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The beast uncaged: Robbie McEwen’s best year

It used to be six within the morning when Christophe Sercu’s phone rang. “Walter?” the Lotto-Adecco supervisor wearily queried from his mattress in Belgium to his director sportif Walter Planckaert. “Morning. Robbie obtained this day.”

The same phone name repeated itself two days later. And the day after. Oh, and two days after that. Robbie McEwen’s first week riding in conjunction with his new team had yielded a quartet of victories at the 2002 Tour Down Below in real six phases. “Walter rang me every morning from Australia announcing that he obtained again,” Sercu says. “On every occasion it used to be so very early. So early. Nonetheless he used to be having an impact already.”

Indeed. Sooner than McEwen raced within the crimson of the Belgian team in conjunction with his new teammates, he had already obtained four occasions: twice at the Geelong Bay Crits and in becoming Australian national road and criterium champion. “I hadn’t misplaced within the Lotto jersey sooner than I raced with my new team. I was in crimson sizzling create. I felt so unbelievable,” he recollects. 

Remarkably, real a pair of weeks sooner than his domination in his home country, McEwen used to be on the purpose of exhaust Christmas unemployed, the bottom nadir of a “terrifying” first two years of the new century. No topic winning a pair of occasions in 2000 riding for Farm Frites, the season “used to be a blowout – a disaster for all individuals. Badly managed.” 2001 with Domo-Farm Frites he used to be “handled treasure a second-class citizen” and his administration couldn’t compile him a team for the 2002 season. “I felt treasure I had been blackballed,” he tells Cycling Weekly

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Lotto-Adecco had been his most efficient possibility nevertheless the Belgian team didn’t delight in the monetary muscle of their competitors and must silent most efficient offer him a traditional wage with capture bonuses. “I tried for slouch laborious to convince him that we’d give him the enhance he predominant, that we’d salvage a team round him,” Sercu remembers. “Christophe mentioned he would peep if it used to be possible to establish one thing together,” McEwen recounts. “On Christmas Eve he rang me to tell it used to be on. It used to be a bare bones contract. I had to hit tall wins to salvage the bonuses, nevertheless I was grateful for the mosey.”

Rated this day as one among the most bright sprinters of the 21st century, at the turn of the new millennium he used to be regarded as a rider supposedly at his high who had failed to are living up to lofty expectations. He used to be, at most efficient, a B-class sprinter. A latest-day Nacer Bouhanni, whenever you happen to treasure, minus the punches and aggression.  “I was hellbent on redeeming myself, proving to myself and others what form of rider I was.”

He absolutely finished that. 2002 introduced a entire of 19 legit wins including four in Mountainous Tours, a maiden inexperienced jersey within the Tour de France, and a silver medal within the World Championships.

Australia used to be the precursor to victories, to the formation of team chemistry, of friendships, and of memories. “As a team, we banded together, gelled so speedy. We had an improbable feeling today,” McEwen smiles. “Each day we obtained Down Below we went into Adelaide to drink champagne to celebrate. It wasn’t referring to the ingesting nevertheless it for slouch used to be referring to the bonding. We ate, drank, frolicked together and walked round. It used to be a silent chortle. We had been more treasure a gang than a team. It used to be reasonably a pair of stress-free from the salvage trudge. We had been all in sync and it used to be treasure being in a community of most efficient mates that we by no manner knew we had.”

(Franck Fife/AFP by strategy of Getty Pictures)

Upon flying to Europe at the extinguish of January, McEwen used to be euphoric. “I idea I could well purchase on any individual. It wasn’t real the wins I’d had nevertheless I felt treasure I had found a home.” He topped the everyday classification at the Etoile de Bessèges, because of a stage capture, three seconds and a third. 

He then claimed victory on stage two at Paris-Effective, the first time he’d beaten one among Alessandro Petacchi, Mario Cipollini and Erick Zabel. “It used to be a rising non-public in Belleville and I idea, ‘this has obtained me written in each build it.’ I felt treasure I obtained reasonably without issues that day. It used to be the first tall stage dart capture of the 365 days I idea, ‘Good ample, right here we trudge now. The comfort has been real, nevertheless now things salvage excessive.’” On stage seven in Effective, “I found Petacchi’s wheel, surfed my ability by and beat them all.” The trio of like a flash men begrudgingly welcomed a fourth member to their home of perennial winners.

McEwen had arrived. At Scheldeprijs – the sprinter’s traditional –  he used to be “for slouch assured.” It showed. “I sprinted treasure the 11 other races I’d obtained. It felt so easy, honestly.” Download the dart and click on X to capture: sprinting used to be becoming as easy as pressing turbo-boost on a gamepad. “I real chalked up one other one. ‘Rightio, then, quantity 12’. The counter real saved ticking over.” 

He had earned the belief of his teammates. The biggest one used to be his lead-out man Aart Vierhouten he remembers: “He beat the most bright sprinters on this planet at Scheldeprijs. From then the team used to be convinced of him.” So persuaded had been the team that they gave McEwen entire shield watch over of his agenda. He determined what races he would conclude, when he would high, when he would practice, and when he would relaxation. “There used to be a if truth be told perfect ebb and trudge with the circulate to the season: dart to capture, after which purchase a damage. I had four peaks that season after which recovered.”

His second high used to be the Giro d’Italia. “I had been dominating the sprints except then nevertheless this used to be the Giro v Cipo. I was large motivated.” He used to be third on stage one, barged into the side by his Italian rival. “I knew Cipo had obtained me, nevertheless I told him it wasn’t the closing he’d peep of me.” One other probability of victory on stage three used to be scuppered by a pedal tangling in conjunction with his spokes. “I was burning inside. I needed a true head-to-head dart with Cipo. On stage four I made it determined to all individuals that the most bright particular person getting on Cipo’s wheel within the closing kilometre used to be me.”

His plea used to be met. “With 100m to trudge, I drove for the road and Cipo had by no manner looked so stunned. It used to be a if truth be told perfect lead out for him, over 70mk/h, and he’d obtained beaten. It wasn’t a told you so second, nevertheless I was for slouch excited. I was even a bit excited that I was in a situation to trudge previous him at that sprint.” His status rose additional. “Finally, I had snagged a extremely excessive capture in front of a man regarded as the quickest sprinter on this planet. I had gotten my Mountainous Tour profession heading within the suitable course.”

Cipollini and his Acqua & Sapone team had been enraged, although. On the switch to Italy, Cipollini took exception to the defeat. Vierhouten recollects: “Cipo stood up on the bus, shouted at me in Italian, and I answered in Dutch, making stress-free of him and making him more upset. Robbie mentioned, ‘Aert, presumably greater to pack up and take a seat subsequent to me.’ I agreed, nevertheless on the airplane Cipo began the argument again. He used to be complaining that the dart wasn’t dazzling and I mentioned: ‘Enjoy you forgotten referring to the first dart as soon as you bombarded Robbie into the barrier?’ Any individual translated it to him and he shut up. Our tactics and plans had been working.” McEwen obtained again on stage 10 sooner than doing what many sprinters conclude at the Giro and signing off from the dart. He’d made his point by then, stealing the home and headlines customarily reserved for Cipollini. 

The transformation, he says, owed itself to “a if truth be told perfect storm.” He explains: “I stepped up as a rider and the puny things that can well derail you didn’t happen. I didn’t salvage sick your total season, as an instance.” Greater than deepest success although used to be timing: his age, 29 going on 30 – “I had matured as an athlete” – and the evolution within the wrestle in opposition to doping. “2001 used to be the first time there used to be a true take a look at for EPO. It used to be no coincidence that the next season it used to be positively less complicated to capture races. Races changed into slower. There used to be a smaller pool of cheats and that used to be one among the most bright things for me. I’m now no longer announcing I didn’t capture stuff resulting from us had been cheating, nevertheless it for slouch real obtained less complicated. It used to be a contributing ingredient.”

His team had been unwaveringly committed too – for McEwen, for themselves and for monetary reasons. “We had a tall bonus blueprint,” Vierhouten says. “Robbie didn’t treasure taking the cash, so in a Mountainous Tour stage we’d share between €10,000 and €20,000 between eight of us. That made the team stronger; less complicated to undergo and to battle by effort; less complicated to trudge end gaps sparkling the sprinter used to be there. It made us one among the strongest teams.” 

Even the image that McEwen had to uphold as a sprinter didn’t deter them. “Sprinters are special: they are concerned, selfish, they present off, they’ve good sun shades,” Vierhouten laughs. “You will must settle for that these puny things made Robbie McEwen who he used to be. And I cherished him the ability he used to be.”

(Photo by Lars Ronbog/FrontzoneSport by strategy of Getty Pictures)

Every a hit memoir is on the real side of a sliding doors second where fate pans out when it could perchance per chance well so without issues delight in long gone the unsuitable ability. McEwen had such a second in gradual June, one week sooner than the Tour de France, when his wife, Angelique, used to be motor-pacing him along the River Scheldt in Belgium on her new Vespa. “It used to be a 20km flat, originate portion that used to be for slouch come by, in particular for the time of day we had been out,” McEwen regales.

“I was going 55kmh, so dazzling like a flash, and the next thing I do know she’d tapped the brakes on the Vespa and I was compelled to struggle the handlebars treasure a bull rider making an are trying to place it aside. Fortuitously I did, and I requested her, very calmly and civilly, ‘what the fk are you doing?’ ‘A rabbit ran out throughout the path!’ she mentioned. A rabbit! She requested what she used to be supposed to conclude I mentioned, ‘Trail it over!’ I had seen the the relaxation of my season flash sooner than my eyes. I mentioned, ‘Honey, it’s a rabbit. This can fly staunch into a million pieces. It wouldn’t delight in injure us.’”

Trouble averted and a rabbit saved from a homely fate, McEwen headed to the Tour de France – now no longer having obtained a stage there since his first in 1999. “Folks had been talking about me as a popular for phases and it used to be gasoline on the fire,” he says. The first stage he used to be third, the next second, after which at closing on stage three he triumphed. “Three, two, one – that used to be more treasure it,” he shows. “My aim of your total season used to be to capture one other stage of the Tour. Every little thing used to be going perfectly so I had to.”

Constant excessive placings locked McEwen in a battle for the maillot verde with Erik Zabel – a welcome accident. “I didn’t peep myself as a predominant contender for inexperienced,” he says. Zabel had obtained the earlier six – a file most efficient since surpassed by Peter Sagan. “Nonetheless it real came about. The first half of the Tour changed into a battle with Zabel. He obtained me drawn to it because he used to be racing in opposition to me, treating me as an instantaneous threat. And I idea, ‘well, yeah, I’m for slouch’. Then I raced for it.”

Apart from one stage in between, Zabel wore inexperienced from stage one to stage 13, after which McEwen nudged in front. “I mentioned to the team I needed to trudge for the first intermediate dart most efficient. With the yellow, it’s possible you’ll well quiet down many of the day nevertheless with inexperienced it’s the exact opposite as there are such quite loads of very predominant moments.” The stress used to be palpable. Vierhouten went home with an illness nevertheless remained McEwen’s closest tactical and deepest ally. “I was for slouch analysing it from home and one night I called Robbie and mentioned: ‘That fr Zabel is admittedly aiming for it.’ I was sort of treasure his coach from outside.” The team that remained “had been having a gape after me treasure I was their youngster,” McEwen remembers.

The duo remained locked on a similar quantity of aspects within the final week. “We had been shadowing every other. There used to be reasonably a pair of stress. It most likely tag me a stage or two because I changed into cagey and didn’t must fabricate errors and lose a bunch of aspects.” On stage 18, McEwen moved onto 239, to Zabel’s 238. And then in Paris, wearing inexperienced, he obtained on the Champs-Élysées securing the jersey. “It’s the biggest milestone of my profession. Build a query to any sprinter, wearing inexperienced in Paris is what they most must conclude. Nonetheless the overwhelming emotion used to be one among relief that it used to be over. I was empty.”

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It used to be an in particular poignant victory for Sercu. “My dad, Patrick, had obtained inexperienced and he used to be in Paris to gape Robbie capture it so it used to be extra special for me. Winning in Paris and taking the inexperienced jersey is the biggest of achievements. We’d hoped that Robbie could well be real, and I will’t inform I was stunned by his performances, nevertheless it for slouch used to be more than we anticipated.” McEwen shares the sentiment. “I was pinching myself,” he says. “I didn’t judge it’d be so a hit. ‘Wow, this for slouch couldn’t salvage any greater.’”

After taking a self-prescribed damage in August, McEwen returned in September with a renewed urge for food. He obtained 5 occasions in seven days, including the GC at the Circuit Franco-Belge and a prime Paris-Bruxelles – an iconic dart he would sooner or later capture 5 occasions.  “It changed into my dart; the dart I delight in to silent capture,” he says.

His create used to be unquestionable sooner than the World Championships in Zolder, where he, Cipollini and Zabel shared the favourite keep. McEwen and Zabel, on the different hand, defeated themselves. “Our Tour battle resumed and our dart used to be over after we found ourselves combating every other for Cipo’s wheel. We had been pushing and shoving, and we extinct a heap of vitality in opposition to every other. I tried to conclude one thing, nevertheless I had ridden my dart in opposition to Erik.” McEwen had to settle for a silver medal. “I’m cheerful with it, nevertheless the Worlds is the most bright thing lacking from my palmarès.”

Perhaps so, nevertheless his profession file of 119 triumphs makes him as the 20th most winningest rider within the game’s history to within the interim. 2002 used to be a 365 days that introduced a capture, on reasonable, every 4.5 dart days. “It’s my most efficient 365 days. I had so many firsts: my first capture at the Giro, first time winning sooner than Cipo, my first inexperienced jersey, my first stage at the Tour as a sprinter – nevertheless furthermore the first time I was aggressive in so many races. It used to be a breakout season that gave me so basic self perception. Do you have to’re in that create, you salvage staunch into a mindset where winning feels so apparent. ‘Properly, unnecessary to tell I obtained.’ I felt so assured, all the things used to be going as I needed. I felt sooner than the game.” He’d dwell sooner than the game for the next 5 years.

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