While many cycling aficionados would have relished an Oscar Freire world championship victory on Sunday in Valkenburg, The Netherlands, a victory which would have set a new record for pro road titles (at 4) and likely spurred the Spaniard on for one more season of racing in the professional peloton, it was not to be as Freire concluded his 15-year professional career with a 10th place finish.
It was fitting, nonetheless, that Freire's curtain call would take place at the world championships. In Freire's first year as a professional he quietly notched a 17th place finish the last time Valkenburg hosted the world championships and the next year's Worlds in Verona, Italy, likely saved the Spaniard's career from oblivion.
Freire was nearing the end of a two-year contract with Spanish team Vitalicio Seguros and on the start line of the world championships he had not yet found a team for 2000. Beset by injuries, Freire only raced 11 times in 1999 and was a late addition to the Spanish Worlds squad. Soon to be famous for generating remarkable fitness in short periods of time, Freire trained for six weeks prior to Worlds, either alone or behind a scooter, on a circuit near his home in Torrelvega, Spain, resembling the Verona parcours.
Rounding the final turn at Worlds, Freire would catch his eight breakaway companions by surprise, including such luminaries in the pro peloton as Jan Ullrich, Frank Vandenbroucke, Francesco Casagrande and 1998 world champion Oscar Camenzind, and rode alone over the final 400 meters to be crowned an unlikely world champion.
While Freire would win two more world titles, in 2001 and 2004, and flirt with adding an unprecedented fourth world championship throughout the rest of his career, he told Cyclingnews prior to this year's world championships, "I’ll be remembered for the Worlds but that’s not the only victory I have in my palmares."
Freire was the atypical Spaniard who made his mark in Europe's one-day races, parlaying his toughness, tactical nous and fast finishing kick into victories at Milan-San Remo (2004, 2007, 2010), Gent-Wevelgem (2008), Paris-Tours (2010), Brabantse Pijl (2005, 2006, 2007) and Vattenfall Cyclassics (2006).
In Grand Tours Freire won four stages at the Tour de France as well as the points classification (2008). In his native Spain he claimed seven Vuelta a España stage wins plus wore the leader's jersey early in the 2007 edition.
Freire won stages at Tirreno-Adriatico (plus the overall in 2005), Vuelta a Andalucía (plus the overall in 2007), Vuelta al País Vasco, Tour de Romandie, Tour Down Under and the Tour de Suisse (where in stage 7 at the 2006 edition he famously bunny-hopped a median to drop his breakaway companions in the finale and win the stage).
In a career fraught with injury Freire managed to win at least one race in each of the 15 years he raced as a professional. Following two season on Spain's Vitalicio Seguros squad Freire would never race for a Spanish team again, spending three years at Mapei (2000-2002), the bulk of his career at Rabobank (2003-2011) and concluding his presence in the pro peloton with Team Katusha (2012).
While composed and collected on the bike while racing, Freire would at times be famously absent-minded, such as the time he forgot one of his shoes in the team hotel prior to the 2010 Milan-San Remo (which he won), or a similar instance during the 2008 Tour when he left his shoes in the hotel before stage 10, borrowed a teammate's shoes for the start of the stage and swapped back into his own shoes later on after he had already joined the day's early escape. In an instance of the bizarre, Freire, along with New Zealand's Julian Dean, were riders who were shot by an air rifle during the 13th stage of the 2009 Tour.
While threatening to retire at the end of the 2011 season, the 36-year-old Spaniard could still have much to be proud of in 2012, his final year in the pro peloton. He opened his season with a stage win in the first WorldTour event of the year, Australia's Tour Down Under, and a month later won a stage at the Vuelta a Andalucía (which would prove to be his final professional victory).
Through the spring he notched a second place in stage 2 at Tirreno-Adriatoco, 7th at Milan-San Remo, 2nd at E3 Prijs Vlaanderen - Harelbeke, 4th at Gent-Wevelgem, 12th at Ronde van Vlaanderen, 2nd at Brabantse Pijl followed by 4th at the Amstel Gold Race.
Freire's final Tour de France proved disastrous, as the Spaniard was forced to withdraw after falling victim to the huge crash on stage six. Freire, however, still managed to finish the stage despite having suffered a punctured lung and a broken rib.
The injury forced Freire to miss the Olympics, but he returned to racing in late August at the Tour of Denmark and several weeks later signaled he was still a force to be reckoned with after finishing third behind Tom Boonen and Mark Renshaw at Paris-Brussels.
Fifteen days later, the ever humble Freire would end his career at the world championships.
"I will not spend much time away from home so that I can enjoy time with my family," said Freire. "I won’t be competing anymore but cycling will always be part of my life. I’m sure I’ll still go to races but only to watch them. Who knows, I might be involved in cycling again in three or four years but now I need a break and not have to think about anything."
For a photo retrospective of Freire's career, click on the gallery.