Title: One Way Road: The Autobiography Of Robbie McEwen, Three Time Tour De France Green Jersey Winner
Author: Robbie McEwen (with Edward Pickering)
Publisher: Ebury Press
Order: Random House
What it is: What it says on the tin: the autobiography of Australia's green jersey hero, Robbie McEwen.
Strengths: McEwen has a way of telling his story that makes you want to listen to him and he effortlessly takes you inside the peloton in a way few other cycling books really manage.
Weaknesses: While McEwen talks about deals - and (briefly) doping - you get the feeling that you're not getting the full, unvarnished story.
"Bike racing's just a hobby I happen to be very good at. It's not a matter of life and death."
It takes a lot of self belief to be a sprinter. When you're barrelling balls out for the line, elbow to elbow with a rival, finding gaps that a saner rider would say don't exist, there's no room for self doubt. Begin to doubt yourself and you'll soon doubt the existence of the gaps only you can see. Sprinting is cycling's biggest confidence trick. For some fans though the thin line between confidence and arrogance becomes blurred and there are disputes as to which side of the line particular sprinters stand.
A lot of people think Robbie McEwen is an arrogant bastard, too cocky by far. Whether reading One Way Road will change the minds of those people or not I can't say. I'll say this though: by the end of the book the picture I had was of a guy who took his sport far more seriously than he takes himself. If he is a cocky bastard, he's the sort of cocky bastard I'd enjoy having a drink with and listening to his tales of life inside the peloton. And One Way Road's biggest sell has got to be McEwen's picture of life inside the peloton. Of a sprinter's life inside the peloton.
A lot of the time McEwen can be quite funny, in an understated kind of way. Take a story from the 2006 Tour, the bunch sprinting into Luxembourg. Coming out of the last curve before the finishing straight, McEwen had picked the best line and Thor Hushovd had to come the long way round:
"Hushovd ended up hitting my foot with his front wheel, which made him pull his foot out of his pedal. I might have given him the tiniest switch, probably just three centimetres, but enough for him to hit me. He was very angry about that, but the winner is always right."
That's the sort of comment which makes someone like me smile gently. It's quite probably also the sort of comment which makes others rub their heads in despair at the arrogance of the man. Life's like that, I guess: you can't please everyone.
McEwen himself reckons that, between 2004 and 2006, he was the best sprinter in the peloton, winning eight Tour stages in those three years, and that the peak of his career ran 2002 through 2007, after which his performance began to fall off, for various reasons. The upward slope of his career crossed the downward slope of two of cycling's best sprinters in the last twenty tears, Mario Cipollini and Erik Zabel. In 2007, McEwen's downward slope crossed with the upward slope of the man who is currently, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the best sprinter in the peloton. It was at the 2007 Scheldprijs that McEwen saw the future when, barrelling for the line and thinking the win was in the bag, "some little fat guy in pink rolled me in the last few metres."
Don't let the "little fat guy" jibe lull you into thinking that McEwen is in any way down on Mark Cavendish: that's just the way McEwen is, a guy who'd probably sooner hit you over the head with a flat-bladed digging implement than call it a spade. McEwen and Cavendish have a tremendous amount of respect for one and other - sprinters typically do - and the Australian has plenty of nice things to say about the Briton. That comment, though, is illustrative of the way McEwen tells things: he can be blunt, but he rarely means offence. It's the way he is, the way he talks. And that's one of the things to praise One Way Road for: you do actually feel the story is being told in a real, human voice. McEwen is not as poetic as Laurent Fignon in We Were Young And Carefree but in the same way that that book had a nice, chatty tone to it, so too does One Way Road.
Throughout One Way Road, McEwen isn't so much trying to explain himself as explain his sport, our sport. Along the way he does explain himself, but for the most part you feel he's really explaining cycling first, himself second. And when it comes to describing cycling, few books have done it as well as One Way Road does. If Graeme Fife hadn't already used the Inside The Peloton title for his 2001 look at some of his cycling heroes that might have been the ideal name for McEwen's book.
Sprinting, for McEwen, is "10 or 15 seconds a day, 40 or 50 times a year." The guy is incredible at taking you inside those 10 or 15 seconds. Rob Arnold, when interviewed for the Café Bookshelf last month, pointed out McEwen's phenomenal memory for a sprint, his ability to recall in detail where all the participants were and who did what. Between McEwen and his ghost for One Way Road, Cycle Sport Magazine's Edward Pickering, that power of recall produces some compelling tales from throughout McEwen's career, tales of races won and of races lost.
More than the actual sprints though what makes One Way Road such a worthwhile read is the way McEwen describes how he gets to being in the right position at the right time to take on his rival sprinters. He talks about how he conserves energy during the day, surfing the peloton, riding the right wheel, staying calm, only unleashing his "inner bastard" right when it's needed: "It's not anger, aggression or rage. It's a very extreme and highly channelled focus, which builds up over the course of a race."
Some of the tricks of the trade McEwen talks about seem like common sense. To get over hills McEwen tries to position himself toward the front of the peloton at their base, knowing he's going to fall back as the road rises up, but that the surge of the peloton will pull him along some of the way up, so that - if he's done it right - by the crest of the climb he'll be just at the back of the group, or no further off the back than can be made up with a pell-mell descent. Or take his sprinting: even today, in our information overloaded society, a lot of teams and riders still seem to fail to scope out the finish of a stage properly. Not McEwen. He knows what's coming at the end of the stage, the moment when the limelight's going to fall on him, and what he's often looking for is a final corner far enough out from the line to seem unimportant but close enough for him to be the first man through, taking the best line in and out, pushing others wide, allowing him to get the jump on his rivals before they even realise that the sprint has actually begun. As I say, common sense. Something that's remarkably rare in the peloton.
If you've read David Millar's Racing Through The Dark, you'll have noticed how much Millar seems to have hated riding his bike, how little fun it seemed to give him, certainly in the years before he was born again. Many - too many - cycling books describe our sport as being a world of pain and very little pleasure. They accentuate the harshness of our sport, play to that tired old cliché that was the staple of Henri Desgrange's Tour de France reporting. Cycling and suffering are the same thing, we're led to believe. McEwen, though, seems to have loved - still loves - racing.
McEwen's is a story about the pleasures of riding a bike. He doesn't bury the pain involved in cycling, but what he does do is make sure that that pain doesn't overshadow other emotions, doesn't detract from the happiness of riding, of racing, a bike. Even in the last few years, when his career has been on a downward trajectory and crashes and injuries and team politics have come more and more to the fore, McEwen still manages to be mostly positive about cycling.
Perhaps a little too positive. Let's face a fact here: McEwen has raced in one of the dirtiest pelotons this sport has ever seen. His best years coincided with some of cycling's worst. So what has McEwen got to say about the issue that's been central to cycling during most of his career, doping? The main comment comes early:
"There's something else that stopped me from winning so much in 1997 and 1998. I wasn't stupid, and I knew something was up, but look at what it turned out was going on back then doping-wise. I'll accuse nobody directly, but with subsequent admissions by certain riders it's clear I was pissing in the wind thinking I was going to go out au naturel and beat everybody. I ignored it, but it's no coincidence that after a load of riders and teams got busted in 1998, I started getting better again. Or maybe it was just the others getting worse."
Post 1998, it would seem, doping became the domain of "a few idiots." When McEwen joined Katusha (2009) he found himself riding alongside two of them: Toni Colomb (whose idiocy prompts McEwen to note that "what I've learned about cycling is that sometimes even nice guys dope") and Christian Pfannberger (there's no mention of riders like Björn Leukemans and Volodymyr Bileka who both popped positives during McEwen's time at Lotto). Colomb's positive prompted Katusha to demand their riders sign a new contract, with a fine of five times their salary should they pop a positive. McEwen was among those riders who initially refused to accept the new contract ("I wasn't sure it was enforceable, which made it meaningless"). When McEwen left Katusha, at the end of 2010, he considered signing for Vacansoleil, but turned them down when "they blew it by signing Riccardo Riccò, a controversial and obnoxious Italian rider who'd tested positive at the 2008 Tour de France. I didn't want to ride on the same team as Riccò."
Beyond that, there's no real comment on the subject of the needle and the damage done. What you do get is McEwen singing the praises of men like Alessandro Petacchi without ever referencing their doping busts. Taking a swing at a guy like Riccò is easy. Too easy. He's the whipping boy of our sport. Pointing out the indiscretions of guys like Petacchi is, it would seem, too hard. This lack of any real comment on doping makes me wonder exactly how honest One Way Road is.
That's not to suggest that porkies are being told, but rather a reference to the stories that don't make the edit. Take, for instance, the issue of deals. When it comes to the art of the deal, your first impressions might be that One Way Road is remarkably upfront about this aspect of our sport. Take this passage:
"Cycling isn't like other sports. Alliances between different teams are so common that nobody who knows the sport bats an eyelid at them Some alliances can last over several races - sometimes teams of the same nationality club together to help each others' riders win. Sometimes it's entirely temporary - my team and another sprinter's team will work together to bring a break back so that we can sprint for the win. Or a team may do another team a favour one day, to call it back in when they need it a few days or weeks later. You'll sometimes see a team working for absolutely no apparent reason - chances are they're paying back a favour owed from another race. It happens all the time; it's part of the sport."
Money does of course enter the picture, sometimes. We all know that some riders buy and sell assistance time to time. McEwen makes mention of this issue on several occasions. Take the 2003 Tour, when McEwen was being challenged by his compatriot Baden Cooke in the race for the green jersey. By stage eighteen, McEwen was leading Cooke by one point. On the post-Tour critérium circuit, a green jerseyed McEwen would command ten grand a pop, compared with a couple of thousand euros without the green jersey. Riding fifteen crits after the Tour was easily achievable for McEwen. The math, then, said the green jersey was worth at least €100,000 to him. McEwen offered Cooke half that to call it quits and let things stand as they were:
"I didn't really have the intention of doing a deal, but I wanted to play a mental game with Cookie. I wanted to see how much he wanted it, now that I'd pulled ahead. The green jersey is as much a mental war as a physical one, so I wanted to try to break his concentration - if he was considering it, it might take away some of his intensity."
As it happened, Cooke didn't even consider it. Rather, he came back with a counter offer: he'd pay McEwen €100,000. McEwen refused the offer and the two duked out the remaining sprint points. Cooke won green with some clever team work on the Champs Elysées. It's refreshing - and entertaining - to read such stories But pause a moment and consider what McEwen has actually described: a deal that didn't come off. All the other incidents McEwen discusses are the same: offers of deals that were all refused. What of the offers that were accepted? What of them, indeed.
Here you have to bear in mind that McEwen is still a pro. Deals - like doping - are against the rules and the UCI would doubtlessly be aghast were a serving pro to acknowledge that the rules are often considered as being little more than guidelines. You also have to wind the clock back to the days of Tom Simpson and Jacques Anquetil and recall the hassle openly discussing such deals (and doping) caused them inside the peloton. Omertà's alive and kicking and spitting in the soup will still see you getting into trouble with some of your fellow pros. So it's not really surprising that some stories remain untold. Regrettable yes, but not surprising. Which is, of course, one of the downsides of reading any book by a currently active pro: you only really get a good look inside the peloton once the person telling the story is fully outside.
A question you might be asking is why McEwen is still a pro, why he didn't go out at the top, or cut his losses once the slide into decline became obvious. Here's his answer:
"It's probably a good thing that I'm steadily winning a little less as my career heads into its sunset. I'm weaning myself off winning gradually. [...] I've never understood people who want to go out at the top. If you win your last race, you can win another - why deny the pleasure? [...] You see a lot of ex-professionals who never got over their careers, and I've no plans whatsoever to be one of them. Other guys I've known who have retired have told me that, when the moment comes, be sure. Otherwise, you just end up talking about it a lot, pining for it, and the next thing you know you're entering triathlons."
Today, McEwen is part of the GreenEdge squad (he was a part of the failed Pegasus / Fly V attempt in 2010, only finding a berth with Johan Bruyneel's RadioShack at the eleventh hour after that dream disappeared with all of George Gillett Jnr's money) and their arrival - on top of Cadel Evans' 2011 Tour win - suggests that 2012 could be the year the rest of the world really discovers Australian cycling. Which makes it an ideal time to look back at the career of one of the guys who's been at the forefront of Australian cycling for the past decade. The stories McEwen does tell - and the way he tells them - certainly make One Way Road well worth the read. Maybe once he's hung up his wheels we'll get the unexpurgated version of his years inside the peloton.