Robbie McEwen was the fastest man in the Tour de France in the mid-2000s. One of the very few that could go toe to toe with Alessandro Petacchi and Fassa Bortolo’s machine-like lead-out trains. The Australian was one of the very few sprinters that was on Petacchi’s level, even beating the Italian several times, despite his lack of support. He was also the one to break Erik Zabel’s green jersey dominance in the Tour de France, beating the German head-to-head in 2002. As it’s clear by now, Robbie McEwen is in the conversation with some of the best sprinters of all-time. He was one of them.
After Guido Bontempi, it’s time to talk about another sprinter, this one from a much more recent era: Robbie McEwen. The Australian’s era for sprinting might be the best of all-time. In fact, I won’t even hedge my statement: his era was the best of all-time and he is right there with the best. Mario Cipollini, Zabel, Petacchi, Oscar Freire, Thor Hushovd, Stuart O’Grady, Tom Boonen, Tom Steels, etc. Just to mention a few.
McEwen is a former Australian BMX champion who made his name in road racing, a discipline he switched to from BMX in 1990, when he was 18. Coincidentally, this was the year that German coach Heiko Salzwedel moved to Australia to work in the cycling program of the Australian Institute of Sport. Salzwedel recently passed away and Robbie posted a beautiful eulogy of his former trainer on his Instagram account as a testament to their time working together.
Before he turned pro in 1996, with Rabobank, he started showing how good he could be in Europe winning several stages in 1994-1995 in the Peace race and in the Tour de l’Avenir. He beat names like German prodigy Jan Ullrich, Belgian classics rider Nico Eckhout, and 9-time Tour stage winner Tom Steels.
In 1996, his first year as a pro, McEwen shows more promise winning a few races with Dutch outfit Rabobank. For example, he won a stage in the Vuelta a Murcia, in Spain, by beating three-time Tour de France green jersey winner, Djamolidine Abduzhaparov.
He, however, would not achieve any top wins tough, until the 1999 Tour (and what a win that was). Nevertheless, from 1996 until the Champs Elysée’s stage of the 1999 Tour, McEwen showed improvement year after year. In 1997 (his first start) and 1998 he achieved twelve top 10 placements in Tour stages. Finally, in 1999, he got his much-deserved win, winning the most coveted stage on every sprinter’s calendar: the finish in Paris. He did this by beating Zabel one on one in a race to the line. The Australian was simply stronger than everybody else that day.
During his time at Rabobank, Robbie was teammates with Mathieu Van Der Poel’s father (and fantastic rider in his own right), Adrie van der Poel, stage race specialist Erik Breukink, and classics superstars Rolf Sorensen, Edwig Van Hooydonck and Michael Boogerd. Now disgraced former US Postal team manager Johan Bruyneel was also on the team with McEwen in 1996-1997.
He moved to Lotto in 2000 but, between 2000-2001, the results didn’t come for the Australian, despite riding three Grand Tours in that period (Giro, Tour and Vuelta). This trend continued outside of the Grand Tours with the Australian not getting any high-profile wins during these two years.
From 2002 onwards though, it was a very different story. McEwen started that year by becoming the Australian champion and winning four out of six stages in his home tour, the Tour Down Under. The winning wouldn’t stop. He won the Etoile de Besseges, two stages in the Paris Nice, the Scheldeprijs, and two stages in the Giro d’Italia. In that year’s Tour he won two stages, including the finish at the Champs Elysées. He also won the green jersey for the first time in his career, after a grueling three-week battle with Zabel. This marked the first time in six years anyone had beaten Zabel for the green jersey in the Tour.
Robbie McEwen wasn’t done in 2002. After the Tour he won the Circuit Franco-Belge, the Delta Ronde van Midden-Zeeland, and his first (of five) Paris-Bruxelles. Finally, in the World Championships won by Mario Cipollini, he came in second. This was the closest he came to becoming World Champion.
I would consider 2002 the best of his career. Still, the Australian would remain one of the best sprinters in the world until 2007. Known for not needing much support from his team, nor a big leadout train, McEwen, used this attribute to stay consistent throughout the years. He won stages in Grand Tours every year from 2002-2007. In fact, from 2004-2007 he always won stages in both the Giro and the Tour, which is a remarkable feat and proof of his high IQ as a sprinter. Sadly, he was forced to retire from the 2007 Tour with a knee injury. I don’t think he ever fully recovered from it, at least not to the level he displayed before.
From 2003-2007, he won ten stages each in the Giro and the Tour, and two green jerseys in the Tour (along with a day in yellow). To this he added three Paris-Bruxelles, plus several stages in the Tour Down Under, Tour de Romandie and Tour de Suisse. Along with other, lower profile wins.
As a sidenote, the Australian could have won three green jerseys between 2003-2007, but, in 2003, in one of the most spectacular green jersey battles ever, he came in second to fellow Australian sprinter, Baden Cooke, by a mere 2 points. McEwen entered the last stage with the green jersey, 2 points ahead of Cooke. They would split both intermediate sprints with the other coming second which meant that everything hinged on the finish on the Champs Elysées. Cooke finished in second place while McEwen was third. This created a 4 point swing in the points’ classification rankings, which was enough for Cooke to take the green jersey.
Another event that, in my opinion, has to be singled out is Robbie’s win in stage 1 of the 2007 Tour. He crashed with 20km to go on the stage, came back, and outsprinted everyone en route to a clear victory.
Later that year, in the Paris-Tours, the Australian was the victim of another fan related incident. During the final sprint (won by Petacchi) McEwen is seen “headbutting” Spanish sprinter Oscar Freire. However, the Australian would comment on youtube (video below) to clarify this incident. His comment is copied below in case the video is taken down:
After the aforementioned knee injury I don’t think he was ever the same, but McEwen’s “never the same” would be plenty of other sprinters’ primes. In 2008, his final year at Lotto, he won a stage in the Tour de Romandie, two in the Tour de Suisse, the Vattenfall Cyclassics, and his fifth (and final) Paris-Bruxelles.
At Lotto, the Australian was teammates with legendary classics men such as Peter van Petegem, Johan Museeuw and Andrei Tchmil. Fellow Australian Cadel Evans was also on Lotto’s roster while Robbie was there. Future Vuelta winner Chris Horner, and Begian sprinters Tom Steels and Greg Van Avermaet were also McEwen’s teammates at Lotto.
He moved to Katusha in 2009 for two years and then to Radioshack in 2011 for a single season. The Australian was in the twilight of his career, but he continued to get several top 10s in stages of Grand Tours thanks to his positioning and sprinting IQ. Still, it was clear the power was no longer there. His best result from 2009 until retirement was a stage win in the 2010 Eneco Tour with Katusha.
At the Russian team, his most high-profile teammate was Joaquin Rodriguez. At Radioshack, however, he met several famous names like Lance Armstrong, Michal Kwiatkowski, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Kloeden. He was also reunited with Chris Horner.
He retired after the 2012 Tour of California, with Australian team Orica GreenEDGE. It certainly was a dream for the best Australian sprinter of all time to retire with a team from his home country. In the team he worked with fellow fast men Stuart O’Grady, his 2003 Tour nemesis Baden Cooke, and two-time monuments winner Simon Gerrans.
In addition to his monstrous trophy case, Robbie was named 2002 Australian Cyclist of the Year, 2002 Male Road Cyclist of the Year and 1999 Australia Male Road Cyclist of the Year.
After retirement, Robbie McEwen is still very active in the cycling scene. According to his website: “Robbie now works part-time as a tv commentator, brand ambassador for Bikebug, corporate guest speaker and has a line of cycling apparel – RMC along with an all natural chamois cream that is available in stores & online.”