I became a real bicycle racing fan in the days of Greg Lemond. Consequently perhaps, I have most appreciated those riders who can win long stage races. They have a combination of abilities that allows them to win time trials, climb mountains well, and keep pace on flat stages. In stage races many riders have special skills which enable them to be valued teammates, consistent high finishers, and occasional stars. Some pace their team on long flat stages, some provide support on the lower levels of climbs, some go out early in time trials and establish a set of check times for the best time trialer on their team, some get in early breaks to keep an eye on a dangerous rider or get in position to help the lead rider later. And on and on.
But one kind of rider seems out of place in endurance riding: the sprinter. Sprinters typically star on flat stages with bunch finishes. They come into their own during the last kilometer of a race, especially the last three or four hundred meters. They rush to the line at speeds approaching 45 miles an hour. Some sprinters take longer to get up to speed but are faster once there, others can accelerate to their top speed quickly, some are better on a slight upgrade than others. But they all can utilize their fast-twitch muscle fibers to good advantage to produce tremendous short-term bursts of power. They are among the most uniquely skilled of all the specialists in the peloton.
As I said, sprinters have not been among my favorite kinds of riders, for the most part. I appreciate their work. But many are downright patsies in long stage races. In the tour de France they will garner a handful of wins during the first 6 or 7 stages, which are typically flat as the riders head for the big mountains. Then they will develop a strange kind of “altitude sickness” and drop out of the race when the roads head uphill. Can’t hack the tough going. Alessandro Petacchi and Mario Cipollini are among the great sprint champions who blanched at altitudes. Cipo, for all his Tour stage victories (4 straight one year) never finished a Tour.
But then there is Robbie McEwan. A brash, feisty Australian, he combines good-natured banter with a smart-alek smile, a serious determination to win, great riding tactics mixed with the willingness to shoulder and elbow rivals aside (which has gotten him relegated to last place more than once). Self-confident and aggressive, he crossed verbal swords with Lance Armstrong a couple of times when Lance was patron of the peloton, and once angrily snatched back a water bottle that a determined young fan tried to steal off his bike as he rode back to the team bus after a race, admonishing the kid for stealing and also for breaking his carbon-fiber bottle rack. He doesn’t drop out of the Tour, but rides in the back of the pack with the other sprinters and strugglers on the tough stages, just staying inside the d.q. time limit, and sometimes popping a wheelie as he crosses the finish line. He’s won the green jersey as Tour points champion three times, and would have won it a fourth except for a relegation when he head-and-shoulder butted a fellow Aussie sprint rival. He earnestly maintained he had done no wrong, of course. The points champions is generally the one who wins the most sprints, and who is the most consistent high finisher in the daily stages. So the man has skill and a fresh personality.
The most fascinating thing about McEwan is that he’s been a sprint champion in stage races without ever having a strong team to support him. On a good support team, there are three or four riders whose principal job it is to set up the lead sprinter to maximize his effort over the last 200 meters or so in a bunch finish. These riders are called a “leadout train” (as in “leedout,” not “[get the] lehd out”). They ride in front of the sprinter to shield him from the drag of onrushing air, each one riding at maximum power for 200 or 300 yards. Then the last one peels off, when he has positioned the lead sprinter for an unimpeded rush to the line. When in the draft of the other riders, the lead sprinter can save 30% or so of his energy. Unfortunately, McEwen’s history is that he’s never been on a team with a really strong leadout train. Instead he’s been a lone wolf, riding invisibly among the top ten or fifteen riders in the last couple of kilometers before attaching himself to the rear wheel of some other team’s leadout train, drafting and shifting into the perfect position, and then coming like a shot out of nowhere to “pip” them all on the line. it’s thrilling to see how often he can win that way.
Well, the point of all this is that Robbie McEwan left his last professional team in Fall 2010, when his contract was up with them. He was planning to be the top rider for a new Australian team, Pegasus Sports, but that team was not granted a ProTour (i.e. “Big League”) license by the International Cycling Union (UCI). So McEwan was looking for a team, and Radio Shack, the team partly owned by Lance Armstrong, picked him up for the self-proclaimed final year of his professional life. And Robbie is riding with Lance on a team I root for. Lance will be doing his last international professional race in a couple of weeks in Australia at the Australian Tour Down Under, and Robbie will be on the team too. Since it’s principally a sprinters’ stage race of 8 or 9 days’ duration, Robbie may find himself once more crossing the line first. Radio Shack is a team principally of old pros, and McEwan should do them proud. No better competitor, no better pro, and that goes for both Lance and Robbie.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.