GREATEST ROAD SPRINTERS #7: ROBBIE MCEWEN
At 5-foot-7 and 148 pounds, Robbie McEwen wasn’t the most powerful sprinter, but what he may have given up in watts he more than made up in tactical positioning and acceleration
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Australia’s new “pocket rocket” Caleb Ewen is only 22 and in his third season as a professional and he has already won a grand tour stage (2015 Vuelta) and a UCI WorldTour classic (Hamburg 2016)—and started this season with four stage wins at the Tour Down Under. No wonder he’s being compared with fellow Aussie Robbie McEwen, whose 17-year pro career saw him chalk up 24 stage wins in grand tours, eight victories in lesser classics and three Tour de France green jerseys.
John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada
McEwen, though, had a much slower start to his career. He didn’t turn pro until he was 24, making his credentials known in his first pro victory by out-sprinting the redoubtable Djamolidin Abdujaparov in a stage of France’s Quatre Jours de Dunkerque. But his big breakthrough didn’t come until he was age 27, when he won the final stage of the 1999 Tour de France on the Champs-Élysées by out-kicking Erik Zabel, who was clinching his fourth green jersey.
At 5-foot-7 and 148 pounds, Robbie McEwen wasn’t the most powerful sprinter, but what he may have given up in watts he more than made up in tactical positioning and acceleration. He learned his bike-handling skills in BMX racing while growing up in Brisbane, Queensland; and decades before Peter Sagan became a social media star with his wheelies and other bike stunts, McEwen often rode across finish lines doing a wheelie, mostly on mountain stages at the Tour.
For most of his career, McEwen lived in Everbeek, a village outside of Geraardsbergen in East Flanders with his Belgian wife and three children. He became a quasi-Belgian and most of his successes came between 2002 and 2008 when he raced for Belgium’s Team Lotto. That was when he won the Tour green jersey three times, took the Belgian classics Scheldeprijs, Paris–Brussels and Dwars door Vlaanderen, and won 11 stages of the Tour and 12 stages of the Giro d’Italia. The first of McEwen’s Giro stage wins came in 2002 at Strasbourg (this image), where, in the Australian champion’s jersey (at right), he just took the verdict from Mario Cipollini, with Italy’s other super-sprinter Alessandro Petacchi (in white helmet and jersey) looking on.