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News for January 23, 2003

McEwen and Gates take five

By Anthony Tan in Adelaide

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Photo: © Tom Balks
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The afternoon before the first stage of the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under, Robbie McEwen reveals a slight change of plans to his preparation that will hopefully enable him to peak for the first of the Spring Classics, Milano-San Remo, while teammate and friend Nick Gates speaks about the adjustment to his new team and an earlier than usual start to the season.

Kicking back in the foyer of the Adelaide Hilton, the official hotel for the TDU riders, guests and media, sat Robbie McEwen and Nick Gates from Lotto-Domo. Sipping hot chocolates (marshmallows included) with their feet up and gelled spiky hairdos, these two men could have been kicking back on the verandah of your typical Aussie Queenslander.

However, these two men are anything but your typical Aussies from Australia's sunshine state. A few hours from now, McEwen and Gates will be sprinting out of street corners in the centre of Adelaide city at speeds hitting 70 kilometres an hour; Robbie doing his best to clock up his first UCI win of the season, Gatesy out to prove his position in the peloton as a former Australian road champion and winner of the Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic, a race Jan Ullrich won in his final year as an amateur.

"People automatically expect me to do as well as I did in 2002," says McEwen. "So I've followed a very similar preparation because it brought me so much success last year; I'll also race an almost identical early season race schedule."

While it's still early days, it was evident at the Australian Championships last week that McEwen didn't quite have the same form as last year. Sure, he was a heavily marked man, but so was O'Grady, the latter going in almost every significant break and still having the energy to outsprint Allan Davis in the end for the coveted title.

Concedes McEwen, "I felt like I was in pursuit the whole time, constantly chasing groups, but also I wasn't strong enough to ride the bunch off my wheel. In the end, I guess I didn't have the legs."

McEwen's former AIS colleague was also not quite one with the bike in Ballarat: "January's an unusually early period for me to start racing - I've never even raced in February before - and realistically I need to race the whole of the month before I get any form," says Gates.

"So I really didn't expect too much." Not surprisingly, his results so far have run in parallel with Gates' expectations.

McEwen later informs me of a premeditated reason why his race preparation is slightly underdone. The reason is a race they call La Primavera Rosa, or Milano-San Remo, the first World Cup race and arguably the most prestigious to win for a pure sprinter.

"Over the summer, I've been doin' the k's, but I haven't concentrated on trying to get into race condition. The plan is for me to peak slightly later, and hopefully the plan will come to fruition by the time I reach Milan-San Remo," reveals McEwen.

Asked if the Australian riders appear to be placing too much emphasis on the Tour and not enough on the Classics, Robbie quickly dismisses the thought. "We've never been dominant in the Classics - Phil Anderson was our last great Classics rider - so we have to concentrate what we're good at, and so far, most of our success has come at the Tour."

"It's hard to concentrate on both the Classics and the Tour," adds Gates. "How many riders do you see do well at both?"

"Though someone like Baden Cooke certainly has the potential to be the next Phil Anderson if he wants to," says McEwen admiringly. "His win last year in Dwars door Vlaanderen, a real hard Classic, was a top win against riders like Museeuw and Van Petegem. We'll see if he develops that way in the next couple of years, or whether he wants to develop in that direction."

Speaking of the next couple of years, McEwen feels that so long as he keeps enjoying the sport and enjoying hurting himself on the bike, the 30 year old doesn't see any reason why he won't have another five or six good seasons ahead of him. Residing in Belgium, the heartland of legendary cycling hardmen like Johan Museeuw and Andrei Tchmil, is constant reminder that for some, life on the bike can get better after 30.

"It's more a case of petering out in the head rather than petering out in the legs," remarks McEwen, a mentality often heard within the cycling corridors of Northern Europe.

Coming back to the present, however, McEwen's slight change of focus doesn't mean he's going to lay down his arms for the Tour Down Under. "It's [winning] always a possibility."

Once a winner, always a winner.

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