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1999 Elite men's road Worlds podium (L-R): Markus Zberg (Switzerland), 2nd; Oscar Freire (Spain), 1st; Jean-Cyril Robin (France), 3rd
Three-time world champion closes remarkable career
A storied 15-year professional cycling career came to a conclusion on September 23, 2012 as 36-year-old Spaniard Oscar Freire crossed the finish line in 10th place at the elite men's road world championships in Valkenburg, The Netherlands. The savvy, speedy Spaniard was vying for an unprecedented fourth world championship and a spot even higher in the pantheon of cycling legends, but it was not to be in Freire's final day in the professional peloton.
Cyclingnews readers, however, voted Oscar Freire the 2012 legend of cycling with 7,141 votes (25.34%), topping Kristin Armstrong (5,612 votes/19.91%) and Victoria Pendleton (3,305 votes/11.73%) for top honours.
It was apropos that Freire's curtain call would take place at the world championships. In Freire's first year as a professional, 1998, 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, "Iâ€™ll be remembered for the Worlds but thatâ€™s not the only victory I have in my palmares."
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).
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 EspaÃ±a 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 AndalucÃa (plus the overall in 2007), Vuelta al PaÃs 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 year with another Armstrong dominating the sport's headlines for ignominious reasons, Kristin Armstrong capped a return from retirement to defend her 2008 Olympic time trial gold medal with a repeat performance at this past summer's London Games. The 38-year-old American beat reigning time trial world champion Judith Arndt by 15.47 seconds and Russia's Olga Zabelinskaya by 22.53 seconds to secure victory and Olympic glory in the final race of her career.
Kristin Armstrong had her own trials and tribulations in 2012, however, as she broke her collarbone in the opening stage of her hometown Exergy Tour on May 24, but nonetheless secured one of the US's two start spots in the Olympic time trial based on her stellar results both against the clock and in road races to that point.
Armstrong transitioned from triathlon to cycling at the age of 27 in 2001 and in addition to her two Olympic gold medals she earned two time trial world championships (2006, 2009), two US road championships (2004, 2006), three US time trial titles (2005, 2006, 2007) plus numerous stage and overall victories on both the roads of the USA and Europe.
Armstrong temporarily retired in 2009 to start a family, but returned to racing in 2011 with the goal to defend her Olympic time trial gold medal. Armstrong's son Lucas joined her on the podium in London following her victory.
Victoria Pendleton, too, concluded her career at the 2012 London Olympics where she won gold in the keirin but controversial decisions prevented her from winning additional golds in the team sprint and individual sprint. Her British team set a new world record in the team sprint qualifying but were disqualified in the semi-final round for a missed exchange. In her final event of the Olympics, Pendleton earned silver in the individual sprint to Anna Meares in which she was relegated in their first sprint of the gold medal round.
The 32-year-old enjoyed a remarkable career on the track as she earned a record six individual sprint world championships (2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012). She also won two team sprint world titles (2007, 2008) plus a keirin world championship (2007). In addition to her gold and silver medals earned in London, Pendleton won the individual sprint gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Additionally, Pendleton was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2009 New Year Honours.
2012 legend of cycling voting
1. Oscar Freire: (30.49%)
2. Kristin Armstrong: (23.96%)
3. Victoria Pendleton: (14.11%)
4. Travis Tygart: (10.15%)
5. Judith Arndt (7.26%)
6. David Moncoutie: (6.57%)
7. Fiorenzo Magni: (6.45%)
8. Daphny van den Brand: (1.01%)
28,185 votes cast