A sporting legend who was always ahead of the peleton
The professional career of one of Australia’s greatest cyclists, Robbie McEwen, will come to an end this Sunday afternoon in down town Los Angeles. For the 39 year old Queenslander, stage 8 of the Tour of California will be his last professional race.
When McEwen climbs off his bike after a major race for the last time, he brings to an end the palmeres of one our most illustrious riders.
While McEwen’s race marks the end of an era, another one is starting half way across the world in Italy. There his team-mates on the Orica Green Edge team are competing in the Giro d’Italia, the first Australian team to ever contest one of the three Grand Tours.
McEwen’s career record speaks for itself: over 200 career victories, including 113 professional races; winner of 12 Tour de France and 12 Giro d’Italia stages; the Australian Road Race championship; runner-up in the World Championship, and wearer of both the Maillot Jaune in the Tour and the Maglia Rosa in the Giro.
“I have never been the fastest sprinter in the world,” Robbie wrote in his autobiography, One Way Road. Yet he managed to regularly defeat some of the fastest men on wheels – Mario Cipollini, Allessandro Petacchi, Eric Zabel, Tom Boonen and Thor Hushovd amongst them.
McEwen was often the exception to the practice of teams setting up their sprinters with a fast moving train of riders in the final kilometres of a race. Four or five team riders would pace their sprinter to the front of the field, and then increase the speed to a point that it became difficult, if not impossible, for a rival team to head them.
Other teams would try the same manoeuvre, fighting for space on often-narrow, winding roads in an attempt to launch their sprinter towards the finishing line. One-by-one the domestiques would maintain the high speed until, exhausted, they would pull aside and allow the next rider to push the high pace. Eventually there was just the final lead-out rider left to slingshot the sprinter into a mad charge to the line.
Robbie McEwen would often win major races without the benefit of a team train. He had the uncanny ability to get on the back wheel of another team’s train, or one of the other sprinters, before launching himself into the final hectic metres of an event. McEwen’s bike handling skills, his ability to bump other riders out of the way despite his small stature, and his knack of hiding in the field until the critical final sprint was his hallmark.
Road sprinters also need endurance to drag themselves over the mountain stages and still be in contention at the end of a 200 kilometre race. Often McEwen was just inside the elimination time on the arduous stages over the Alpes and the Pyrenees.
The Australian spent much of his time in Belgium, first racing for the Rabobank team in 1996 before eventually joining Lotto. The fiercely determined Aussie became one of the dominant sprinters on the European circuit over his seven years with Lotto. It was in Belgium also that he met his wife, Angelique.
Perhaps McEwen’s greatest victory was in the first stage of the 2007 Tour de France, which started in London. After crashing with 20 kilometres to ride to the finish in Canterbury, the injured McEwen was paced back to the peleton by his teammates, riding at over 55 kph to catch the field with just 6 kilometres remaining.
Taking the final bend at 70 kph in his customary tight fashion, McEwen grabbed the small break on his rivals that was sufficient to claim victory.
“What I did in Canterbury, what my team did, was impossible, a miracle. I felt like the fastest man in the world,” he said later.
Each summer Robbie returned to Australia, contesting – and usually winning – the Jayco Bay Series, and the Tour Down Under.
His career nearly came to end after a bad crash in the 2009 Tour of Belgium in which he smashed his left leg into a pole. After a long period of rehabilitation, McEwen returned to racing with the Russian Katusha team before joining Lance Armstrong’s Radioshack outfit in 2011. In California, he will conclude his long career in the Orica Green Edge kit, fulfilling a long-held dream to ride for an Australian team.
McEwen’s familiar victory salute after winning a major event will be missed by many cycling followers. His place however, is being rapidly filled by a new generation of Australian riders, as the Green Edge venture illustrates.
The team has had a brilliant start to their first season. They won the team time trial at the opening tour of the season, the Tirreno-Adriatico, before Simon Gerrans claimed the first major one-day race, the 298 kilometre Milano-San Remo.
McEwen’s experience will not be lost to the sport or to Australia as he starts a new phase of his cycling life as a technical coach with Green Edge. If there is a way to squeeze through almost non-existent gaps, Robbie McEwen knows how to do it.
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