By Andrew Hood
Change is just what Robbie McEwen needed.
His move to Katusha for a two-year deal with the start-up Russian squad has put the fire back into the veteran Australian sprinter. Not that it’s ever gone away, but McEwen didn’t have his best season in 2008, coming off just five wins and getting blanked in the grand tours.
McEwen will see more support in the sprints with Katusha and he already has two wins under his belt before the end of February.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood caught up with McEwen at last month’s Volta ao Algarve. Here’s what he had to say about his move to Katusha, Mark Cavendish and Cadel Evans’ chances in the Tour de France:
VeloNews: You’ve already had a few wins, what are your goals for the first part of the 2009 season?
Robbie McEwen: It’s been going all right. I have won a few sprint wins, without being in top condition or anything like that, I’ve had a pretty good start. Now it’s a case of settling in and building the condition before the first big races of the year. My aim is to be good from early March, if I am not fantastic in the first week of March, that’s OK. I want to be very good for Tirreno through Milan-San Remo and into the first 10 days of April. Then settle into some training again and work up to the Giro. You try to pick out a couple of periods to be good in. I wanted to have a solid Tour Down Under, I managed to win a race there. I might have won a few more, but there were a few incidents. I was hit by a spectator’s camera at 70kph, pretty close to full sprint, getting it wound up 150m to go. My arm is still giving me some trouble.
VN: After achieving so much with Lotto, why the switch to Katusha?
RM: Maybe that was the problem. I had been there for quite a long time, seven years. I had done a lot for the team, I won a hell of a lot of races, but they wanted to focus on trying to win the Tour de France, at the cost of having helpers for me for the sprints, which made it next to impossible to win. Last year, I was completely isolated in the final kilometer of the race. You gotta rely too much on luck when you have six other teams with lead-out teams. And if they get a chance, they also try to hinder your progress.
VN: How did the move to Katusha happen?
RM: I felt like a team change. I had contact with (Oleg) Tinkov in the past. He told me he was working on a big project and said when it’s signed; I will call you straight away. I agreed to a contract a week before the Tour. I knew I would be back on the team with (Gert) Steegmans. We worked well together. There are a lot of other strong guys. It’s a like a breath of fresh air.
VN: Katusha is stacked with sprinters, is there enough room for all of you?
RM: There’s room for all of us. It’s good when Steegmans and I can ride together. We can have a two-pronged attack. He does a fantastic lead-out and some days he’s strong enough to win on his own. I’m happy to share it with him and he’s happy with less pressure on him, just to do the lead-out unless I come up with a plan to for him to win.
We took (Danilo) Napolitano as well. What was good was that the team asked me my thoughts, they asked if it was good to have him on the team. I said, yeah, he’s good, he’s a guy who can win races.
VN: So more captains is better than not enough?
RM: Sometimes the problem is that if you only have a couple of fast guys, you often don’t get to ride together, because teams are trying to be active on all fronts. We have 4-5 pretty fast guys, four real sprinters, so we can always ride two in each race, then figure out among ourselves who can do the lead-out. Kenny Deheas is also gaining a lot of experience. It’s his first big team; he’s riding all the big races. That’s also a bit of my role as the senior rider, to talk to the younger guys and help them out to teach them as quick as possible.
VN: You’re well into your second decade of racing, do you still love racing?
RM: This is my 14th season. I’m feeling really good. I still enjoy going out training, still love winning races, still hate getting beaten. I think it’s when you get to the point when you can easily accept defeat, and then you know you’re not as motivated anymore. I still hate to lose.
VN: Despite your victories, do you have still have some unfinished business?
RM: Milan-San Remo and maybe next year the worlds down in Australia. It’s a flattish course, though it’s still up in the air about the finish, whether it’s on flat section or up a hill. They’re talking about having it up a 400m, 4-percent hill, which for me isn’t also bad. In terms of business I want to continue is winning stages in grand tours. I have 12 and 12 ? Giro and Tour ? I wouldn’t mind to have it be a baker’s dozen, or 15 and 15, by 2010, 15 in each after 15 years as a pro. That’s why I do it. I love racing, love winning.
VN: The big talk among the sprinters is Mark Cavendish, what your impression of him?
RM: He’s very, very fast. Since his debut as a pro, he’s impressed everyone with his speed. With his Tour last year, it was like there wasn’t much competition at the Tour. His team worked well to control the sprints, but no one else seemed to be going all that great, until the end with Steegmans, that was super-strong on the Champs-Elysees. He’s started off again this season on good form.
VN: Some compare Cavendish to you, do you see that?
RM: I see that. We’re very similar types of sprinters. Very aggressive, goes through gaps that people don’t think are there. A bit cocky. A lot of self-confidence. You gotta have it, if you believe you’re the fastest. He won’t be the fastest every day this year.
VN: Is there a secret to beating Cavendish?
RM: It’s the same with everybody, gotta have the legs, it’s on the day.
VN: Does it give you any sort of extra motivation to have a young guy like Cavendish coming up and threatening your spot in the sprints?
RM: I suppose in a way, there’s always new guys coming through. Everyone was asking where’s the next sprinter coming from, then suddenly Cav was there. See a guy here like Theo Bos on the Rabobank continental team. If he starts to deal with the kilometers the next few months, he could be the next big thing. The press likes it because it gives them something new to write about it.
VN: Have sprints changed much since you started racing more than a decade ago?
RM: Not a hell of a lot. You had the whole lead-out train with Cipo and Petacchi. That got a little bit less for a couple years; you always had those types of sprinters. Boonen is a sprint-train type guy. But you’ve always had guys like myself, Freire, Cavendish, a sort of out of the wheel type guy. It’s different almost every single time. Cav is similar to me, in almost every sprint is different, happens in a different way. Whereas with Cipo, Petacchi and Boonen, they’re similar almost every time – just be at the front and go fast and stomp as hard as you can.
VN: Have you ever wanted to have that big train, five-six guys working exclusively for you to control the stage and set you up?
RM: I’ve had it before and won behind the train, but it’s not always easy to set up. If you’re team is set up around having a train, you get a bit of automation, it often depends on who was at the race. At Lotto, they wanted to spread it around and have someone for GC.
VN: Your ex-teammate Cadel Evans came close to winning the Tour de France, what do you think of his chances this year?
RM: If you can get second, you can win it. Realistically, I think this year is going to be pretty tough. It’s going to be harder to equal what he’s done the last couple of year because of the riders who are going to be there. Contador, Leipheimer, Lance, Kloden, it’s going to make it a lot tougher than just Sastre and the Schlecks. No disrespect to them, but those four guys can be the podium. There will be more up and comers.
VN: Finally, what’s your take on Armstrong’s comeback?
RM: It’s good. He’s only nine months older than me. I’m signed up to ride for two more years, nothing wrong with that comeback. He should be fresh after a couple years rest. He kept fit running marathons and mountain bike races. Already he’s pretty strong. I saw him at Tour Down Under, he’s already going well. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with him.