With Wielerrevue during 1997 Tour of Netherlands.

Today, Rob talks to Robbie

Australia's Rising Star

January 2, 1998

While I was away racing for a couple of days, Rob Arnold, former editor of Cycling Australia and now freelance journalist who will be working with me as a guest writer in coming months, took some time out to talk about cycling with Australia's Robbie McEwen. Here is the story that he filed.

The rising number of Australian riders in the Elite peloton has been nothing short of phenomenal in recent years, especially when you consider the relatively low-brow perception of cycling from Australian sport fans. But when you get a chance to watch the progression of riders like Robbie McEwen, it becomes apparent that cycling far more than support and recognition from home: it's a fun thing to do, sure, but most of all cycling is Robbie McEwen's job. From BMX to the Tour de France is a long way to travel, but McEwen's sprinting prowess has seen him rise to the point of being considered a player in the sport's biggest spectacle.

Photo courtesy of Rudie Ottens
In 1997 Robbie became a Tour rider, but as he pointed out the first time I saw him since his return to Australia - just after an interview for Optus Vision's Pedal Power program - the Elite season is so much more than just the Tour. "People tend to forget that you're out there racing for 10 months of the year," was how Robbie put it. "For Australian fans, I can understand that they have such an obsession with the Tour - it's the only event we ride overseas that they can follow in the media. Still, it's frustrating."

When I spoke to him for this interview, Robbie was preparing himself for a return to racing of the past, a local new year's track carnival...

Robbie McEwen: - I'm racing a track carnival tonight. My club, the Gold Coast Cycling Club, is holding their two-day track carnival. So I've pulled the track bike out and dusted off the cob-webs for that and I'll have a go. I'll ride some scratch races, point scores a wheel race and a KEIRIN!

Rob: - That should suit you nicely...

RM: - The keirin won't. Oh, the longer stuff won't be too bad. I'm fit and I'm going all right. I raced a crit at Robina on the Gold Coast - the new year's day Criterium. I was second to Jason Phillips. He stayed away in front of a group. There was a group of four away in the last lap and then he attacked them and we caught the rest of them and I got second. It's hard for me there because there's a team of guys from John's Cycles and they just got together and attacked one after the other and eventually one got away. It's still a good hit-out and part of the training. There's no UCI points so it doesn't really matter does it?

Rob: - How's the kick coming on. Will we see you win a few crits at the Bay Series?

RM: - We'll see. I reckon I can win a couple - I'm going pretty well. The form is all right and I've been training quite hard and doing a lot more on my own. I'm in about the same condition [for the Bay Series] as last year, but at the Bay crits last year I was going well because I came out feeling good after the Perth Crits. I was going strong, but that's normal form now. In the past I would have said, "Yeah, I'm flying!" but now that's the sort of form you have to have before you go away because that's just normal form in Europe: you have to be able to ride like that just to be competitive and you just go up from there. You have to take it to a new level.

Rob: - That must be awkward for you when you're topping everyone in Australia and you have to go overseas and take a step up...

RM: - Oh yeah, but you get there, you do longer racing, longer, harder kilometres and you really try and peak for a couple of races. I go into the early Spring races and I hope to be in good form for those races. Say, Milan-San Remo, I reckon I can get through that race and get over the last couple of climbs in the front and who knows? Erik Zabel won it this year and about 50 guys got the finish for the sprint, so why not?

Rob: - If you had a pick of races you wanted to win, which would top your list?

RM: - I'd say Paris-Tours at the end of the season, it just depends on how I'm going. Then of course, stages in the Tour and any 2.1 race like Tour de Suisse and Four Days of Dunkirk and Tirreno-Adriatico and maybe a few races in Belgium like Gent-Wevelgem and Het Volk. When you're going well, and you're going strong every race is good 'cause you're in the front and you're motivated. It all depends on you're form; whether it's raining and snowing or you've got bright sunshine. If you're motivated and you're riding strongly then everything comes together. Hopefully this season I can avoid a major sickness like last season. I went to a training camp and almost immediately got a stomach virus and was off the bike for about seven or eight days. I went away from Australian in really good conditions, ready for the season then I got sick and took 10 steps backwards. My preparation and my first races were really difficult. So instead of winning them I was like fourth and fourth and fifth and fifth and fourth again... But I didn't win any because I lost that condition and strength through being sick. I lost about four kilograms and I was already pretty lean, but getting sick I just withered away. I had to try and build back up. My racing weight is about 65 kilos (171cm tall).

Rob: - Have you got your new bike yet?

RM: - No. That should be there when I get back [to Belgium]. It should be waiting at home when I get there. I might just get them to take it to the training camp.

Rob: - Where's that?

RM: - The same place we always have it, in Tuscany at a place near Livorno.

Rob: - What actually happens at the training camps? Is it hard-core training or is it a chance to orientate yourself with who you're riding with?

RM: - It's hard training. We go out and get ready to race, so we go out and do race distance rides. We do 200 kilometre training rides and don't hang around - we average about 33-34kph and that's with some pretty hefty hills. We move along pretty well and sometimes we'll do little team races. There'll be a climb and you get points for the win and there are three different teams amongst the one team so everyone has to have a go and see whose little team wins the event. We'll have a hill-climb and a couple of little sprints...

Rob: - Is that like High School football where you just pick your own teams?

RM: - Oh no, you have a director and a doctor sitting in the team car try and put a climber in each team and just try to make it even. It' s like handicapping here.

Rob: - Do you get on well with your team-mates and who do you "hang out" with?

RM: - I get on really well with them all. In particular, Arvis Piziks, who was my room-mate, was one guy I got on really well with. But he's gone to Jack & Jones this year. I have a few good mates in the team. Jans Koerts is a really good bloke and Aart Vierhouten is another one who I get on well with.

Rob: - How's your reputation as the team's sprinter holding up? Is there any competition between, say, you and Max van Heeswijk to get the good races as the team's sprinter?

RM: - Not really. Max hasn't done any sprints this year. He won a stage of the Vuelta, but that wasn't even in a sprint. He went from the last corner with about a kilometre to go and he got a short break and held onto it. His win was more of a power win, not a sprint. Max seems to be a bit scared of the bunch sprints so he doesn't end up doing so many. Normally we're in opposite teams so we don't often to the same races, but when he's there, he doesn't seem to do the sprints.

Rob: - When I spoke to you in Bordeaux, you'd just finished fourth. It was the closest you got to the podium during the Tour and you were nothing but frustrated. You said you thought you could really win a stage. Is a Tour start in the plan this year and what is the different between a fourth and a first?

RM: - The Tour is definitely in my plans and I think it's in the team's plans too. They said "next year when you go back to the Tour", so they've got me heading toward that again. I'll be riding a similar program as I did last year, which is the perfect lead-up to the Tour. I think the main difference for me running fourth or first is having a couple of team-mates there who can really help in the finish. This year it looks like I'll have a few guys there to help me. In 1997 the team was really geared around the climbers and the GC riders and I was left to do my own thing in the sprints, but I think I showed myself well and showed that I can be up there and be competitive and I'm fast enough to win... Our GC guys didn't do the job that they were expected to do so for next year they will have to earn their spots on the team and prove that they are good enough to have a team built around them. I think even then they will put a couple of guys in to help with the sprint finishes. For example Aart Vierhouten and Leon van Bon, they are my two best guys for pulling the sprint. When they've done it, I've won. Like in the Tour of Holland we worked well together twice and I won twice in a row. So I'm expecting that sort of help and I can provide the results then.

Rob: - How do you think the new recruits from Heiko's team, namely Marcel Gono and Jay Sweet, will handle their first year?

RM: - For a rider like Marcel, I think he'll find it tough for the first year. Being a sprinter it's a little easier you can go to an easier race where there aren't so many fast guys, or you can even go where they all are, but you can follow and you do your sprint and there's only so fast you can go on a bike. So sprinting you can come in and be competitive almost right away. But Marcel is the type of rider who is more of a climber and time trialist - especially - and there's a lot of really good time triallers. It's something you've got to develop. You have to develop as a rider and grow in strength and it takes a few years to do that. I think you'll see Marcel coming through in a year or two, but I think he will make it. I think Jay will come up. I think in the first year he will get the attention of a few. I think he'll win a couple of races and get his name straight up there. And a few guys who'll think, "Who's this?" Especially in the French races and with that team, I think they'll provide him with a program that will suit him and they'll take him to races where he can be competitive and not get thrashed around: that's important in your first year - not to get too wasted!

Rob: - He's similar to you in your style and [BMX] background. Has he got a similar sprint to you. Is that something you discuss? The way you get to the front, is one more aggressive than others?

RM: - What I've seen of Jay in the last couple of years, all his wins have been through the [Giant-AIS] boys - the text-book lead-out sort of thing. That's really good because you've got to get used to that coming into the pros because that's how you win. Sometimes in the amateurs you can sit back in the bunch and and move through and do you sprint and win, but in the pros you have to be more organised. I think Jay is ready to go through. It's just a matter of whether his team can work for him the way he needs. And I don't think they can in races other than some French races. Otherwise he may have to work off the bigger teams or just have a worker or two to help him up and save his energy.

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