that while I wanted Tom to win I was quite sure, despite the crash, that Robbie would pop out of the peloton just before the line to take it. Prophetic words indeed and most of those around me were impressed that I’d called it correctly. However, I just knew that Robbie would be hopping mad, and all the more determined to win, because of the fall. Besides, as I know to my cost, you don’t feel the effects of a fall until you stop cycling, you just keep going on pure adreneline.

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