Based on precedent, his form leading to the Worlds, and what actually happened, Anthony Tan’s convinced the exclusion of Robbie McEwen may have cost Australia a rainbow jersey.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM

When I saw how the under-23 men's race eventuated at the UCI Road World Championships, I began to show concern.

Michael
Matthews rode the perfect race, his sprint perfectly timed, and full
credit to the soon-to-be Rabobank pro who has a future as bright as
Sirius in front of him. But that 46 men were left in the front group
after 10 laps of the Geelong circuit was contrary to earlier forecasts
of a much smaller group contesting the medals.

Then on Saturday,
one day later, when Nicole Cooke and Judith Arndt were caught in the
final 500 metres of the elite women's race, swamped by the trio of
Giorgia Bronzini, Marianne Vos and Emma Johansson, I became more
concerned.

Because to a large extent, for the 262.7 kilometre
elite men's race, the Australian selectors had banked on a finish unlike
what the previous two days had seen.

If we go back to the
selection announcement six weeks ago, Shayne Bannan, AIS Cycling Head
Coach and National Performance Director, said Cadel Evans and Simon
Gerrans would be undisputed leaders, and Matthew Goss and Allan Davis
our "second-tier leaders".

But on the non-selection of Robbie
McEwen, all of the choices made the one that created the greatest public
ignominy for fans of the triple Tour de France green jersey winner,
Bannan said: "We felt, at this stage, on this course, Goss and Davis
provided better options than Robbie. It was certainly a difficult
decision but [it] was based on the course – we felt it is too difficult
for him, and we had better options in Goss and Davis."

After
viewing the course myself 12 months ago, I accepted Bannan's reasoning
on the exclusion of McEwen. But what I should've asked our chief
selector was this: "Had there been instances where, in a major one-day
race or sprint stage of a Grand Tour, Goss and Davis contested a sprint
finish and McEwen had not; that is, where he'd been dropped?"

Because
this was really what Bannan was saying – that should the men's race end
in a semblance of a sprint, he felt Goss and Davis would have a better
chance of being there than McEwen.

This week, I asked McEwen the same question.

"Um, no. One day races, we're [all] similar in ability," he said.

"When
it comes to one-day races, Paris-Brussels, Gossy's won it – I've won it
five times; Allan's finished second. I've won Hamburg [now called the
Vattenfall Cyclassics] – Allan finished third on that occasion [2008].
We're of similar ability… When it gets difficult, we come into
difficulty at about the same time, if we're in the same sort of form.

"And
for a world championships," McEwen added, "I definitely would've got
myself into that same sort of form. I truly believe I could've done a
good job there. But, it's the selectors and coaches that chose for other
guys, and I felt really let down by that."

As it turned out that
first Sunday in October, despite the best efforts of outstanding
pre-race favourite Philippe Gilbert and defending champ Evans, a 25-man
group did contest the finish. Goss wasn't there, Davis was.

And
while I'm reluctant to take anything away from Alby Davis, whose third
place was his best-ever result at a road world championship, I can't
help but wonder whether Robbie would have been there, and if he had,
where would he have been?

"Like I said, when I previewed the
course back in January, I said: 'Okay, the hills are quite hard –
they're steep – but they're not that long, so you'll never get gapped
off by much. And I expected a group to be together, something like
Madrid, Salzburg – and in the end, it was pretty much like Madrid; a
group of 30 guys," McEwen said.

Now, it should be noted that in
2005 in Madrid, McEwen and Alessandro Petacchi were the two big
favourites, but the pair – as well as Erik Zabel – did not finish in the
front group of 23, although in Tom Boonen, a sprinter did triumph.

Also
in Geelong, Mark Cavendish pulled the pin early in the peace and Tyler
Farrar finished almost 14 minutes down on the eventual winner, Thor
Hushovd, so whether McEwen would have made it to the finish is a point
of conjecture.

But what was not under debate was McEwen's form leading to the Worlds, which was improving all the time.

Most
significant – and the one I thought was the deal-breaker that would
guarantee him a place in the Australian Worlds team – was his stage win
at the Eneco Tour on August 18, where in the Dutch town of Rhenen – and
on an uphill sprint finish of 600 metres, no less – McEwen returned from
the pain and disappointment suffered at the Tour de France to clinch a
hard-fought victory against Lucas Sebastian Haedo and… Allan Davis.

A
prolific Tweeter, Robbie's first post-victory Tweet was thus: "Feels
good to b back in the winners circle! ProTour win, stg 1 of Eneco Tour,
uphill finish. Form on the up. Enough 4 worlds selection now?"

Unfortunately, not.

"I
still believe there should've been a place there for myself," McEwen
told me, "because it came down to a group where, had I been in top form
at the Worlds – which is what I was aiming to do, before I was not
selected six weeks out – I think I could've had a chance of winning a
world title or winning a medal.

"In the end, they won a medal
with Allan so… you can't say they made a bad selection. But I think they
could've made a better selection because I think they selected a couple
of guys on the basis of thinking that they'd be work to be done in that
first 90k – and there just wasn't – and then they couldn't play a role
once they got to the circuit.

"But that's a chance that they took," he said.

I asked McEwen: "Will you ever be able to get over something like this, and if so, how long will it take?"

Before
answering, he let out a massive sigh; something that I gathered had
been welling up inside of him ever since he saw the Worlds end in a
sprint finish.

"Well, if I can keep going on and be in good form
and ride next year's Worlds in Copenhagen, and get a good result, it
might be some consolation. But basically, any Worlds you miss, it's a
missed opportunity – you never get that back. Particularly a Worlds in
Australia – I'll never have that opportunity again."

And Australia may never again have the opportunity to crown a home-grown world champion in their own backyard.