By Susan Westemeyer and Hernan Alvarez
Rabobank's Oscar Freire will wear his first leader's jersey in a Grand Tour on today's Stage 3 of the Vuelta a España, with the Spaniard taking the gold jersey with victory on Sunday's Stage 2. After finishing a close runner up to Lampre-Fondital's Daniele Bennati on the Spanish Grand Tour's opening stage, Freire went one better on Stage 2, out sprinting Italian world champion Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step-Innergetic) in an uphill bunch sprint.
"I was close yesterday. I didn't feel well during the whole stage [Stage 1]," Freire told TVE. "Today it was different; besides, the finale suited me better considering my characteristics and I think I did well. Besides, I got the leader jersey which is the first time for me. So, I am doubly happy."
Following the drama that surrounded the squad's Tour de France campaign, team leader Erick Breukink was happy to put the past behind the squad and bask in the glory. "A great day for us," he declared. "Of course, this was a stage made for Oscar. An uphill sprint after a rather tough local lap. But you still need to do it, because even though he is in a great condition, the competition here is very fierce."
While the 31 year-old's Stage 2 victory gave Freire his first Grand Tour leader's jersey it's by no means the rider's first Grand Tour success. Freire took his first two Grand Tour stage victories at the Vuelta in 2000 while riding for Mapei – Quick.Step, following a win on the Tour de France's Stage 2 two years later. After switching to Dutch squad Rabobank in 2003 Freire returned to the winners circle the following year with another Vuelta stage win, to which he added two Tour stage victories last year.
"It is fantastic to achieve this so early on in the Vuelta," said Freire.
Breukink agreed that it was the right time for Freire to return to his winning ways. "It was about time for him to win a stage again after all those second places," noted Breukink. "Twice in the Tour, Hamburg and the first Vuelta-ride. We had all the confidence in Oscar's abilities today and fortunately that turned out to be right. It is good for the rest in the team, which was also one of the main reasons for us to let him start here. And, he might of course win some more races."