He is one of the greatest sprinters ever to come out of Australia and Robbie McEwen continues his involvement in the cycling community years after retiring from racing. He is a fine commentator who will be calling the Classics in the coming weeks for SBS and, of course, he continues to ride.
Last weekend, like many Australians, he woke up early to watch the broadcast of Milan-San Remo. He may have been watching from afar but his analysis is still first-class even when done from the other side of the world.
We caught up with McEwen to get his thoughts on the race won by Arnaud Démare on Saturday.
– Photos: Graham Watson
Click the Soundcloud file to listen to his comments and/or read the transcript below.
RIDE: I’m talking with Robbie McEwen and it’s a few days actually after Milan-San Remo but it’s a race he knows very well. He’s always got a very analytical eye and I thought I’d get his thoughts on Arnaud Démare’s win. Are you pleased with the champion? It’s good for French cycling, isn’t it?
Robbie McEwen: “Oh, it’s definitely good for French cycling and for Démare too… at the time I thought, ‘Ah, it’s a good win…’
“I maybe didn’t expect him – he wasn’t one of my favourites. Even when I was watching the last few hundred metres, I still didn’t think he was going to be the winner.
“Okay, there was all that stuff that was said afterwards by a couple of the Italian blokes who reckon he was holding a car but when you look at the available Strava data and his times nothing seems out of the ordinary.
“But I wasn’t there so I’ve got to take it on face value and he did a great ride.
“Even to come back from where he was – and it’s pretty normal to come back through the convoy of cars, and get a sit… his speed across the top of the Cipressa was nothing out of the ordinary because the top of the Cipressa is actually flat.
“You get behind a car up there like a couple of others did coming back [from an accident] through the convoy, you’re going to go 55km/h.
“I didn’t think he was going to win until I basically had seen [Fernando] Gaviria crash and then I thought [Nacer] Bouhanni was going to win and then his chain jumped – or slipped. I think it might have slipped down to the small chainring.
“And then I sort of saw Démare coming out of the wheels and then line up Jürgen Roelandts and then I said, ‘Well, there’s your winner…’
“It’s a long, long – a bit of a boring – race punctuated by a few crashes like [Michael] Matthews and [Simon] ‘Clarkey’ but a great crescendo.
“It was really interesting to watch the last part where there were those smaller attacks, favourites having a go, and then good to see a sprint.”
…Bouhanni was obviously expressing a lot of frustration but I thought it was a mechanical. I couldn’t see exactly what happened. You think he dropped the chain, do you?
“Only Bouhanni will know exactly what happened but it seemed like it maybe came off the big chainring down to the small one. I don’t think he dropped his chain completely. I don’t think his chain slipped on the cassette or anything like that.
“I think it was more of a drop down issue.
“That’s really bad luck for him.
“You go 300km without any incident and then finally, when it counts, something goes wrong.
“He’ll be back and hopefully for him he gets another chance in the future. But sometimes an opportunity like that may only come once in your career.
“I really only had, in my career, one day of one event at Milan-San Remo where I thought, ‘I can win this today…’ and then something went wrong 400 metres out and I didn’t win.
“That was the last good crack at it that I got. Hopefully for [Bouhanni] he’ll get another one.”
I think we referenced that last year – it was…?
And who won that year…?
Freire was one of the few ‘smokeys’ back in the day, you’d never really pick him and when he crossed the line with his hands in the air, you’d go, ‘Oh yeah, he’s really good at this sort of thing…’
And Démare was a big shock for commentators but he’s certainly been nipping at the heels for a while hasn’t he?
“He’s a super talent and it’s funny to think he’s only 24 as well. He’s been around for four or five years now but he came straight out of the amateurs and he won the under-23 world title in Denmark (in 2011) and he absolutely sprinted in – he won by not just a couple of metres, he won by tens of metres.
“That sort of earmarked him as a guy who had the potential to go onto something like San Remo and the races he’s won until now have been harder races, small hills, a bit of an uphill drag finishes – stuff like that seems to suit him.
“Yeah, good on him [for winning on Saturday], it’s good to see.
“I’m also happy to see my old mate Jürgen Roelandts make the podium with a third. That was a really good ride.”
He’s had some terrible luck. He broke a vertebrae in Down Under a couple of years ago didn’t he?
“Yeah. He broke his neck at Down Under. He’s had some other accidents and hasn’t had a really lucky run since he won the Belgian title as a neo pro back in 2008.
“It was good to see him up there and it looks like he’ll get another chance as a protected rider in the Tour of Flanders next week. I look forward to seeing more good from him.
“I think it will suit him more when he gets a few more cobbles underneath him as well.”
It seemed like, for Lotto-Soudal, it could have been a [Tony] Gallopin kind of race but Jürgen [Roelandts] came out in the end… was he number one for that team? How did that work?
“I think at Lotto-Soudal they were sharing the leadership between Gallopin and Roelandts.
“Gallopin knew he was not going to win a sprint so he had to attack or go with an attack on the Poggio to have that option covered. And then Roelandts was there for the sprint and that’s exactly how it panned out.
“They rode a very good race. Gallopin did what he had to do and Roelandts backed it up and got a podium result.
“Coming into it, everyone would have been thinking – early on in the season – that they’d rely on [André] Greipel’s strong spring form from last year but obviously he had an accident – he had a crash himself – early on in the season and he broke a rib and is [now] just sort of on the comeback trail. They’ve got some pretty good back-ups without having Greipel at full fitness.”
If we run through the other protagonists, Sky obviously had some cards to play. [Michal] Kwiatowski was one of the only attackers on the Poggio and then we see ‘Swifty’ in the runner-up spot again (note: he was third in 2014, not second)… what do you make of Ben’s progression?
“Swifty is not a pure sprinter but he’s really quite fast. He tends to be a guy who is almost a perennial place-getter.
“He’s not quite fast enough to win big bunch sprints and then doesn’t quite have access to all of his speed after a harder race, so that he can survive – and then somebody beats him.
“I mean he’s got great, solid results: second in San Remo is fantastic but when you get that close you’ve got to be a little bit disappointed you didn’t win.
“It was a great ride nonetheless. It’s good to see his progression.
“We think of Sky being so focussed on stage races and the Tour de France so the rest seems to get washed away a little bit but they’ve got a solid Classics team with him and [Luke] Rowe and [Ian] Stannard. I think it’s a good starting point for them for the Classics season.”
It was quite remarkable to see Stannard doing what he did when he was marking the move on the Cipressa. What do you make of him? When he’s going he’s fantastic – that Het Nieuwsblad from last year was The Race of The Season… maybe.
“Yeah absolutely. He is just such a strong ox of a bloke!
“You look at him and his style is a bit gangly, a bit ungainly, and you wouldn’t think for a moment that he could go uphill. But he’s just got incredible strength and he’s got a really big engine.
“Also he’s just one of those guys who seems to thrive in the cold like we saw a few years ago in Kuurne; he was the last man standing, pretty much, in the freezing conditions.
“When I first met him in Belgium a number of years ago and he was riding for Landbouwkredit, he was tipping 100 kilos. And I thought, ‘This bloke’s kidding himself…’ but he’s gone to Sky and he’s dropped about 23 kilos and – look at that – he’s a bloody good rider!”
You were talking earlier about Cipressa and Poggio. You know these roads really well. Can you just talk a little bit about the dynamic of this year’s race over those two climbs. They are pivotal to the result even if it ended in a sprint.
“I think the climbs weren’t ridden all that aggressively.
“The race seemed more aggressive on the approach to the climbs than on the climbs themselves.
“Anybody who maybe normally would have had an attack in them didn’t quite have it when they got to the climbs; maybe they were a little bit out of position and had to use the first part of the climb to get themselves back towards the front of the bunch – and it took the sting out of their legs to make a decent attack.
“Really only Kwiatkowski was the one who could really make a decent attack on the Poggio.
“On the Cipressa Visconti went off the front, Stannard went with him.
“A lot of people just sort of look at each other up there and make sure they’re at the front for the descent, not necessarily trying to break the race up.
“I think a guy like Vincenzo Nibali, if he wanted to do something, he needed his team-mates making it absolutely as hard as possible but I just don’t think they had the legs to do that.
“[Valerio] Agnoli went to the front on the Cipressa for Astana but the pace wasn’t super high behind him, they were spread all the way across the road. The pace wasn’t really that high which, for me, doesn’t make it that surprising that Arnaud Démare – and also Michael Matthews – were able to make it back into the bunch.
“Matthews made it back onto the back of the bunch.
“Démare was then able, after that, to work his way through it.
“Matthews, if he hadn’t hurt himself in that crash, may have been able to do the same and contest the finish… but obviously he went down pretty hard and hurt himself and he was caught up for a lot longer as well; it took him a lot longer to get his bike untangled and get going.”
* * * * *
…and at that point Robbie received another call and it brought our discussion about Milan-San Remo to an end.
We would talk about the events in Belgium overnight, where many people have been killed and injured in bombings. But we have deliberately not made this part of the discussion.
It has strongly affected McEwen who has lived a big percentage of his life in Flanders and is married to a Belgian woman. “I think there’s no sporting aspect of it.
“The way it will affect life in general and events in Belgium, certainly in the short term, will be significant. Certainly security at any public event will be incredibly tight,” said McEwen in summary.
“I couldn’t count the number of times I flew in and out of Zaventem airport in Brussels,” concluded McEwen. “So it all feels pretty close to home.”
Our thoughts are with everyone affected.
– Interview by Rob Arnold