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World Championships feature, September 28, 2008
Spanish armada cruising for Freire
By Hedwig Kröner in Varese
Contrary to what had previously been assessed, the Spanish team at the World Championships in Varese is entered around triple world champ Oscar Freire more than around Classics contender Alejandro Valverde. At the team's press conference on Friday afternoon, it became clear that the squad's strategy was to work towards a small bunch sprint finish, including the fast finisher.
Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez, one of the four most important rider in the team [Sánchez, Freire, Valverde and Alberto Contador - ed.], said that the Varese course was very different to the one in Beijing. "You cannot really compare this Worlds race to the one in Beijing," he said. "First of all, we have nine riders here instead of five at the Olympics, and secondly, the course is very different. The favourite, in my opinion, is Oscar Freire."
Valverde, even if he has been longing for a rainbow jersey for years, agreed. "The fourth worlds title for Oscar is an important objective for the Spanish team. The race, on paper, suits Oscar's characteristics as a rider perfectly," he said, putting his own ambitions aside for his teammate.
Spanish team coach Paco Antequera was convinced that Freire had what it takes to make it to the finish within a bigger group to take advantage of his qualities as a sprinter. "The Italians are obviously going to try to eliminate Oscar by making the race as hard as possible," he said. "But we'll see if they succeed - all I know is that it's pretty difficult to eliminate him when he's as good as he is right now!"
Freire himself attributed his good form to a year without physical problems, which allowed him to train and race himself into top shape for the event and could see 'The Cat' take his fourth gold medal. "The Vuelta [where he won stage 11 to Burgos - ed.] was a great preparation for the worlds," he explained. "I just got better and better as the race unfolded. After pulling out in Suances, I recovered well. Today, my level of fitness is much greater than before the Vuelta."
The Rabobank rider acknowledged that the course may not be as hard as previously thought, and that it could well come down to a small bunch sprint finish. "The course suits me well, but it's always difficult to make any predictions before actually racing it. The worlds in Lisbon [which he won in 2001 - ed.] seemed very hard, but then the race turned out in my favour, in a sprint. The worlds in Madrid [which Tom Boonen won in 2005 - ed.] seemed easy on paper, but turned out very hard. It all depends on how the various courses are raced," he explained about the different parameters that had to be taken into account.
"Normally, the race will be decided in the last two laps. The Italians have to make it hard, but we also have a strong team to stay with them in the finale. The big favourite is Paolo Bettini, but our team is better than theirs. If we get to the finish with about 20 riders, then we have a good chance."
Still, the Spanish team leader added that the squad was also armed for other possibilities. "If the race turns out more difficult, we have the best climbers, so we can play both scenarios," he said.
Such as a Classics finale involving Bettini, Valverde, the Schleck brothers and Stefan Schumacher, to name just a few. The winner of the 2008 Ličge-Bastogne-Ličge was ready to take it up against his Spring rivals. "I don't think that the parcours suits the Schleck's characteristics very well, though. The course suits me, but suits Oscar a bit better, because it's not very difficult. It's a very fast parcours. All will play out in the last six kilometres. The last climb will be especially hard."
Of course Valverde would be delighted to have a shot at the rainbow jersey once again - that is no secret. "I was silver twice, so to win would be very important to me, it would be awesome," he added. But like his teammate Contador, he was ready to work for Freire if the race unfolded to his advantage.
The 2008 Giro d'Italia and Vuelta winner, likewise, assured he would be a faithful gregario to any of his teammates, saying he did not have any personal ambition in the Worlds road race. "To me, things are clear: the favourites in our team are the other three [Freire, Valverde, Sánchez - ed.]. I will do everything in my power to help them win the medal. I am a stage race rider - one-day races are not my cup of tea," he concluded.
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Images by Hedwig Kröner / Cyclingnews