Robbie McEwen Interview
Former yellow jersey wearer and triple winner of the Tour de France’s green jersey sprinters’ competition, Robbie McEwen, talks racing, training and what it takes to be a pro cyclist.
by Marion Pyrlik
I’m sitting at Piccolo’s Cafe at Mermaid Beach on the Gold Coast, in Queensland Australia, overlooking turquoise blue waves crested with a white frothy outline lapping the golden beach, appearing out of a seemingly still and endless ocean. Have I mentioned how good the coffee is yet? What better way to start the day…
The patronage is a mix of surf life savers, local people walking their dogs and holiday makers. But the cyclists are the overwhelming majority. There is a kaleidoscope of colourful bikes and lycra in and around the cafe. Seems that this is one of the number one destinations for cyclists to enjoy a brew and some breakfast to talk about their athletic prowess, on the ride they had just completed. And why not at Piccolo’s, a cafe owned by Australia’s very own Robbie McEwen.
This brings me to the main reason for my visit to Piccolo’s today. I am here with Robbie to chat about his career as a Pro Cyclist. So to say I was a little nervous about meeting one of Australia’s most successful cyclists of all time is understated. Perhaps I’ll order another coffee.
Marion: “Hi Robbie, over 16 years as a Pro Cyclist, travelling back and forth between Australia and Europe must have been difficult. Was this hard being so far away from your family?”
Robbie: “No, most of the time we all lived in Europe and only travelled back to the Gold Coast in the cold Winter months.”
Robbie met his wife Angelique in Brakel, which is a tiny little town in Belgium. This is also where Robbie and his family reside whilst in Europe. The couple have three children: eldest son Ewan and two daughters Elena and Claudia.
Robbie the rock star
I’m just about to ask Robbie another question when from out of nowhere a largish man, shuffling his young son in front of him, moves abruptly toward our table and intervenes:
Tourist: “Robbie McEwen is that you; are you Robbie? We have just come to the Gold Coast from Melbourne for a holiday and couldn’t believe our luck when we saw you across from the other side of the cafe!”
Robbie politely confirms his identity, excuses himself from the interview momentarily and allows the overjoyed father and son a photo and chat.
Robbie: “I just got back from Melbourne myself,” claims Robbie, “I have been in Victoria skiing. Whilst under contract in the team I was not allowed to enjoy past-times such as skiing or surfing for obvious reasons. Now that I’m retired I can participate in other interests such as these.”
Robbie extends some additional time to the son, thanks them for stopping by and as if that didn’t already make their day he discounts the price of a cycling jersey that hangs for sale in the cafe for the excited father and son who make their way back to their table.
Marion: “So how is life now that you’re no longer a Pro Cyclist Robbie?”
Robbie: “Yes, the Tour of California last spring was my last race as a Pro. But I am still a part of Pro Cycling with my involvement with Orica Green Edge” (Orica Green Edge is the Australian based Pro Cycling Team). “My role here is to coach the sprinters and help manage the young riders get life into order whilst touring in Europe. Many young riders can’t even do their taxes in Australia yet; so to manage that in Europe as well as other things people take for granted like opening bank accounts, etc… is a big help. Apart from that I do sometimes race now and again.”
One of the races Robbie was alluding to is the Darren Smith Memorial Classic, which Robbie promotes. This race is held on the Gold Coast every year and is in memory of Robbie’s former training partner who was killed 20 years ago in a tragic cycling accident. Every year since then, there is a charity bike race which draws some of the biggest names in Australian Cycling. We just had the 20 year anniversary last year which saw the Orica Green Edge Team race.
Marion: “So how does a sprinter train? Are there big differences between GC-riders (General Classification contenders) and Green Jersey contenders?”
Robbie: “Generally sprinters do less miles and more quality. They focus on strength and in particular explosive power. In Winter I do strength sessions (workouts in the Gym) three times per week. I have to maintain the strength all year so even in Summer I continue with several three weeks weight training blocks. On the bike I train like any pro, long and slow, intervals on flats and hills. But on top of those rides I also need to do much sprint training. Here I work on explosive power and longer sprints that aim to increase stamina.
Ideally, training in a group can achieve best results as boys are competitive. However, the best way to get into top shape is racing as that’s where you learn to push and shove, defend your place in the peloton, find the right wheel and cross the finish line in first place!”
Marion: “You’re defined as a cunning rider who is skilled at finding tiny gaps through the bunch to get the best run in a sprint.”
Robbie smiles and admits, “I have been riding BMX races since I was 8 years old and have learnt very early to have good control over my bike. From time to time I may have created a gap that may not have been there prior” says Robbie with a cheeky grin on his face.
To put that into perspective allow me to explain what that actually entails. We’re talking about the last crucial kilometers of a bike race where the absolute best Pro Cyclists in the World are riding as fast as they can, attempting to get to the finish line in first place or deliver a team mate into position to do so. In amongst the pushing and shoving, fighting for wheels and general mayhem of a bunch finish, there is Robbie McEwen weaving in and out of riders making his way through the bunch with exceptional skill. Watching this as a spectator looks difficult and believe me, it is more difficult than it looks.
“I also try to surprise my competitors,” continues Robbie. “I didn’t rely on routine such as following the train of my own team. Sometimes I went through with other teams or just made my own way. I have a good sense of where to be in the bunch and what wheel to follow and when to jump it. I can anticipate what will happen.”
Training for the Tour de France
Marion: “Back to the preparation for such big races. How did you prepare for the Tour de France which you participated in 12 times and won the Green Jersey 3 times? Did you for example do many training camps?
Robbie: “Instead of training camps I prefer to do The Giro where we race in two weeks 2,000 hard kilometres. The second week is very mountainous. After the Giro I have a couple of easy weeks, and then I do the Tour of Switzerland. Another short recovery block follows after the Tour of Switzerland, then, just before the Tour de France I include a last short training block.
Marion: “Run me through your training in this crucial last training block, Robbie!”
Robbie: “I do for example 10 days of alternating intensity: One hard day then a recovery day. The hard day could be 180km on the bike, 100km of which is at race pace motor pacing behind a motor bike. By the end of this block I am completely exhausted but it’s a necessary requirement to prepare for what lies ahead.”
A day in the Tour de France
Marion: “Robbie, probably one question every cycling fan asks themself is; how on earth do you guys survive those three weeks of hell on wheels? Please describe a typical day in the Tour for me.”
Robbie: “Well, breakfast is 8am, about three hours prior to the race, so the food is well digested. Me personally I get up just before 8am. Getting up is hell for me. Every morning I ask myself: how can I get my lame limbs out of bed onto the bike today? My breakfast is no different to at home, I mix up my own muesli, bread, coffee and of course Nutella (I love Nutella!), eggs and sometimes pasta.
After brekkie we go straight to the bus. We have a team meeting at the race location, conduct any interviews and then warm up.
Race start is normally around 11am. I stuff pancakes, little pizza pieces, ham and philadelphia cheese rolls and bread rolls with vegemite in my jersey and off I go.”
Now most Australians are all too familiar with vegemite, nowadays most Americans too, but certainly not Europeans. My origins are from Europe; Germany to be precise, and I remember my first experience with Vegemite where I caked it on thickly as if it were Nutella. My Australian friends laughed as I bit into this sour, weird tasting paste that I found absolutely horrible. It is definitely an acquired taste and only requires a small application. I wouldn’t imagine Robbie would have had too many requests from European riders to share his vegemite with them.
Robbie: “Depending on the length of the stage we finish between 4pm and 5pm. When there has been a sprint finish, I do a warm down, but if the race finished on a hill; my intensity is normally so low at the end that I don’t need to warm down.”
Robbie says this with a smile on his face as if to say, I don’t even bother with the climbs other than to meet the obligatory race finish time to be allowed to start the next day …and let me assure you that in itself could not possibly be an easy thing to do despite Robbie’s candid attitude to it.
Robbie: “Shower in the bus, team meeting, drive back to the hotel (most riders are sleeping by then) once back at the hotel there is a rush to be amongst the first to be massaged. Then dinner. I don’t eat overly much, usually two main plates and a dessert. Not to forget the mandatory glass of wine.”
Robbie informs me a glass of wine after dinner is actually recommended by team management as it has good anti-oxidants and calms the riders down.
“After dinner I like to have a short walk to digest the food and to keep blood in my legs as they become sore if I don’t keep them moving. Then I pack my bag, watch a bit of TV and go to bed. I normally sleep like a stone – so say my team mates who often complain about my snoring when we wake up. Then next morning is groundhog day, same routine all over again – except of course on the road in the race where nobody knows what mood the peloton will be in.”
7 minutes to overtake 190 riders
Marion: “Only one last question Robbie. Is there any moment in your career that is particularly special to you – a sweet triumph, so to say?
Robbie: “Ahhhh yes, that was the finish in Canterbury in 2007: 20km before the finish I had a bad crash where amongst other problems I suffered a fractured wrist. Only one team mate saw that I crashed, so the entire bunch had disappeared up the road. As soon as the word was out that I had crashed, the teams pushed the pace to ensure I would not be able to rejoin the peloton to contest the sprint. Despite this, my team mate Johan tried everything to get me back onto the peloton but it seemed we had already lost too much time and would therefore be an impossible task.
As it appeared senseless trying, I told Johan to give it up. Just at that moment we saw the rest of our team who had in the meantime been given the order by the Team Management to wait for me. This encouraged me as I did not want to let my team down. So the train began and I just put myself onto the wheel and held on. Then 6km before the finish we could see the tale of the peloton. Then I started calculating. I have roughly 7 minutes to overtake 190 riders – the numbers were against me!
I started to strategically move through the bunch one rider at a time. I used every advantage I could by using each rider in my way as an aid to sling shot me to the next one. I used my ability to create gaps to help me negotiate routes in and around riders, in fact soon I stopped seeing the riders and only saw the gaps, such is the concentration required.
Around 500 meters before the finish I was still only at about 20th position, which is clearly not good enough; furthermore the course really tightened up and the speed accelerated so I then started to lose positions again. There was one last corner before the bunch kick where all of the sprinters would make their attacks on the finish line. All of the sprinters except one. I decided my only chance was to attack before the corner and take the advantage of an early kick, which is just what I did. I caught the other sprinters by surprise and accelerated past them with an unbeatable advantage that resulted in an unlikely stage win by over a bike length.”
A fairly appropriate ending to the interview I feel. What better way to illustrate one of Australia’s best ever exports with an exciting and emotional race finish. I visualize the race over and over and never tire of it…
Interview by Marion Pyrlik. Marion holds a Masters of Sport Science and writes regularly for Condition magazine. Competing as a professional triathlete from 2005 to 2007, she raced in the 2006 Hawaii Ironman World Championships, finished 4th in her age group at the 2006 Honolulu World Championships, and placed 5th at the 2009 Half Ironman World Championships.