McEwen on retiring: ‘It’s been fun. That’s what it’s always been about.’

On the eve of his final racing days, Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen held a press conference where he fielded questions about a remarkable career that began in 1996

BAKERSFIELD, California (VN) — On the eve of his final racing days, Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen held court at a 45-minute press conference in Bakersfield, California, Thursday, to field questions about a remarkable career that began in 1996 and included 12 Tour de France stage wins and three green jersey titles.

Should he make it to Sunday’s final stage of the Amgen Tour of California — “I’m worried about the time cut for the next two stages, first,” he admitted — the Orica-GreenEdge sprinter will cross his last finish line before transitioning into a sprint coach role with the Australian pro team.

McEwen explained that he’d known the 2012 season would be his last as far back as 2010; as the Pegasus Sports debacle unfolded that winter, he learned that another Australian program was set for a 2012 debut. He signed a last-minute one-year deal with RadioShack-Nissan, with an eye on closing out his career on Australia’s first-ever WorldTour squad.

“[GreenEdge] had taken me on as a rider, partly because I came with certain amount of UCI points for the WorldTour license, and partly because I was still keen to ride,” McEwen said.

Asked why he’d chosen the Tour of California as his final race, McEwen said, “It was more about the timing than the place. We started looking at the calendar, and this seemed like good place to stop. Even if it is a tough event with limited opportunities for riders like myself, after the three grand tours, the Amgen Tour of California is one of the biggest races on the calendar.”

Because Orica-GreenEdge manager Shayne Bannan will look to McEwen to advise Matt Goss in his quest for a green jersey at this year’s Tour, together they had decided he would hang up his cleats and step into his technical advisor role well before July. It’s a similar role that McEwen’s former sprint rival Erik Zabel took on, first at HTC-Highroad with Mark Cavendish, and now with Oscar Freire at Katusha.

“The tough part for me will be putting it into words for the other guys, and assessing their sprinting style and riding style,” McEwen said. “I can’t tell someone to do what I would have done if it’s not the kind of sprinter they are. I’m already thinking about Matt Goss, and looking at the sprints he’s won and the sprints he’s lost, and the sprints others have won or lost, and who else did what — and why.”

Over the past 16 years McEwen won a dozen stages each at the Tour, the Giro d’Italia and the Tour Down Under, as well as five wins at Paris-Brussels.

The most natural question posed to a retiring rider of his stature was a request to recall his most special victories. McEwen obliged, listing off his first Tour stage win, on the Champs-Élysées in 1999, and again in Paris in 2002 when he secured his first green jersey win. However he added that some of the achievements he was most proud of didn’t happen in front of crowds, or cameras.

“Apart from the wins, there’s also the way you come through the tough moments,” McEwen said. “Instances such as coming back from a tough injury and back up to a good level, and being able achieve again; they’re not ‘moments,’ as such, but rather lengthy episodes in your career. One of the most satisfying things for me was coming back from the injury in 2009 when I broke my leg. That effectively ended my career, but I found a way to ride. I fought through, had an operation, rehabbed and came back. I was not at the same level but I still managed to win races, to have a good time and to go out on my terms.”

McEwen made a name for himself as a fiery and outspoken “slingshot sprinter,” often riding the coattails of major leadout trains for Mario Cipollini and Alessandro Petacchi and then, when the moment was right, being a “little quicker over a short distance.”

Unlike those riders, as well as Mark Cavendish, McEwen forged a career as a sprinter without ever having his own leadout train, instead relying on guidance from sprinters such as Freddie Rodriguez, Henk Vogels and Gert Steegmans.

“I was comfortable with way I was getting results,” McEwen said about his chosen role as a renegade sprinter. “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘If ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Maybe I could have won more, or maybe I could have lost more, but I have never been the kind of sprinter to go from the front, like Cipo’ or Petacchi. And the team I spent a long time with was Lotto, and they might have gotten a little complacent. They may have thought, ‘We’re getting good results, why spend money with leadout riders? Robbie can keep winning green jerseys, and we can take on a few GC riders.’ And that was how Cadel [Evans] came into the team.

“And maybe I wasn’t demanding enough,” he continued. “I was happy how it was at that time; I had a couple of guys dedicated to me, who could help win me races, and I was winning plenty. Plus I liked the way we were dong it. I might have continued winning, but I wouldn’t have won them in as spectacular of a way. When I look back at those wins, it makes me proud seeing how they happened. Anyone who has followed my career knows I don’t mind a little show. I like it when a win is unexpected, or spectacular, or seemingly impossible. I’d rather that, than just line it up and go so fast that no one can come past. I’m happy with the way I did it.”

Asked to succinctly sum up his career, McEwen smiled. “It’s been fun,” he said. “That’s what it’s always been about for me. It started as a hobby. And I learned some important things early — it’s not about the energy you use, it’s the energy you save. I’ve been fortunate, and I’m thankful that I got to make my hobby into a good career and a success.”