Oscar Freire (Spain) is perennially among the favourites to take the rainbow jersey at the UCI World Championships, and in Copenhagen on Sunday, he will be chasing an unprecedented fourth world road race title.
History has been beckoning Freire for quite some time in this regard, of course, and his last world title was all of seven years ago in Verona. However while speaking to reporters at the Spanish hotel in Copenhagen's Sydhavnen quarter on Saturday, he laughed off the idea that he was somehow "cursed" and destined never to break the record he co-holds with Alfredo Binda, Rick Van Steenbergen and Eddy Merckx and so become the first rider to win the world title four times.
"After the third win, I didn't do the following two world championships, I had physical problems," Freire pointed out. "After that that, the courses were a little too difficult for me and tactically we got it wrong a couple of times too. And then there are other guys racing as well, so it's not easy. Besides, there are plenty more riders who have never won a world championship. To win a fourth certainly won't be easy."
Freire arrives at the Worlds with question marks over his form, after illness forced him to withdraw from the Vuelta a España at the end of the opening week. Given his track record of repeatedly pulling rabbits from hats on the grandest of stages, the ever-relaxed Freire was not overly concerned by his lack of racing miles in the build-up to the big day.
"Right from the first day of Vuelta, I didn't feel well health-wise. I had a cold and afterwards, I found it hard to recover. After that, I stopped taking antibiotics and I took a lot of time to recover," he explained.
"But it's not a worry ahead of Sunday. I've been in this situation other times, when I haven't ridden the Vuelta or raced very little, and then gone on to do well at the Worlds afterwards. I think I've trained well in the meantime."
The Copenhagen circuit, and in particular, its rising finishing straight appear to be well-suited to Freire's characteristics. Sixth last year on a similar finish in Geelong, he was reluctant to compare his current form to that of twelve months ago, but he is confident that he can make an impact on Sunday.
"On a hard course like Mendrisio [in 2009], I wouldn't be one of the favourites, but on this course, especially over 260km, it is well suited to my sprint," he said. "The last 300 metres are climbing, so why not."
The lack of significant climbs on the course means that Freire is anticipating an aggressive, high-paced race, and he warned that the sprinters' teams will need to be vigilant to ensure that a break's lead doesn't get out of hand.
"Even on this course a break could go clear," he said. "Often when the course is hard, people go a little easier, everybody is afraid and in the end it becomes an easy race. Instead on a route like this, it will be hard even from the start. I think it will be a really fast race. You can't relax and allow a break get too much time because if they get more three or four minutes, it will be hard to bring them
Retirement ruled out, but Rabobank future unclear
On the eve of Freire's first world title win in Verona in 1999, he was riding for his survival in the professional ranks, after being deemed surplus to requirements at Vitalicio Seguros. Twelve years on, he again arrives at the world championships with questions over his future, as he considers whether or not to continue with Rabobank.
"I don't know [if I will be at Rabobank next season], but right now I'm not too concerned about the future," he said. "I found myself in a different situation when I won my first Worlds and I didn't have a team. That situation was difficult, but this one is different. I just think I'll have to do the best Worlds I can and then we can talk about it more calmly."
Freire confirmed that he will race in 2012 regardless of the result on Sunday, contrary to reports earlier in the month that suggested he might retire at the end of this season.
"No, it's not like that. Next year I want to do well. There are the Olympics and a number of other races that I would like to do."