Oscar Freire (Katusha) has made a career out of popping up unnoticed to take the biggest of victories, but the wily Spaniard was caught out when he mistimed his finishing sprint at E3 Harelbeke on Friday and he had to settle for second place behind Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
The final 200 metres in Harelbeke curl gently around to the right, obliterating the riders' sight of the finish line, and Freire was horrified when he belatedly saw the banner come into view 300 metres earlier than he had anticipated.
"I went too late because I thought the finish line was further on. When I saw the finish it was too late," a frustrated Freire told reporters immediately after wheeling to a halt outside the Katusha team bus.
By that point, Boonen had swept past a strangely inert Freire, and although the triple world champion succeeded in eating up almost his entire deficit in the space of just 50 metres, he simply ran out of road and had to settle for the most exasperating of second place finishes.
Never exaggerated in his reactions to victory or to defeat, the amiable Freire was able to muster up a rueful smile when he entered the press room after the race. When it was tentatively put to him that he had made a small mistake in the finale, Freire was quick to correct his inquisitor.
"Not a small mistake – a big mistake," he said, shaking his head. "With 100 metres to the finish we couldn't see the finish. When I saw the finish it was too late. I started the sprint but it was too late."
Although Freire's trademark late burst of speed was at least enough to secure the second step of the podium for his troubles, it also added to his chagrin at having made such an uncharacteristic error. In spite of Boonen's fine finishing effort, he was certain that he would have beaten the Belgian had he known where the finish line was.
"I think so because I sprinted only the last 30 metres," he said. "If I started 200 metres from the finish I would have been really good for the sprint because I was saving the legs in the last 15km, and I was thinking only of the sprint because there were four of us [Katusha riders] in the group."
Twelve months ago, the E3 Harelbeke saw the field decimated by a stunning show of force from Fabian Cancellara, and with 13 hellingen on the agenda, few would have anticipated that a 45-man group would contest the victory in a sprint, particularly when the race began to split on the Kwaremont. In the end, however, it all came back together on the run-in to Harelbeke.
"With good weather and also the teams controlling the race, I think it's normal that a lot of riders arrived to the finish," said Freire. "I think the race was hard but the problem was that the condition of the riders is almost the same and nobody can make the difference."
Surprisingly, Freire himself enjoyed a brief sortie off the front midway through the race, although he explained that it was simply to aid his positioning as the succession of climbs began in earnest. "I don't know really the parcours so for me it's difficult to stay all the time in the front. I said that if I took some seconds in the important part I could pass with the front riders better."
Freire will now turn his attentions to Sunday's Gent-Wevelgem, a race he won in 2008, and which is even more conducive to the type of finish seen at Harelbeke. "It's less complicated to be in front in the important moments," he agreed. "I hope to be in the same condition as today and I think I can win again this race."
The 36-year-old Freire has long hinted at his intention to hang up his wheels at the end of the season, and this spring looks to be the Spaniard's final cobbled campaign in the peloton.
"Oscarito, you'll have to come back next year now that you know where the finish is, eh?" one wag had called out at the finish.
"No, no I don't think so," Freire smiled, in spite of his disappointment.
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