Memories of Green: A Tribute to Robbie McEwen
It seems that for as long as I’ve been into cycling, there’s been a Robbie McEwen. I suspect to almost all of us he has become part of the furniture, that cheeky smile and distinctive voice. Now on the eve of his retirement from professional racing, Bicycling Australia travelled to Café Piccolo, McEwen’s café on the Gold Coast, to discuss his career one on one. Such is McEwen’s easygoing personality we came out several hours later with over 10,000 words, a wonderful insight to a wonderful career. Here’s the first part…
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I met Robbie McEwen. I had been editor of Bicycling Australia for exactly 10 days and had been sent to the Tour Down Under to get to know some people.
In for a penny in for a pound they say, so one of the first people I went up to was Robbie McEwen to introduce myself. And with Robbie’s reputation I don’t mind saying that I was a little nervous. So, like Dicky Knee going up to Darryl Summers I said, “G’day Mr McEwen, I’m Simon, the new Bicycling Australia editor”. And while he could have said anything, Robbie shook my hand and said “G’day mate, welcome to the Nut House. Good luck with it.”
Since that day, I’ve admired Robbie not just as a cyclist, but as a genuine person. I’m going to go on the record and say that over the past five years I’ve had nothing but courtesy and friendliness from him. I suspect that this is the same for most people who have had any dealings with Robbie McEwen. Although he does have a reputation as a bit of a mouth, it seems to me that people go looking for it rather than it just happening.
“People often make that assumption,” says McEwen. “If you ask me how I deal with them, well then, I don’t deal with them. If they make assumptions, well whatever. I have had people assume that if they come up and say hello I’m going to punch them in the face or something. I’m not like that at all.
I’ve had all sorts of things written about be, like I’m going to do something violent or bite someone’s head off. I just take it as though they’re taking an easy way out to begin a story. In the media you get labelled very quickly. I’ll readily admit I can be feisty, but it depends what’s going on. And the first time many people see you is just after a race and something might have gone wrong or you might have won and you’ve got a bit of a strut going. But the most common time is when someone asks you a stupid question, and what you really want to say is, “You’re a f*** idiot,” (laughing). That’s what you really want to say, but of course you don’t, so you just give some comment, or something. I’ve used that one though (laughing again). I made someone stop once, I’m trying to remember who it was, it might have been Mike Tomalaris, maybe, or someone else anyway, they said something so stupid that I said, “Stop. That was a really stupid question, do you want to start again?” (Laughs again)
Other times you might be at a press conference that the MC will say, “any questions?” and there’ll be someone who shoots their hand up just to be first and complete drivel comes out of their mouth. I’ve had that a couple of times. So pretty quickly you get labelled as short tempered or whatever. And I can be, but it depends on the situation.
Bicycling Australia: In your book you talked about a couple of journos who really did you a bad turn.
Robbie thinks for a minute before replying, “Mmmm…one Belgian guy and one Dutch. You see, you are what they make you and those guys, they just run away with things because they knew that a nice positive or diplomatic story isn’t going to cut it and they aren’t going to get their column space. So if they haven’t got an angle they’ll make one up. Or if they see a small angle they’ll say well that’s the way it was going and they’ll take the journey for you.”
BA: “It was implied.”
“Yeah, that’s it. That’s their thing. “It was implied”. But when I’m talking about something I always say what I mean. But I don’t go right over to make it something that it’s not. I understand that the people you’re discussing are still my superiors or my bosses or my employers and so being taken out of context, it pisses you off. And that in the end got me less chances in races and it did nearly put me out of a job completely because I became marked. Somehow blackballed. The Dutch guy wanted to write something negative about Patrick Lefevre and used me because as an Australian I was apart from the Dutch local scene. But you know, I never saw that guy again. They have a knack of disappearing. I’ve never seen that Belgian bloke again either.”
McEwen’s early career is very good reading, a catalogue of fantastic successes and huge disappointments. And we’ll examine that a bit further. But his first successes came in the world of BMX. Anyone in their late 30s to mid 40s will remember how dominant BMX was through the 1970s and 80s. There was even a movie with Nicole Kidman! It’s an indicator of how good a cyclist Robbie was to become that he did so well in that discipline; second at the Qld championships at age eight, National Champion in 1988 and sixth at the World championships a year later. But surely Robbie McEwen wasn’t the street smart, Euro-wise café owner he is today. So what was he like back then living in the Brisbane suburbs and what was his BMX regime like?
BA: You once told me your earliest memory was being in the backyard with your brother. What sort of home life did you have? Can you give me a picture of Robbie McEwen during the 70s and 80s?
“Ummm… it’s hard to say. Just your very typical knockabout suburban kid with an older brother and a baby brother.”
BA: Crystal Cylinders T-shirts?
“Yeah, something like that,” he says with a laugh. “Probably the cheapie version, the Best and Less version. Billabong wasn’t known when I was a kid. Yeah, running around the neighbourhood on bikes and skateboards and we didn’t have a swimming pool. So we just spent time getting around on our bikes. Whatever pocket money we had we’d get down to the local shop, buy bubble gum and collect the stickers and the cards. Real typical kids stuff.”
BA: But at eight years of age, how aware are you of what you’ve already achieved?
“I was in awe of going to a national championships. As a little kid it’s massive because when you’re a kid the world ends at Australia’s borders, you know? Or at least it did then, we’re talking early-mid 80s so no internet etc. My first BMX Nationals was 1983 and the last was 1989. It was always massive and the event itself, all those people, so many riders, the No.1 plate up for grabs. It gave me a huge buzz just to be there. That one big event, you’re like, “This is it.” And something I liked about BMX was that if you won the National title, you rode with number 1 for the rest of the year. That was really cool.
Our folks were awesome. They took us around the whole country. Even going to the QLD State Championships was a big deal. Going to QLD State champs was a big deal. In 1985 we went up to Cairns and you know, at age 14 or 15 flying two hours to ride a state title is pretty big. But we always made a real family trip out of it. Nationals were always at Easter and state titles were always in June. My mum and dad didn’t want to spend the weekend sitting at a BMX track and then go home. So we went out to the Barrier Reef, Alice Springs, Uluru, and in Perth we went out to Rottnest Island. We used to stay in a really cool farm place in Tasmania. And so while we were primarily there for the championships we still made the most of any down time. We wanted to have a good time. But you think about it, they had to book in their holidays, organise cars and hotels and in those days domestic flights weren’t as cheap as they are today. They were bloody expensive. So our folks put a hell of a lot into taking us around the country. So without putting too much pressure on us, you know they didn’t say, ‘Oh you better win because this is a big trip,’ but they let us know that we needed to be a little bit serious, not just mucking around. So they said we’d better do some regular training if we wanted to be able to do our best. And we were like ‘Yeah, you beauty!’ We were really into it so Dad wrote up a training program that we followed every day. It was great.”
BA: I guess the thing is that doing that would give you an edge over the rest of the kids who have got talent but not the structure.
“Yeah, well you know what it’s like with kids. You’ve got some that might be bigger and stronger and win without doing anything. Others had talent but did nothing except ride their bikes. I wasn’t one of the bigger, stronger ones and I had talent but I still had to do that bit extra to be up there.”