Three-time World champion Oscar Freire of Spain is just hours away from what could be his last ever professional bike race, and it is appropriate that he should ride his final World championships at Valkenburg, where he rode his first World’s way back in 1998.
“I finished 17th,” Freire told Cyclingnews on Saturday. “There was a group away with the winners, but I’d punctured when the break went, and I was at the front of the next group that finished the course. I can remember it was cold, windy and really tough.”
“I wasn’t under any pressure, though, I was young and I didn’t care about anything. There were ten of us Spanish, a bigger team than you have now. But I’d taken silver in the World Amateur Championships the year before (in San Sebastian) - I think that could have been a better result if I hadn’t punctured - and I knew then that World championships was going to be my thing.”
“It’s nice to finish racing here in Valkenburg, where it all started and in a country, Holland, where I’ve spent most of my career [with Rabobank]. It’s a coincidence that I’m here, but there couldn’t be a better way of finishing.”
Could it be over, though? Freire has said that if he wins he will -probably- continue for another year, and his results indicate that he is in with a serious chance.
A series of real near-misses (and two wins this year), including fourth in the Amstel Gold Race, just a stone’s throw away from the finish on Sunday, fourth in Ghent-Wevelgem, third in the recent Paris-Brussels, seventh in Milan-San Remo and twelfth in Flanders, are results any rider would be proud of.
Winning comes down to small details
Freire says that the course itself “is one of the best for me in the last few Worlds. However, we don’t race with the same mentality that we did when I won the Worlds” - as he did in 1999, 2001 and 2004. I was the sole leader and all that matters a lot. Now there are more leaders (in the Spanish team) and the difference between winning and not winning comes down to small details which can matter a lot in a race, little errors that can make all the difference.”
Freire is no longer the protected rider that he was and he says that makes a big difference. “It’s not the same if you only have to worry about getting to the finish ok and sprinting, than if you’re worrying about whether there is a breakaway or not. I think that changes the situation in the race (for me).”
“I hope I can show the same sort of level as I’ve had and be up there. Winning is another story. A little error can stop you from doing that. Either way, I’ve trained hard for this and everything that I’ve been able to do and more, I’ve done.”
There is also the ‘minor matter’ of becoming the first ever rider to win four World championships but Freire says “independently of whether I do that, I’m proud of what I’ve achieved as a cyclist” - which include winning at least one race every year since he turned pro way back in 1998. I’ll be remembered for the Worlds but that’s not the only victory I have in my palmares.”
Freire, has won seven Tour stage, a Tour points jersey, Milan-San Remo three times as well as wins in the Hew Cyclassics, Ghent-Wevelgem, Fleche Brabanconne and seven stages at the Vuelta a España.
“I’m a fairly unusual rider for Spain, but I’ve opened a path for Classics riders and at least they’re more valued than they used to be, even if some of them still have to race in foreign teams,” he says.
“I think this will be my last race, and I just hope to be 100 percent. Winning, though, would be the only reason for continuing.”