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?
“Oh well. (Robbie sighs long and hard through his nose and there’s a pause) The leadership of the team was changing just after I signed. Jan Raas wanted me in the team and signed me up. But then there were different directors coming in. It sort of seemed a little bit before cycling became really and truly international. Now it doesn’t matter where you’re from, your team wins. Rabobank were one of those teams that were very nationalistic. It was Dutch and they were very Dutch. They had some internationals, Sorensen who won the Tour of Flanders and they’d work for that person, but I think they’d work more if they were an established star. Whereas I came in as a neo pro and I also never had to go through the ranks the way neo pros traditionally did, struggle for a win and then work your way up. I came in and went Bang! Bang! Bang! And won 10 races or something as a neo. And I was the fastest in the team, but I got the feeling from them that I hadn’t completely earned it. You know, I hadn’t done the time, which is silly on one side, because I had the legs to do it, but also for me it was, despite having been in that position in the National team, I wasn’t accustomed to functioning as the leader. So I don’t know… I wasn’t expected to be a team leader as such, but the sprinter. I wasn’t running things, I wasn’t having input into who would do what, or who would go where. I’d just go where I was sent, even as a second year. And that was improving but there were too many guys trying to establish themselves. There was a group of younger pros all trying to establish themselves, so there was no real hierarchy, everybody was trying to clamber over each other. I think that was part of it.”
The pent up frustration finally let itself out on the last stage of the 1999 Tour de France. We spoke about a Dutch journalist taking McEwen’s words out of context in the previous issue. That journalist printed his piece at the end of the 1999 Tour which had the result of Robbie being berated in front of his team and threatened with not being offered a contract next year. The threat didn’t matter, but the dressing down did. The result was that Robbie won the stage into Paris, his first Tour win and a wonderful way of proving a point.
That win was able to give Robbie a fair bit of bargaining power when it came to signing for the next season, with Farm Frites gaining his signature for 250,000 Euro. In fact one thing I found fascinating in Robbie’s autobiography, One Way Road, was the fact that all through it he tells gives you actual figures of the money he’s earned during his career. It an unusual thing to see and I wondered if he had to think long and hard before deciding to do this?
“Well I thought about it and I thought, should I or shouldn’t I? But when I was coming to decide what’s going to be in it, I looked at it from another perspective and I thought, what are the questions you’d like to ask a professional rider that you know you shouldn’t ask them? That was one of them. What are the details, what do people want to know that no one ever tells them? Even in life if someone asks you what do you earn, you say, ‘None of your f*** business!’ (Laughs). But people do really want to know. And I suppose I didn’t hesitate that long about it because it had once been on the front page of the Belgian newspaper! (Laughs
again). And I think at that time it was on cyclingnews or something because they used to get newspapers and translate stuff. It was on there, showing the wages of myself, Peter van Petergem, Rick Verbrugge and maybe someone else. With a picture, our name and our salary. Someone got their hands on something, so what do you say? Just, yeah it was.
But I think also, it wasn’t a case of doing it to show off, and I probably didn’t put it into words, I can’t remember, but it wasn’t to go, hey, look at me, this is what I earn. But to put it into perspective compared to tennis, golf, soccer and basketball. Compared to American sport, we raced for chicken feed. Sure it is a lot of money, but in comparison to these other sports that some do less effort, probably a lot do less and they’re paid 10-20-50 times as much as what cyclists get just to hit a ball or something. Because they’re in sports that have a big following, big sponsorship dollars, money from television rights which cycling doesn’t. All these other sports have a union and they get together and say, ‘If you don’t give us a slice of the pie then we won’t play and you’ve got no sport. Stick it.’ In cycling, in our sport, there’s no flow-on to the teams. That’s why you see teams fold, riders can’t make ends meet and have to stop and get a job. Like cricket was in the 1960s before World Series Cricket.
We’d be better off getting together as teams and forming a union and forcing the hands of people like ASO and saying we want a bit of this. People aren’t watching it for the name ‘Tour de France’. If you put a bunch of crap riders in there, people would soon stop watching. And the UCI are zero help. They’re no help at all and are just interested in lining their coffers from Chinese races.”
Chips and Lotto
The contract Farm Frites turned out to be just as bad as Rabobank. No team support and a disinclination to understand the importance of being fit for the Australian season. If anything, some of the management at Domo were even less willing to listen to their riders, not just Robbie, than Rabobank. For McEwen, it all came to a head when he was left off the 2001 Tour de France team. The more serious fallout was that for 2002 McEwen didn’t have a team to go to. Most rider contracts are signed in July or August. It wasn’t until the end of November that McEwen was offered a contract, this time by the Belgian team, Lotto. And the fee had dropped from 250,000 to 65,000 Euros a year.
“I didn’t want to chuck it in but I thought I was going to be left empty-handed. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do and I thought I might have to bide my time for a year in a shitty team and try to win races. Back to the beginning. But I got a lifeline and I grabbed it with both hands.”
And grab it he did. Joining Lotto resulted in immediate success, with Robbie winning the National Criterium Championships, the National Road Championships and four stages of the Tour Down Under. In that first year he also went to the Tour de France and after a tussle with Erik Zabel, won the first of his three Green Jerseys. Those seven years that McEwen spent with Lotto were really something. Not only did they cover much of the Armstrong and Ullrich era, but there was a ton of excitement in the sprint group. It was the period of Zabel, Cipollini and Pettachi, each rider dominant in their own particular way. Being one of the top riders in that particular group, did McEwen see anyone as a standout? Anyone he respected more than anyone else?
One of my big rivals was Pettachi until he had time out with a knee injury and then the ban. We’re about the same age, maybe he’s a year younger. Also in that time was the tail end of Zabel, and there was Boonen and Husholvd, Oscar Freire a bit, though he had a different style. They were my guys that I battled with.
Greatest respect would probably be ah…I don’t know if one stands out more than others. I had respect for pretty much everyone who could beat me or I had trouble beating.
But non-sprinters, again, not one person above the rest. I think if you asked me I’d say a broad range of guys, not necessarily winners. Maybe I have as much, if not more respect for guys who do the training, do all the hard yards, but never winning and doing it all for someone else. They’ll say it’s their job, that’s what I’m here to do, it’s why I’m a pro and why I have a contract every year. I have respect for guys who have that mentality that they want to give all that for someone else. Those are the guys who help guys like me win races. Winning can be the easy bit. Winning is very easy to motivate yourself for, but that isn’t. It’s much harder to motivate yourself to help someone else. It takes a pretty special person to be able to do it 100%.”
Being a Sprinter
People don’t always see how hard it can be as a sprinter at the grand tours. You have to ride 200-plus kilometres every day and then have enough in the tank to sprint at the finish. Everybody is jostling for that best position and as the team’s designated sprinter you have the added pressure that the slightest mistake can cause you to lose. And in sprinting, not winning is not anything.
But by far the worst days must be the stages in the high mountains. Often there will be an intermediate sprint at the bottom of a 20km climb, or indeed, several 20km climbs. How do you face something like that day after day?
“It’s filthy (laughing). It’s those days when you open the book and you go, ‘you bastards.’ Because there are times when you have sprints at the bottom of the mountains and you then just go straight out the arse of the race. And the rest of the day is just a time trial against the time limit. And the gruppetto doesn’t wait, because they’re also battling the time limit. So you have to decide, ‘am I up for that sprint?’ and if you want the points badly enough then you are. And you make the best of it. And you hope that a little group will slip away just before the sprint.
I remember riding away once from Bourg d’Oissans at the foot of Alpe d’Huez and there was a sprint after about nine kilometres. And we turned and then did the Croix de Fer. And I was like, ‘Oh f*** I don’t want to do this sprint’. And even Zabel didn’t want to do it. And I definitely didn’t want to go head to head, full gas, lactic up to the eyeballs and then up a hill that’s 24km long. And I remember looking at Zabel and I could tell that he didn’t want to go. But you know, you’re at the front of the bunch and your adrenaline is pumping and you’re ready to go and then suddenly choof, three or four guys went off the front and it was like ‘ahhh…sit up. Yes!’
But when that doesn’t happen you’ve got to forget about the mountain in front of you. Because you can’t do a sprint properly thinking I’ve got to save something, or what a struggle the rest of the day is going to be. You’ve got to just focus on the sprint. And once you’ve got the points then think, ‘Oh, shit’.”
BA: They keep putting them there though, don’t they?
“Oh yeah, they keep doing it. They do it on purpose. Oh I don’t mean they deliberately do it to hurt us. But often there’s a town at the foot of the climb and they pay for it to be there. If they put it further back in the middle of nowhere, then nobody’s paying to have it there. That’s part of it and it makes TV. They say it’s ‘part of the challenge. We’re not forcing you to do it. It’s up to you whether you want the points’.”
Lotto, Katusha and Pegasus
McEwen had seven good years with the various incarnations of the Lotto squad. But by 2007 when teammate Cadel Evans finished second behind Alberto Contador, the writing was on the wall for McEwen at Lotto. He had been gradually receiving less and less support in the sprints as the squad put its resources into supporting Evans. Were Lotto surprised when McEwen indicated he would be leaving for the new Team Katusha?
“I guess the changes within Lotto started late in 2007 because I was out of that Tour injured after winning a stage and Cadel went on to get second. And the focus went from getting Green to ah, we can win the Tour. Which, when you have a rider like Cadel, is fair enough when you think about it. And I wasn’t getting any younger. But I didn’t believe it was the right way to treat someone who had given so much. I think they got complacent about how much I’d won. Someone who was always there for the team during the hard moments and the manager would come and say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’ for winning a race because there was external pressure on the team from the press and the sponsors. And I’d step up and win a big race and you know, take the pressure off.
And at the Tour they had years and years of knowing they could go there and get a stage win and then a Green Jersey and another Green Jersey and then yet another. Then it was sort of like (claps hands), ‘we’ve done that now, let’s go get a Yellow one.’ I don’t think by that stage they were surprised…(Goes quiet). I think they were at the point where they were willing to part. I didn’t ask them to make me an offer, because I was going anyway. They said I could have stayed, but I don’t think it would have been with the same kind of contractual loving and the same opportunities. In 2008 they said, “yes we’ll take you to the Tour, but you’ll be riding completely alone” and the guys who had been riding for me the year before, they weren’t even allowed to ride for me. If I wanted to be out of the wind I had to stay near Cadel.”
BA: That must have been hard to take.
“Yeah, it was frustrating because I knew I was going quite well. Two weeks before I’d won two stages of the Tour de Swiss. I was flying. But getting zero, zero help makes it very hard. And that’s what I was always good at, working on my own but using my resources wisely to get good position, be kept out of the wind and be moved up when I wanted to move up. But now I was having to do it on my own. It makes you too reliant on having a run of luck, getting to the front for free by someone else by mistake, having to go from way too far. It was frustrating and I was disappointed but I realise that at the time it was a unique possibility to win the Tour. They came close and it should have really been a win, but we all know the story.”
BA: And Katusha didn’t quite work out? Why was that?
“Ahhh…well, no. Not when I broke my leg. It started out really well in the first season when I won the crit at the Tour Down Under. It was Bang! Here we are. It was a nice win because it was Lance’s comeback.
BA: I remember when you won that there was only me and one other person out of 600 press to see you at the press conference.
“Everyone would have been hanging around Lance. “How was it? How was it?” He would have had nothing to say about a race like that. (Laughs). And I didn’t turn up, did I? Oh well, I didn’t care. But it was a good start until I broke my leg. I won three races and then…I was pissed off that I didn’t go to the Giro. But that was more to do with the decision of just one director who believed we could win the Team Time Trial and they had to take all the strong time trialists, which we didn’t really have. They ran sixth or eighth or something mid field.
And the second year I was trying to come back and be a bike rider. And maybe in my book I was harsh on Andrei Tchmil, the sports director, because I only said the bad points. He did say to me, take your time, work on your rehab, forget the rest of the season and focus on the next. And that was good, because I kept my contract. They could have been real arseholes and flicked me, but they didn’t and I really appreciated that and to have the time to get through it. I needed another operation in September that year. I came back to Oz to keep working and get physio but I did have to fly to Europe and prove to them that I’d be able to ride in 2010. I had to go to a specialist chosen by them who would assess my knee and say if I would ever race again. Depending on the outcome of that they may have terminated my contract. On the plane I was nervous. I was thinking this could be a guy they’d paid to look at the scan and tell me I was finished. But he said that I wouldn’t play football at an elite level, but I can ride a bike. I said, “I know, but thank you.” (Laughs). So in a way, 2010 was one of the biggest successes with only one win (I think) but it was a huge success because I was back on the bike. I even ran fourth at Tour Down Under overall. I won a stage at the Enecco Tour and I truly believe that had I not fallen twice at the Tour, particularly the first one which made me really crook, I would have won a stage. On that first crash I opened myself up, had a tetanus shot and fever for four days afterwards. I was convinced I would have won a stage that year because I was riding really well coming into it. To me it would have been a signal, like, here we are, 2010 and I’m still winning Tour stages. But it just didn’t go my way. I was so crook and I crashed again when that TV guy jumped in front of me at the finish. That was the hardest Tour. I had to push myself harder than I’d ever done before physically and mentally just to finish it. And that was really frustrating. I was asking why? Why does that have to happen when I’m already on the ropes?
After the final season with Team Katusha, Robbie had indicated that he would retire from professional racing. So it was some surprise that his name was linked with Pegasus Fly V in their failed attempt to be Australia’s first UCI pro team. Much has been written about it and McEwen is understandably reticent on the subject. Well, as reticent as Robbie can be about something.
“Oh you know, I’ve not much to say there. It was all such a farce. It was someone’s dream and it turned into everyone else’s nightmare.”
BA: It looked good for a while.
“Yeah, you’re right. It did. But I guess dog shit wrapped up in Christmas paper looks good until you open it. (Laughs). That may be a good analogy. No, it all looked and sounded great. At one stage I spoke to the prospective American sponsor, someone Gillette, the sun of George Jnr, the boss of Gillette and it seemed like it was all go. And it just fell apart as quickly as it came together. And Chris White kept pushing on, giving false hope when he should have pulled the plug. Whether telling everybody six weeks earlier would have made any difference, I don’t know. Probably not. And in the wash up of it all I was very, very lucky to get a lifeline, the second one in my career, this time from Radioshack.”
Snow and Sharks
And so we find ourselves at Orica-GreenEDGE, where Robbie will be taking up a mentoring role with the younger riders in the squad (see Bicycling Australia issue #176). Being based in Australia for a large part of the season will mean he’ll have more time on his hands. Are there any things he wants to achieve now outside of cycling?
“Yeah, there’s things I’m looking forward to doing. Consistently spending more time with my family instead of having to say, ‘Oh I’m just going out to do five hours’ or ‘I’ve got a 900km week so I’m going to be tired and possibly irritable’. Or not having to go away to a stage race for weeks on end.
But one of the things we have planned is to finally take a family ski trip. I’ve never been skiing. I’ve had it in a couple of contracts where it’s been specifically stated, “You will not ski, you will not water ski, you will not ride motocross, you will not bungee jump, rock climb, hang-glide, parachute”, all these things. I even got asked once, “Surfing? Isn’t that dangerous?” and I said “No. If you fall off you fall in the water.” And they said, “What about the sharks”?
Actually, there was an attack opposite our house two weeks ago directly opposite and there’s a kid who lives across the road, a 19 year old. And when I saw in the paper there’s been an attack on a 19 year old at Nobbys Beach and I immediately thought of this one kid, Billy and it turned out to be him. Ten days before the attack I was surfing in exactly that spot and he was next to me. It was like, “Oooooh” (shivers). If there’s one thing I’m frightened of it’s sharks. It would be a terrible way of go. You always have that idea that if it cuts you in half but your head is still conscious as you’re going down the gullet. Ugh! They reckon there’s so much shock you don’t feel it, but no one comes back to tell you. They say that about zebras, but who’s been able to ask one? Stamp your hoof three times if it didn’t hurt!”
And regrets, any regrets?
“No, I don’t do regrets. I just look forward to the next thing. One of the things I get asked a lot is whether I would have won more races if I’d had a big Cipollini or Cavendish style lead out train? You could look at it that I could have won more, less, or the same number. But I would say that I would have won them less impressively. That’s one thing I’m proud of. I’m proud of the way they came. Because often I just won on raw power. Because it doesn’t matter what tactics you use, how clever you are, if you haven’t got the raw power and the speed then you’re not going to win them anyway. But when I was able to combine that top end speed with the tactics that I was able to win races by 10 lengths. And that’s, well, they say it doesn’t matter whether you win by ten lengths or 10 centimetres, a win is a win. But it does feel good to be able to dominate your rivals! And that’s something I’ll always be proud of.