Observations of the experiences (RIDE #57)
Midway through the 2012 season, Australia’s most successful sprinter retired from racing and took up a new position as a consultant for the Orica-GreenEdge team. We discuss the Tour de France, the Olympics and life after racing.
[NOTE: This Q&A with Robbie McEwen was published in RIDE #57. During the proofing process, one comma was added to the second last paragraph which shunted the paragraph down a line... and, thus, the final line of the interview is missing from the printed issue. Several readers have pointed out this error. To make amends, here is the complete interview. We don't want our customers to miss out on any part of the magazine we make.]
Robbie McEwen Q&A (RIDE #57)
RIDE: What you think of the Tour and how it went for the team that you’re now ‘working for’ rather than ‘riding with’.
Robbie McEwen: “I think Orica-GreenEdge rode a very solid and good Tour de France. The riders were active and I believe they had an impact on the race. Obviously we went in hoping for a stage win and we would have called our Tour a complete success if we’d achieved that. We wanted to have a crack at the green jersey with Matt Goss and looked at guys like Simon Gerrans and Michael Albasini to possibly slip into a break and try and get some share of the successes on offer.
“We can’t call it a complete success but the fact that we got a team together and made it to the start is already a victory. For a first-year team with a number of guys who haven’t got a hell of a lot of experience riding together – and a group that had never been a true sprint lead-out team especially compared with, for example, the guys from Lotto-Belisol – I think our guys did a really good job. With a few little adjustments and a bit more experience then they’re ready to take the next step up.
“Gossie was very good. He arrived at the start in great form. I think the really encouraging thing for him is that he beat the other sprinters – Cavendish, Greipel and Sagan – in head-to-head contests, and on pure speed, in intermediate sprints. Now he has to get that together for a finish.
“As for the green jersey, Gossie was a true contender until that disqualification in stage 12. I thought he was hard done by. He obviously did come off his line a little but I didn’t think it was enough to warrant being disqualified. I would have found it harsh – but possibly acceptable – if they had just swapped the places of Sagan and Goss; we could have lived with that and moved forward. But a DQ and points penalty just doesn’t add up. What I really didn’t get is that they gave him 13 points for finishing seventh [in Annonay, on the day David Millar won] – so they put him to last in his group but then penalised him 30 points on top of that. I can’t comprehend the decision.
“They had no opportunity to be flexible; what may be considered a commonsense decision is not an option for the commissaires because they have to follow the rules to the letter. Still, I didn’t agree with the decision. I think it ruined what was a really good competition.
“Sagan was my favourite for the green jersey going into the Tour – judging on the form he showed in the Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse. He was going to be the man to beat, especially in those uphill finishes like in Seraing and Boulogne. The way he can get through medium mountains is impressive: he can climb, he can sprint – he can do everything!”
You went to your first Tour as a pretty competent sprinter and it took three years before you got your first stage win. Are you surprised that someone at 22 can do what Sagan did?
“It’s not a surprise especially considering the way he’s come up. He’s been a very good rider from a young age and through all the categories that he’s ridden. He used to win everything and he’s still doing that. The word was, ‘This is going to be a kid who’ll march straight into the pros and be very good.’ And it proved to be so. It’s not like he’s come out of nowhere. He’s been very good throughout his whole cycling life.
“It’s impressive to see someone so young have that much talent and that much power and also be able to keep such a cool head. I suppose it’s easy to be cool when you feel that strong. He had everyone’s measure – and he did on those uphill finishes. And he could more than hold his own in the flat sprints.
“We were concentrating on ourselves and the improvements we can make. Over the weeks that followed the Tour, I did quite a bit of analysis on the video and what went down in the finals; how different guys rode, things they did well, little mistakes that they made, things we could change and improve on… we want to put all that together and make it useful for the boys and hopefully it’ll allow us to take the next step up.”
What do you imagine you’ll say; what can be done to improve?
“It’s a matter of getting the guys to work smoothly together and building experience so the more they can ride together in races, the better it will be. Apart from that it’s little things, at some crucial moments when a very minor mistake is made it just snowballs. If you get out of position at a certain point, you’ve really got to fight to get back. If you’re riding in a train of six guys a little error in first becomes a big one for the sixth.
“We need to think about how we can modify and how they approach their jobs. For Gossie himself, it’s a case of looking at everything and figuring out the best way for him to win sprints. He can start doing that by reminding himself how he won the intermediates, how he lost a couple of finishes, and why that happened. We’ve got to look for small improvements. That’s what has to be done at this level: look at what you did well and try to do it better, consider what you didn’t do so well and improve it as quickly as possible. I can’t go into the specifics but I’ve got quite a few ideas for each guy in the lead-out.
“Obviously every race is different, every finish will have its own little idiosyncrasies, but we’ll try to get a system in place that the guys are confident with. It’s mostly about executing a plan. First we’ve got to come up with a plan that we think will work and there are a lot of factors that can influence it.”
You had a rival in Erik Zabel who was consistent and fast. He won a lot but Mark Cavendish does seem to be a step above everyone else. You’ve got to try and devise a plan in reaction to a guy who seems, clearly, to be the fastest man in the world.
“He is the fastest sprinter and we’ve seen this year – even without a fully dedicated team – he was emphatic. Once he had Bradley Wiggins and Edvald Boasson Hagen leading him out, he was very hard to beat and he seemed to get better towards the end of the Tour. I found that surprising because I thought he may have started to experience a bit of fatigue after finishing the Giro and then riding the whole Tour. But he’s very resilient and he’s not the world champion for nothing.
“Coming up with a way to beat him involves a lot. First we’ve got to find out where he’s going to ride in the next year or two – whether he stays with Sky or not. We hear the rumours…”
But we don’t trade off rumours. What do you imagine he’ll do?
“If I was Cav, I would be looking to go elsewhere. If you’re the best sprinter in the world – the world champion – and your bread-and-butter race is the Tour de France, then you want to have your own dedicated team; you don’t want to be in a team that’s focused on the yellow jersey. He got to go along in, sort of, a peace-keeping selection. But I think a guy like him deserves to have a full team around him.
“I hear the rumours just like everyone else and he’s being strongly linked with Omega Pharma-Quickstep.”
How do you think he’d cope with Patrick Lefévère? You’ve ridden for a few different managers, including him. What’s the culture like there? Would it suit Cav?
“It would because, like I wrote about in my book, if Lefévère wants you in his team then he’ll do absolutely everything to make it a good situation for you. Also a very important link there is Brian Holm, he was very close with Cav at Highroad. A number of riders there were also at Highroad including Tony Martin who always did a great job as part of the lead-out for Cav. Remember, a couple of years ago he led him almost all the way to the line from about six kilometres out when there was a small climb right in the finale. It was really impressive.
“I’ve heard that Tom Boonen is also quite keen to have him in the team. He doesn’t actually like riding the Tour de France but he’s had to a few times. He’d be quite happy to have a top sprinter in the team who he can help to lead out now and then, but Tom’s focused on the cobbled Classics and that makes sense – he won all of them this year. He’d be happy not to go to the Tour so it seems like a pretty good fit.
“If the rumours are true then there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of a transfer like that. But you never know until it happens. It might not work out.”
Let’s talk about the Olympics. It seemed like a great road race with a winner who not everyone wanted… what’s your take?
“I thought it was a fantastic race to watch, especially in the final. It all seemed to be going to plan – the Sky plan, the GB plan… but they maybe got a little bit complacent in the end about their plan going so smoothly until those extra guys – the second group – jumped away and joined the first bunch. With a group that’s so big, it’s hard for them to work together and get to the finish. But the cooperation, particularly between the Swiss and the Spanish, was really impressive.
“With five-man teams, so in the case of GB four working for Cav, plus a little bit of help from Bernhard Eisel who wasn’t really riding on the front – he was just amongst the five guys – it was too much. It’s too hard to control a 250km race and they found that out at the end. It doesn’t matter if your team includes Wiggins and Froome and Millar, when some of the best riders in the world get up the road and work together then you’re not going to pull them back after you’ve been sitting on the front already for 200km. And that was the case.
“From an Australian point of view, I think Stuey O’Grady rode an absolutely fantastic race. He got up the road, got in the break, got them organised and had them working well, and he was still there at the pointy end of the race. The only thing I was a bit surprised at – I was hoping either Gerrans or Mick Rogers could make the second split, make the counter-attacking move or be in that group that went across in the final, that would have been even better. Or even Gossie…
“There was criticism from Cav that the Aussies didn’t do anything. Well, they had a guy in the front and he came out of the Tour going extremely well . They had confidence in Stuey to get a good result if the break stayed away. They had no reason to get on the front and chase their team-mate down.
“Goss was the leader but you’ve got to look at the race circumstances. I think all the boys were more than happy to allow Stuey to have a shot at the end. The doubters say, ‘Oh, but he was never going to win…’, but nobody knows that.”
We see a different Australian cycling fan now: they are more educated about the finer details. You were out amongst it, talking to a lot of the fans. What’s your appraisal?
“People know a lot more about what they’re watching. They’re not just going to the Tour de France by coincidence, ‘Oh yeah, we’re in Europe and the Tour is on… are there any Aussies in it?’ A lot more people are specifically going for the race, they follow cycling and they watch other events. Part of the growth, I think, is the success of the riders on the international stage but also that people can follow European cycling a lot better on TV here now. You can watch so many races now and the appetite is being satisfied and, as a result, the fans are getting much more knowledgeable about a lot of other riders and races. They’re getting across for the Tour and really know what they’re looking at, who they like and who they don’t like.
“The Aussie cycling fan is more astute. But they’ve still got a little way to go, especially the ones who are doing stupid things. They maybe think it’s good fun to boo Mick and Richie because they’re riding for a Pommy team but they’ve taken it too far. When you’re putting yourself through all that sort of pain every day, doing the job that you’ve signed a contract to do, then you don’t want to be booed. It’s not fair.”
How difficult was it to watch the Tour – and not do it yourself after all these years?
“It wasn’t difficult. The question I was asked the most in July was, ‘Do you miss it?’ I was like, ‘Nah, not really.’ I still get an adrenaline rush when I watch the sprints but that’s probably because I’ve been there and scouting the course for GreenEdge; I’ve had some input and I want to see the boys do well. But actually ‘missing’ racing it, not really.
“I’ve done so many of them and I’ve been lucky enough to get this opportunity with GreenEdge that I could join the team as a rider, compete until the moment when I said, ‘Okay, I want to stop now and I want to do it this way’, and then move on with the team and become a consultant. I could go to the Tour and because I had a certain amount of control over how I finished my career and what I’ve moved on to, I’m totally comfortable. I don’t sit around going, ‘Oh, I wish I was in the race.’”
You’ve planned it well so you can do it that way. If you just pulled the pin because of injury it’d be entirely different.
“Yes. Then I would have been devastated. If I’d had to stop because I broke my leg in 2009, even though I’d already had the peak of my career, I still would have felt unfulfilled because that’s not how you want to stop. I also didn’t have to stop after winning a Tour stage or a World Cup race, I just wanted to stop while I was still having fun and enjoying racing and that’s the way it went for me and it’s been good.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold
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