By Brecht Decaluwé in Digne les Bains
Spanish sprinter Oscar Freire at last added his name to the list of 2008 Tour de France stage winners on stage 14, thanks in part to a category four climb before the finish that put quadruple sprint winner Mark Cavendish out the back of the bunch. The win padded his lead in the green jersey competition, which he has earned through eight top ten stage finishes, a remarkable level of consistency from the Spaniard.
Freire brought himself level on points with Team Columbia's Kim Kirchen after stage eight, with a fourth place finish behind Cavendish. He then lost the green jersey to Kirchen on the mountainous finish at Bagnéres de Bigorre on stage nine, where Kirchen placed 12th. Thanks to Kirchen's lead in the overall classification, Freire was wearing green the following day which finished on the major climb to Hautacam. On that day, Freire made a brilliant move to get into the early breakaway. The twelve points he scooped up in the intermediate sprints more than made up for Kirchen's climbing abilities. Even though the Luxembourger lost the yellow jersey, he still finished 15th, earning a single point.
From the tenth stage on, Freire wore the green jersey and after Saturday's stage win he seems to have paved the way for the overall victory in the points classification in Paris. Although Cavendish has dominated the flat stages, Freire is happy with his Tour so far. "Cavendish proved that he is the fastest sprinter this year, but his absence today doesn't take anything away from my performance in this Tour de France; I was there in all the other sprints," Freire said.
However, Freire was not so confident of his green jersey changes after coming fifth behind Cavendish on stage 13. "It's not in the pocket yet," he said after that stage, realizing that there were probably two sprints left in the Tour de France: one on the Champs Elysees in Paris and one in Digne-les-Bains.
Freire, with a 28-point lead on the British rider after the sprint in Nîmes, feared that if Cavendish took both stage wins – a likely scenario since he was unbeatable in all but one other sprints – he would take the green jersey in Paris. "This morning I asked Cavendish if he was planning to go for the green jersey in Paris, and he said he would. Maybe he has changed his mind now," Freire said following Saturday's stage win that brought him into a comfortable lead of 47 points on Thor Hushovd.