Memories of Green Part 2
Early this year Bicycling Australia visited Robbie McEwen at his home on the Gold Coast and in our last issue we featured an exclusive interview with Robbie McEwen as he prepared to hang up his shoes at the end of the Tour of California. We discussed his early racing in BMX, the track program with Charlie Walsh, his favourite Tour win at Canterbury and what the future holds with Team Orica-GreenEdge.
In this, the final instalment, we’ll begin with his years of racing with the AIS road squad, cover the Green Jersey glory and finish with what the future holds for Australia’s most successful racer, Robbie McEwen.
Being thrown off the AIS track squad by Charlie Walsh was perhaps a very good thing for Robbie McEwen. Particularly as Charlie told him that he didn’t have what it takes to become a top level cyclist. How fast can you say the words ‘red rag to a bull’? That year, 1993, McEwen went out and won 25 races, including the sprint competition of the Commonwealth Bank Classic. It’s hard to explain to younger riders now just how important the Commonwealth Bank Classic was to Australian cycling. The year McEwen won the sprint classification, Jan Ullrich won the overall. It was a race that propelled many an Aussie career and had worldwide prominence. In this case the sprint result found Robbie back in Canberra with a scholarship to the AIS, this time on the road under Heiko Salzwedel. It would turn out to be a very successful arrangement for Robbie, as it was for other Aussie riders, including Stuart O’Grady. After some successful races in Asia it was time to head to the home of cycling; Europe.
Nowadays many Australian riders get their first taste of riding in Europe based in Varese, just north of Milan. If they’re in a Continental team instead of the AIS squad, they might base in Oudenaarde in Belgium and once turning pro it’s often then to the sunny skies of Monaco. There was none of this for the AIS guys in the early 1990s. Instead, they were based in the old East German city of Cottbus. Still, the level of support seemed amazing compared to what they had before.
“The road program came in in ‘91. That’s when guys started to get support. I mean they began to get their air tickets paid for. And I was like, wow! That was a pretty big deal, because previously I had to pay for my own ticket to Europe. It was big. Training camps and all the facilities at the institute of sport. That support was there right from the start of the program, although it must be said the team was still running on a shoestring.
We were all over the place but most of the time at Cottbus. My first year we stayed in Austria near Innsbruck because the Olympic committee had a chalet for the winter Olympic team’s use but in the summer it was empty so we could use it. And we spent some time, about a month, down in Spain. Wherever we could get a spot that was cheap and they could save money on the budget.
That said, we were supported and we as riders never could have done it on our own money. We had to rough it, but it made a difference. But by today’s standards it was rough. Like when we had to drive back from the Worlds in Sicily with six of us and all our luggage in a Volkswagen Caravelle. And someone spewed in it after the first hour of driving with another 18 hours to go! There was me, Henk, Nick Gates, Kelvin Martin, Damien McGonnell, Brett Dennis and someone else. Oh dear! (Laughing.)
And there was the time I wrote about where I got injured in the Olympia’s Tour. I crashed and injured myself. We had no race support in the way it’s thought of now and Dave McKenzie and I had to leave the race and ride across Holland for somewhere to stay and get treated. Holland isn’t very big, but we didn’t really know where we were going. We had an address and just had to find it and I remember it took just about all day, riding injured to get there.”
In those days, despite the efforts of Phil Anderson, cycling was principally seen as a European sport. Even with the successes of the American 7-Eleven squad this was still the case and Belgium, France, Holland and Italy ruled the roost. In fact, it’s only really in the past few years or so that there has been a regular number of non-European teams in the pro peloton, although there has been a number of individuals right through the 1990s and early 2000s. It makes one wonder what the atmosphere was like. Was it like the Jamaican Bobsled Team?
“In general I think they were fairly impressed because they knew we were a bunch of go-getters and talented riders. We didn’t rock up as the favourites but they knew they had a fight on their hands when we turned up to a race. And we usually had somebody who was going well in the team.
Bicycling Australia: No Cool Runnings type moments?
“No, we never really had that, though I can’t speak for the first couple of years. I know that, say, in 1992 my mate Darren Smith was in the squad and he was doing well, running well on GC and up with the favourites. Patrick Jonker was in that group as well as Grant Rice. They were there and thereabouts, so they were known to the larger amateur cycling powers.
From the first moment I was there I think some of the guys knew me because I rode the Commonwealth Bank Race the year Ullrich won it. I won the sprint jersey even though I didn’t win a stage. And then my very first race in Europe was the Peace Race, part of the amateur World Cup and I went bang, bang, bang, I won three stages. And I also won solo from a breakaway group, and a bunch sprint. We never had that, ‘you shouldn’t be here.’ We were quite respected and when we got invited to the pro-ams we were never embarrassed. We always got a result, either a stage win or someone in an important break or high up on GC. In the Tour of Sweden we were up there, we rode in South Africa but the biggest race was the Tour DuPont against the big pro teams. The first year I think Brett Dennis won the time trial and placed third or fourth overall, which amongst those guys was huge. The best I did at DuPont was third. But I did win an intermediate sprint against Abdoujaparov and wore the jersey until I got sick. So for an amateur team that’s pretty good.”
With these sorts of results it wasn’t long before the pro teams came sniffing around, but Robbie didn’t take the plunge until 1996, deciding to go with Rabobank. If you were to chart a graph of Robbie McEwen’s career it would be peak and then trough, peak and then trough, like an echocardiograph. Signing with Rabobank was certainly a peak and during the three years he raced for them, Robbie won a huge number of races. A knee injury put paid to the early part of 1996 but come March, the form we know had begun to show itself. Robbie went on to win 10 races as a neo pro, something pretty special.
Which makes it all the more bizarre that Rabobank didn’t put the effort in to support him. In the Tour de France during 1997 and 1998 McEwen, mostly riding on his own, failed to win a stage and by 1999 was beginning to get fed up. In hindsight, you wonder how the management at Rabobank could have been so blind to McEwen’s obvious talent. Why sign someone and then not support them?