By Shane Stokes
Robbie McEwen has already clocked up a couple of wins in 2009, triumphing in the Down Under Classic and the Trofeo Cala Millor in Majorca, and feels like he is on track for his first big target of the season.
"My form so far is better at this time of the year than the last couple," he told Cyclingnews on Wednesday. "I've pretty much avoided getting sick, barring a cough that I'm treating. When you can stay healthy, it's a big plus. I have built my form steadily and I think I'll be ready for [Milano-] Sanremo and beyond."
McEwen seemed a little below his best in 2007 and 2008, in terms of victories gained, but the 36-year-old appears revitalised by his move to the Katusha team. He sounds more motivated than before and also to be enjoying himself with the new setup.
"Things are coming together really well," he enthused. "The morale is high and the races have been going well – we have nine wins already. The teamwork and commitment to each other has been fantastic. Of course, being a new team, some things are still not complete – we only have one team bus right now but the second should be ready soon.
"We are in a camper here in Tirreno but I think the guys in Paris-Nice need it [the first bus] more with such shit weather!
"It's very interesting how we all communicate – it's Russian, Italian, English, French, Flemish and Spanish until everyone gets it. I think the fact that it's a new team has helped everyone pull together so quickly."
The Australian added that being able to bring his osteopath Victor Popov to the Russian ProTour squad has been a big plus for him and the team itself.
McEwen was in action on stage one of Tirreno on Wednesday, finishing one minute and 16 seconds behind the day's winner Julien El Farès (Cofidis) in 49th place. While sprint rivals Alessandro Petacchi (LPR Brakes-Farnese Vini) and Tom Boonen (Quick Step) finished in the top ten, placing fourth and fifth respectively, he wasn't too worried; he said that he'd be happy to come away from the race with one victory and an improved level of fitness.
"My goal for Tirreno is a stage win, although the chances are limited with hard finales and only one real flat finish on the last day. Otherwise I'm happy building up good form in nice weather and enjoying good Italian food!"
His view is that the only thing that's really important is the big Classic a little later this month. "In Sanremo I'm obviously aiming to win. I need to improve a little on the uphills as the climb of La Mànie makes Sanremo harder, as we saw last year.
"We will start Sanremo with two leaders, myself and Pozzato. Steegmans was also to be protected but he won't be there now as he's been sick and is really struggling at Paris-Nice. He said he'd rather give up his spot to a fit team-mate, so that leaves me and Pippo as the two leaders. The team will announce the line-up after the finish of Paris-Nice."