Like all professional sportspersons Robbie McEwen may be expendable, but he certainly won’t be forgettable, writes a sentimental Anthony Tan.
Co Bao: Why did they pick you? Because you like to fight?
Rambo: I’m expendable.
Co Bao: What mean expendable?
Rambo: It’s like someone invites you to a party and you don’t show up. It doesn’t really matter.– 'Rambo: First Blood Part II’ (1985)
Professional sport is so cruel, isn’t it?Just three days into Robbie McEwen’s retirement as a pro cyclist and a press release comes out from Orica-GreenEDGE, saying New Zealand track pursuiter, Sam Bewley, will be his replacement.
Well, not his identical replacement, mind you, for Bewley would need to be Australian, have a dozen Tour de France and Giro d’Italia stage victories, three maillots verts, and two national road championships among some two-hundred scalps to his name. But the 24-year-old Kiwi is replacing the position left vacant by McEwen, nonetheless.
As a journalist, my first taste of Robbie came during his halcyon days as a sprinter and my early years as a field reporter for Cyclingnews.It was the start of 2003, at the Tour Down Under. The season previous was McEwen’s best to date (in retrospect, perhaps his best ever), having won the Australian national road championship and Scheldeprijs, both for the first time, two stages of the Giro and Tour apiece, and his first green jersey. In October that year, he was narrowly beaten by one of his great nemeses, Mario Cipollini, at the road worlds in Zolder, Belgium, although he did enough to consign another long-time arch-rival, Erik Zabel, to third place.
At the time one could describe him as rather cocksure; some might even say bursting with braggadocio. Robbie had no problem saying what was on his mind.
So, when it came to lambasting me for misquoting him following the opening stage of the Tour Down Under, where Graeme Brown was relegated for impeding his run to the line and left Baden Cooke as the stage winner in the Adelaide circuit race, Robbie had no qualms doing so.
The next morning, at the start of the second stage outside the Jacob’s Creek visitor centre, I was on the lookout for some pre-race quotes for Cyclingnews’ live text coverage of the event (who, at the time, were also supplying the same feed to the official race website). As it turned out, one quote came looking for me. “Anthony, get your quotes right. You made me look like a bloody idiot!” yelled a familiar voice.
I had indeed committed a grievous error. Initially, I had quoted him as saying the race officials had not done their job, when in actuality, McEwen said the commissaires had done their job in relegating Brown from first to last place. Of course he had said that; I was embarrassed and chastised myself the rest of the day for the mistake, vowing from that point onwards to be far more careful with my note- and quote-taking.
Not one to hold grudges, he talked to me the following day as if nothing had happened, and so, the working relationship between us grew to the point where I enjoyed direct and unimpeded access to, at the time, the world’s best sprinter. Out of the growing band of Australian road professionals plying their trade in Europe, his was the quote you wanted. For its raw though refreshing honesty and pure emotion, notwithstanding his stature within the peloton and ever-growing palmarès, his was the voice that mattered.
For the budding scribe that was trying to stake a claim as a bona-fide sportswriter, it was akin to having access to a tap of pure gold.When, on the final day at the Tour of California, he was asked to attend the press conference along with five-time stage winner Peter Sagan and overall winner Robert Gesink, he demurred. “I don’t think I’ve got anything else to say”, he replied, as just a few days prior, he had given what he thought to be his final press conference, the day of the time-trial in Bakersfield.
But when he showed up, albeit reluctantly at first, he did have something to say. In fact, he had a fair bit to say.
When I asked him to name his three greatest moments, the final stage of the 1999 Tour de France, winning that stage again in 2002, only this time in the green jersey, and the come-from-nowhere win to Canterbury on the opening road stage of the 2007 Tour (“I still don’t know how I did it!”) ranked among his all-time favourites.
“Apart from the winning,” he said, “it’s coming through the hard times, the really tough times when you’ve had a bad injury. You come through it and you re-join the peloton, you find a good level again and the dream continues. It’s not a moment but it’s part of the whole cycle. It’s part of the lifestyle. It’s a passion. When you feel that’s going to be ripped away from you and you win again, that is something special.
“Speaking from experience, when I broke my leg in 2009 and managed to come back, I didn’t win any more Grand Tour stages after that, but it was about taking my place in the peloton again and winning another race.”
I still remember, after a less than par 2003 season and with a number of pundits having written him off, he came back with a bang in 2004, scalping the opening stage of the Tour Down Under. It may have been the first day of the first big race of the year but you just knew it was going to be a good one for him. “The form never had gone. I just let people talk and kept training,” he said simply.
What began as a hobby turned into a profession; a professional vocation that lasted 16 years, four months and 20 days.
“It’s the biggest scam going, getting paid to ride our bicycles. It’s what we love to do. It doesn’t get much better.”
Robbie, like Rambo, may be expendable, but he certainly won’t be forgettable.We’re sure to miss you, mate. Thanks a ton for the ride.