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
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had sportingly withdrawn from selection, so the team could entered the race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).