By Bjorn Haake in Burgos
Oscar Freire punched out another great victory in his illustrious career. In a true mano a mano, Freire held off Tom Boonen (Quick Step) on stage 11 into Burgos. It was his seventh stage win at the Vuelta a España.
The wins in the Vuelta come despite not specifically preparing for it. "I always come to the Vuelta to prepare well for the Worlds. But it is also important to do well here [in Spain]," so he doesn't let any opportunities slip by. "Today I was fighting for the win." Showing determination and gritting his teeth, Freire held off a charging Boonen.
Freire was helped by his returning form. "I didn't feel great in the beginning of the Vuelta, but the last couple of days were better." An in-form Freire is hard to beat, and despite putting in strong attempts to do so, none of his rivals could get past the Spaniard.
Last year, Freire's Vuelta started off well. He got second in the first and third stages and won stages two, five and six. His preparation this year was similar to the previous season, but with a little more rest before the Vuelta. "Last year, I was training well for the Vuelta and the Worlds, but in the end I was lacking a bit. This year, I arrived fresher at the Vuelta."
Despite his good Vuelta in 2007, he finished only 14th in the road race at the World Championships in Stuttgart, on a course that should have suited him well enough to battle it out with Bettini and company.
The win today may well be a good sign for the World Championships, Freire's preferred battleground. The triple World Champion (1999, 2001, 2004) would love to add a fourth rainbow jersey to his collection.
It would also make the Spanish sporting year perfect, even without counting its football team winning the European Championships and Rafael Nadal finally beating Roger Federer at Wimbledon's tennis mecca. "It's true that Spanish cycling is pretty complete, with wins in the Giro, the Tour and the Olympics," he said. All that is lacking now is a win at the Worlds through Freire.
Just like at the Olympics the Spanish team goes into the Worlds as a favorite. "Theoretically, it is the strongest team," Freire said. "The team will work once again for the common victory."
He will spend the two weeks between the end of the Spanish three-week Grand Tour and the Worlds doing some specific training. Perhaps giving some hope to his competitors, he said, "I don't know if I will be at my best level," yet not too much..., "but I think I will be..."
Freire was happy to be back on the podium of a major race. "My last victory was at the Tour de France." The win was also special because his family was here to witness it, which made Freire really relaxed.
Wednesday's triumph may well motivate him to add another victory to his palmarès in the near future, but Freire wasn't too optimistic about the following stage into Suances. "I am realistic about it. Others like [Alessandro] Valverde or [Paolo] Bettini have better chances on such a parcours. Of course anything can happen." Freire has the advantage of knowing the course, but still thinks it will be difficult.
Despite playing down his chances, the punchy rider can do well on hilly courses. A win Thursday certainly would be no surprise. And even after that, he has a few more chances at enjoying the victory kisses. Getting fresh to the Vuelta may have had its benefits.
After his win, Freire offered his opinion on the return of Lance Armstrong to the pro peloton. "I think it's good news and important news. He is a great rider. I am not sure if he wasn't satisfied yet with what he had [already] done and now he wants to return. But his return is certainly not bad news."