Blazin' Saddles

McEwen’s magic moments

Blazin' Saddles

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McEwen looks over his shoulder as he prepares to start the next chapter of his life

Aussie pocket rocket Robbie McEwen took time out from his busy schedule of filming the Zoolander sequel to confirm this week that he will soon retire from the sport.

In one of cycling's worst kept secrets since Jan Ullrich's curried bratwurst addiction, pint-sized dynamo McEwen told the Belgian press that he was "definitely done after the Tour of California" in May.

We all knew his retirement was earmarked for this season, but the day the peloton is finally deprived of the Brisbane bike boomerang for good will certainly be a sad one.

Saddles will always remember the way McEwen won his first of 12 stage wins on the Tour de France — and what a place to do it: on the Champs Elysees.

Having crashed during the entry into Paris, McEwen, then of Rabobank, found the legs to win stage 20 ahead of green jersey Erik Zabel on the cobbles of the French capital in 1999.

Approached by debonair ITV anchorman Gary Imlach after his win, the diminutive pedal Hercules emotionally declared: "I've done it, I've done it, I've done it! I've tried so hard and suffered so much. Today I had a crash after 40km and hurt my wrist and my back... I couldn't hold my handlebars but I've only gone and won on the Champs Elysees."

Later, he added, looking to the camera with a cheeky grin and punching the air: "Yes, I've won! For all those who thought I couldn't, well, there you go, stick that in your pockets."

That's precisely how Saddles will remember McEwen: as a winner (often in exceptional circumstances) and as a frank speaker.

Another nugget to savour: McEwen's miraculous victory in the opening stage of the 2007 Tour, where he somehow came back from a big crash 20km from the finish to take the win in Canterbury and spur commentator Phil Liggett into announcing that we had all just witnessed one of the greatest individual wins of all time.

Hyperbole, perhaps — but not far off the mark. The win was a real beauty: ballsy, emotional, seemingly impossible. Chapeau.

McEwen would win 12 stages in total in the Grande Boucle — and a further 12 stages on the Giro. In fact, Robbie seems to like the number 12: he also has a record dozen Tour Down Under stage wins to his name (plus 12 toes, if rumours are to be believed).

What of McEwen's legendary loose tongue? There's no denying, the guy's a legend — and journalists through the past two decades have always trusted Robbie for an electric soundbite or two.

Some of Saddles' personal favourites include his infamous Lance Armstrong quip from 2002, when he told the American in mid-stage to "shut your mouth of I will put my fist in it", and his Twitter rant against Riccardo Ricco ahead of the Italian's short-lived comeback with Vacansoleil ("Ricco — what a f*cking hypocrite. Just don't come back piece of sh*t").

And who will ever forget his tongue-in-cheek description of Mark Cavendish, then of Team Telekom, as "some little fat guy in pink" back in 2007.

As for McEwen's maverick moments on the bike, there are many. Remember that time he crossed the summit of the individual time trial up Alpe d'Huez in 2004 and pulled a wheelie in celebration? Saddles was there when it happened — and the cheers were bigger then than when maillot jaune Armstrong caught and passed his rival Ivan Basso on the penultimate hairpin bend.

Another more recent personal memory Saddles has of McEwen was from this year's Tour Down Under when McEwen was dropped early on a climb in the stage to Clare. Sitting in the Katusha team car, Saddles revelled in the moment when Russian sporting director Dimitri Konyshev — whose own illustrious career overlapped with that of the Australian — wound down his window and delivered some banter towards his old friend.

"Motherf*cker, this is so hard," a puffing McEwen replied, half in jest, half with brutal honesty (he would finish over 10 minutes down on the day).

Throughout the race — his last ever TDU but his first race for the Australian national team GreenEdge — McEwen gave as good as he got. He worked his socks off, rode to the best of his ability, always had a smile on his face, and really savoured the moment. Good on him.

Of course, just as much as Saddles will remember McEwen the winner, Saddles — and most cycling fans, in all honesty — will remember McEwen the perennial loser.

Indeed, the wins have been few and far between these last years of the 39-year-old veteran's career. His last Tour scalp came back in 2007 and his only triumph this year came in a criterium in Singapore.

The truth is, McEwen has been off the boil ever since that fat boy in pink hit the scene — and Saddles isn't talking about Alessandro Petacchi.

This was further compounded with a nasty accident McEwen had involving a flower pot in Belgium back in 2009, which saw our man break his leg and spend most of the season off his bike. He hasn't really been the same ever since.

A year later, Robbie suffered further misfortune on the Tour when he was knocked off his bike by a video cameraman at the end of a stage bunch sprint.

"Some cockhead from the organisation jumped straight out in front of me trying to run back to get the winner for the podium," a livid McEwen told TV with his trademark colourful vernacular. "He jumped straight into my handlebars. I was doing sixty f*cking K an hour."

So, will McEwen be swapping DNF with DS any time soon?

"Personally, I don't see myself as a directeur sportif," he told Het Nieuwsblad this week. "Of course you can never say never, but at the moment I think the role I've got is perfect for me."

That role involves coaching at GreenEdge and acting as an experienced older statesman for some of the team's up-and-coming riders.

They can hardly learn from anyone better: even McEwen himself (in his candid autobiography One Way Road) reckons that, between 2004 and 2006, he was the best sprinter in the peloton (eight of his Tour stage wins came in those years).

He was probably right: McEwen peaked just as the likes of Zabel and Mario Cipollini were on their way down — plus he generally came out on top in his duels with Tom Boonen, who himself was enjoying his best Grand Tour years around 2006/07.

To leave you with another classic McEwen moment: no Robbie reminiscing would be complete without recalling the aftermath of the Tour team time trial in 2004, when a souvenir hunter tried to steal McEwen's water bottle — and in doing so, broke the water holder on the tiny Titan's bike.

An irate McEwen first snatched the bidon back from the "stupid arsehole" who had stolen it. After poignantly giving it to a more deserving young fan, McEwen then noticed the damage on his bike and lambasted the "f*cking idiot" in French before being ushered away to the winner's podium (he was, after all, the race leader at the time).

That's for all the memories, Robbie. Good luck with Zoolander II — and stay in touch.

Perhaps the organisers of the Tour of Cali should arrange a stage win for McEwen next month? After all, isn't that what happened with the Australian one-two form Renshaw and Goss in the Tour of Turkey on Anzac Day last week...

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