Oscar Freire freely admits he is often 'despistado', or distracted in everyday life, and even forgot one of his cycling shoes at his team's hotel before Saturday's Milan-San Remo. Yet, for the third time in seven years, he was focused and alert enough at every moment of the Italian race to win with a perfectly timed and perfectly executed sprint.
Sunday's Gazzetta dello Sport described Freire as a shadow, a mirage and an illusionist who is able to hide all day, only to reappear in sight of the finish line. In truth, he is a natural born winner. He has the gift of an astute tactical mind and a great sprint. Like every successful sprinter, he also has the requisite measures of courage and nerve to gamble on a race finishing in a sprint, as well as the ability to make sure he is the one who wins it.
"I've always liked to win, even since I was a boy. I was never interested in second," he said at the post-race press conference.
"The most difficult moment of my career was the first few years when I had some physical problems, but I still won races. It was important to have a winning mentality. Cycling is hard and if you've haven't got a winning mentality you can't achieve much.
"I've never been scared of anyone. The only thing I was scared of here was that the race wouldn't finish in a sprint or that I'd get blocked in. But I know that after 300 kilometres, when I'm good, I can win.
"I think I've had good season so far. This was the fifth sprint I've done and I've won four. I knew I could win Milan-San Remo this year. Winning at [Challenge] Mallorca, at the Ruta del Sol is good for morale but what makes the difference to a career is to win a race like this."
One good sprint
Freire is renowned for his canny ability to come into form after just a few days of racing. He'd been laid low by the flu just before Tirreno-Adriatico and finished next to last on the first stage of the Italian stage race. A lack of results in the sprints there meant most of the press wrote him off before Milan-San Remo. He proved everybody wrong and chastised the press for being blinded by Edvald Boasson Hagen's final stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico.
"I know I had some form before Tirreno-Adriatico, so I knew I had to take a risk and ride it. I knew had to do Tirreno-Adriatico to have the form to win Milan-San Remo," he explained.
"I didn’t have a go in the last stage sprint because I knew it was a bit risky and already knew my form was good. The important thing for me was Milan-San Remo. I've also won stages at Tirreno and another stage win wouldn't change a thing. I knew the sprint to win was today and it was important just do one good sprint."
"Boasson Hagen is very strong and has already won some good races but you've got to open your eyes and really try and understand racing. Myself, Boonen and other riders didn’t contest the final sprint at Tirreno. He [Boasson Hagen] is a great rider but the important race was today, when everybody would be going for it, including riders who weren't at Tirreno. For sure, the younger generation is coming, but there are still old riders like me around."
Three-time winner. Four next year?
Freire's third Milan-San Remo win was the 70th victory of his 13-year professional career. His win tipped the balance of Milan-San Remo victories in favour of the non-Italians. Foreign riders have now won 51 editions of La Primavera, while the Italians have a tally of 50.
Freire has also now joined an exclusive club of three-time winners that includes Fausto Coppi and Roger de Vlaeminck. Eddy Merckx tops the winner's list with seven victories. Costante Girardengo won six, while Gino Bartali and Erik Zabel claimed four titles apiece.
Freire, 34, confirmed that 2011 will be his last season as a professional and so his last chance to equal the Milan-San Remo record of his former rival, Zabel.
"It wouldn't be bad to win four," he said, with a smile. "Zabel won Milan-San Remo and everything else, except perhaps a world title because I was always there to stop him. I'm the first Spaniard to win Milan-San Remo three times. It's not easy but I hope to win again next year.
"Last year I was asked me if this year would be last season as a pro. When I said [yes initially], perhaps it was possible because of the [injury] problems I'd had, but now next year will be my last. For now I still want to race and to win more."
With his natural winner's instinct and a hefty final-year contract with Rabobank assured, Freire appears well placed to win even more this spring. He will continue his Classics' campaign next Sunday's at Gent-Wevelgem, where he will be a favourite to repeat his 2008 victory at the Belgian race.