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Triple Oscar!
By Podofdonny
Date: 10/3/2004
Triple Oscar!

Eddy Merckx, Alfredo Binda and Rik Van Steenbergen, giants of the road and triple world cycling road race champions. Today we can add another name to those legends, Spain’s Oscar Freire. This year he entered the race as one of the favourites, however when he won on the same course in 1999 there was a stunned silence from commentators as they reached for their notes to see who exactly Oscar Freire was. The Vitalicio Seguros rider, whose palmares included only two victories, stunned the cycling world by taking one of its most glorious prizes.

His second victory in the event in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2001 confirmed his reputation as one of the best one day racers in the world and his move to Rabobank in 2003 finally paid dividends when he won Milan San Remo earlier this year by keeping going when Zabel thought he had won. Today, however, was not just a battle between great riders, but also great teams.

Paolo Bettini the “Golden Cricket” came to the race as Olympic Gold Medalist and with a team that few countries in the world could match. Ivan Basso, Damiano Cunego, Dario Frigo, Stefano Garzelli and Daniele Nardello would have been team leaders had they been born in many other countries. Which was exactly Davide Rebellin’s problem. Concerned he might be omitted from the Italian squad, the triple Classic winner tried to take a passport of convenience with Argentina to secure his ride in the Worlds. The criticism across Italy was loud and clear; Felice Gimondi, commented: "How can you not pick a guy who's on form. In the world championships, it's vital to have as many riders as possible who can win the race." Too late in the day Italian Coach Ballerini declared, "I can understand his desire to ride the Worlds, but I was going to include him in the team anyway." Too late for Rebellin as well, his decision to make Buenos Aires his spiritual home got tangled in the inevitable paper work and he was doomed to participate in the race only by operating his remote control on the full day broadcast of the race.

In contrast, the equally strong Spanish squad arrived in Italy as a united team. Roberto Heras, whose presence may have unbalanced the squad, had sportingly withdrawn from selection, so the team could entered the race with one aim in mind, the Rainbow jersey. Igor Astarloa, Juan Flecha, José I.Gutiérrez, Pedro Horrillo, Eladio Jimenez, Francisco Mancebo, Isidro Nozal, Luis Perez, José L. Rubiera, Marcos Serrano, Alejandro Valverde and Tino Zaballa gathered in Verona to support Freire.

The race itself was a typically tense and tactical affair. Frenchman Christophe Le Mevel launched the early suicide break and he and the Russian rider Vladimir Efimkin held off the peloton for the first 10 laps before a group of 32 riders broke clear. Meanwhile, back in the bunch, the real drama was unfolding: Bettini's day seemed cursed by bad luck and after a puncture he caught his knee on the team's car door, which saw the “Cricket” painfully limp on before retiring on lap 15.

Frank Hoj of Denmark and Swiss Steve Zampieri had their moment of glory while the peloton readjusted to the loss of Bettini, but as always in the Worlds, the drama and tension was building for a Grande Finale.

With two laps to go the “Spanish Armada” finally came to the front to control the race. On the final climb of the Toricelle and after some sterling work by the Spanish team, Rasmussen attacked. Serrano, leading the Spanish train, did not panic but kept the pace high, but when Basso attacked it was time for those with ambitions to respond. Boogerd, Freire, Basso, Valverde, O'Grady and Cunego all made the break, but on the descent towards the finishing line 15 riders had regrouped for the final showdown in Verona.

After great work from Hondo, Wessemann and Kessler, Erik Zabel was in contention as were Australians O’Grady and Davis, with Bettini’s faithful helper Luca Paolini as stand-in for the “Cricket”. But if Oscar Freire was to win the jersey it was Alejandro Valverde who took him over the rainbow. Valverde’s lead out was from the text books, eliminating any late jump and setting Freire up perfectly for his third rainbow jersey. Germany's Erik Zabel was second and Italy's Luca Paolini came in third, all at 6 hours, 57 minutes, 15 seconds.

"Well, maybe my first win here was my most beautiful victory. We had a little luck with Bettini today. This team is not just me,Valverde could also have won today, he provided an excellent lead and I would like to dedicate my victory to my team. I knew that (Erik) Zabel and (Stuart) O'Grady were there, and in the home straight I could have opted to take their wheel, but I had plenty of confidence in Alejandro. He was perfect, but so were the rest of the team. From start to finish they all did a perfect job. It's fantastic for me to become just the fourth rider to win the title three times, and it's good to hear your name mentioned in the same sentence as Eddy Merckx," said triple Oscar, Mr. Freire.

Indeed, the Spanish team had seemed as well drilled and organised as a top trade team at their best, which was a remarkable performance on the day. Chris Horner again proved that when he races in Europe he can compete with the best and finished in 8th spot. Poor ol’ Ballerini, will, one suspects, be cancelling tomorrow's newspapers...

Freire – serial winning world champion.

5 things you may not know about Oscar Freire

1 - He is 28 years old and spent his childhood in Covadonga;
2 - He was Spanish Scalextrix Champion;
3 - He is very forgetful – he once kept the entire Spanish team waiting while he looked for his passport;
4 - He is popular with fans – over 100 members of his fan club cheered him on to his victory today;
5 - He has had physical problems (mainly his back main trouble this season has been with his Rabobank shorts - allegedly).

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