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.”

Talent appears to be something of an understatement. BMX eventually came to an end for Robbie, but a chance suggestion from best mate Darren Smith saw McEwen head down for a go at Chandler Velodrome. Robbie tells the story about how he won the first sprint of a points race, blew his legs away and was cactus for the rest of the day. But what I wondered was whether he’d actually ridden a fixed wheel bike previously or whether the points race was his first go on a track bike? The answer is yes, it was his first attempt, but he managed it without crashing, like he was already a natural. That talent, and a whole heap of hard work, eventually earned him an AIS scholarship and a place in the cycling program under Charlie Walsh. Charlie has had his critics over the years, something that Robbie talks about in One Way Road and to cut a story short, was told by Walsh that he didn’t have what it took to be a top level cyclist. Yet it can’t be denied that Australian cycling did take a step forward under him. This is something I’ve discussed with several people, including Henk Vogels who was given the same message, and I was interested to hear Robbie’s take.

He considers for a short while before answering; “Well, you know, Henk and I were in a similar situation with Charlie, though Henk was a step further along. He made the team, went away with them but was then left on the sidelines. That’s how they did it in those days. But I think there was a better way to do things. When you think how many guys came out of that program who were very good cyclists, but nobody came out super successfully except for Stuey or Brad McGee. Guys would go through the program for a little bit then swap over to Heiko. There weren’t as many opportunities for Australians on the road in Europe back then. You had to be the very best.

Charlie’s way was to just chuck the eggs at the wall and the four that don’t smash, that’s your team. When Shayne Bannan took over, the guys that didn’t make the squad still had an option beyond that. They didn’t just fall by the wayside. They gave them an option to keep riding the bike, to explore what they’re actual specialty was. Could they become a good time triallist, a good road rider, Omnium or whatever.”

BA: Shayne brought that lifestyle thing in too. How to survive when you first went overseas.

“Well he experienced firsthand how difficult it was when he went to Italy. And also how much easier it is to fit in with a team when you can speak a bit of the language.”

BA: Do you think Charlie delayed the success Australian cycling has achieved?

“To be fair, I think he played a big part in the success. Before his program there was no program, so he advanced it to a certain point. Then it moved on again with a change of structure. Held it back is a bit strong. But there were certainly guys who were involved in the program who could have had a career in cycling rather than just a four year stint as part of the AIS track program then retire from the sport either disillusioned or maybe if they were lucky, a medal. I think they many of them could have done a lot more.”

While on the AIS program, tragedy struck Robbie’s life when he received the news that his best mate and riding buddy, Darren Smith, had been hit by a truck riding home to the Gold Coast from Brisbane. It was something that made the bottom fall out of his world and while he says not so, I get the feeling that it’s something that is still slightly raw.

“I wouldn’t say it’s raw. It’s been 20 years, but at the same time it doesn’t seem that long ago. He was my best mate and he was killed doing something that a lot of us do every day. You could say that about a lot of things, surfing or driving a car. But when it’s something you do yourself then it really hits home in a personal way. He was my best mate, so it’s always there in the back of my mind. But also, he was so good as an amateur he would have been a pro. He would have filled that gap that was missing for a while between Phil Anderson and the Aussie success of the past 10 years. I reckon he would have become a pro two or three years before me and that we would have gone through the pro ranks together. “

BA: Do you think it left a scar or hardened you in some way?

“Yeah, both. It’s hardens you because it’s something you never forget and the experience hardens you to a certain extent, but so that you could go through it again and be stronger through it. I didn’t have individual, ‘this one’s for Darren’ moments, but I had a general ‘Darren’s riding with me’.”

Inevitably, Europe beckoned. A string of wins in races around Australia and the points jersey at the Commonwealth Bank Classic saw Robbie McEwen back at the AIS under Heiko Salzwedal in the Road Program. The group raced in Asia with a lot of success and then headed to Europe. It was the start of big things for Robbie, whether he quite realised just how big, I don’t know. Robbie’s Europe chapter is a big one and I’ll cover it more fully in the next issue. But this being the Tour de France issue I’m going to skip ahead to the first Tour de France stage to Canterbury, Kent in the UK, one of Robbie’s most impressive Tour victories. He opens his autobiography One Way Road with a thrilling description of this stage and I ask him if, after all his career victories, whether this one is his favourite?

“I’d say it’s ‘one of’ my favourites,” he says with surprising animation. “It was so spectacular because it just had a bit of everything. It was a blockbuster! (Laughs). I knew I was going well so knew I was going to win stages at that Tour and I dominated the year before, won three stages and the Green Jersey, so I was all set to go out and do it again. And that particular stage, I’d had it in my head for a long time. The moment I read about that stage it just jumped out of the page at me. From everything I’d read I thought it had my name all over it. A few roundabouts, a bit of a curve, a slight uphill and some blind bends in the final 300 metres. You couldn’t see the finish and all of that sounds like my kind of finish. So I really set my sights on that one stage and I never normally did that. I usually would say, that one, that one, that one and that one and concentrate on them all equally. But that Canterbury stage, there was something about it, that gave an extra focus. So much so that I even had a dream about it. And in the dream I won. Although that said, in the dream I didn’t crash with 20km to go.

But yes it is one of my favourite stages because I impressed myself and also I was super impressed by the team. I know the boys always wanted to work for me and I expected them to always do their job. But that day they went above and beyond, you might say. They all waited, brought me back to the peloton at 60+kph. It was seriously difficult. There were stragglers from the peloton that we picked up as were going on and we just spat them off our wheels.

BA: It must have been a good feeling.

“I wasn’t thinking at the time about that so much. I was thinking ‘this is seriously fast and it’s hurting my legs’. It was only afterwards, much later, that I thought about what a ride it was. As you know, when you get back to the convoy the first guy gets a bit of a slipstream off the team cars, but the riders behind him don’t get that same benefit. You don’t get any advantage from the car because the first guy can go even quicker, so it just ends up hurting you more.

But once I got back to the bunch it was almost trance like. I seemed to be able to ride wherever I wanted. I was picking the gaps like never before. I don’t know if I had total disregard for myself or for everybody else, I just seemed to be in the right place at the right time. I was right when I needed to be right and I was left when I needed to be left. And at the last roundabout I seemed to just ride straight ahead and passed a dozen guys. I was just focussed on always moving forwards and never braking because it wasn’t enough to be in the bunch. I had to be at the front of the bunch.

There were three races really, getting back to the bunch, moving through the bunch and then the final sprint. Once I was back, I clicked back position and I had to forget about what had just happened and concentrate on what I’d been thinking about for all those months. And everybody seemed to play into my hands a bit. Robert Hunter jumped early and everybody kind of accelerated to go with that attack, but I just let myself drift a couple of places and then caught them back again as the acceleration dropped. I started to come by and then I saw my point where the road kinked at the barriers heading into that blind corner and I’d already started when the other guys were thinking about starting. And by the time they did, I’d gone. They never had a chance. I can recall it all and I’ve watched the video a number of times. If I watch it now I still sit there shaking my head and I think ‘geez’. The sprint and the ease that that I got away from everybody makes me say ‘wow!’ Maybe you shouldn’t say ‘wow’ about yourself, but putting it in an outsider’s perspective it really gives an insight into my attitude to racing as well and my attitude on the bike. Things go against you but if you keep going forward and don’t forget what’s happened but think about what’s ahead as well. Never say die. You can always still win.”    

One thing I’ve always wondered is how much of their surroundings do the pros take in when they’re riding the Tour? It’s one thing to notice people or places in smaller races, but at the Tour you need to have 100% concentration all the time. And I wonder with so many more Aussies travelling to France to watch the Tour now, whether the riders get a chance to see them?

“Oh, definitely. You used to see a flag here and there and you could really pick it out. But now you can see more than a hundred of them per stage and pockets of Aussies. Not the one group that you used to see and you’d say, ‘Oh there’s the Aussies that are following the Tour’. Now there’s groups of them everywhere. There’s Tour groups that have a couple of hundred of people in coaches, people doing it themselves. There are so many people around, either up in the mountains or in the middle of nowhere. There’s boxing kangaroos, people dressed as koalas, everything. All of us Australian riders give a wave or say g’day if the moment is right. We all appreciate it and the Aussie fans seem to appreciate it when we do. I mean they’ve made the effort to go all that way and while they like to see the big names they give a special cheer to every Australian rider who goes past and we really appreciate it, especially if we’re struggling. So we try to acknowledge when we can or pull over on our way back to the hotel. It’s a nice feeling.”

Robbie will be at the Tour again this year, but in a different role as a sprint scout for team Orica-GreenEDGE. If you’re travelling to watch the race and see him there you now know that’s it’s OK to go up and say hello. He’ll appreciate it. We’ll have more of our exclusive Robbie McEwen interview in Bicycling Australia September/October issue.

 

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