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An interview with Oscar Freire, August 29, 2007
Oscar Freire: A man without a country
Spaniard Oscar Freire is a conundrum. He's accomplished what only legends like Alfredo Binda, Eddy Merckx and Rik Van Steenbergen have been able to do: win three World Road Race Championships (1999, 2001, 2004). Add a couple of wins in Milano-Sanremo, fistfuls of Grand Tour stages and a slew of other impressive results, and by all accounts he should be a huge celebrity in Spain. Cyclingnews' Hernan Alvarez finds out why the Rabobank rider considers himself a man without a country.
Oscar Freire hails from a land celebrated for producing exceptional cyclists: diminutive Basque mountain goats, the massively powerful Miguel Indurain, the graceful Abraham Olano but his country is not generally known for riders who excel in the one-day races. In fact, Freire's punchy sprint and affection for the Classics is so undervalued in his native Spain that after beginning his career on the Vitalicio Seguros squad in 1998, the rider from Torrelavaga has always ridden on foreign teams: Mapei from 2000-2002 and Rabobank ever since.
Freire takes the lack of wider recognition in stride, laughing about it when asked what he would title his autobiography if he were to write one. "Nobody's ever asked me that before. I would have to think about it a lot," he chuckled. More serious, he contemplated, "It is not easy at all. I think I would title it 'The rider who doesn't fit in his country'.
"If I were Belgian, things would have been different but... the mentality of this country is not for riders of my style," he stated. Like a great painter or a songwriter who was far ahead of his time, Freire may have to wait until he's out of the game to receive his accolades. "When I retire from competition is when they will start appreciating me," he predicted. "They should appreciate
me now when I am riding."
Freire's greatest highlight of this year was his second win in Milano-Sanremo, where he added to the title he had already achieved in the Italian race in 2004. "It is always nice because it is the first classic of the year and everyone waits eagerly for this important race to come," said Freire. "When I was with Mapei in Italy I noticed they gave the race a lot of importance. It is a race of great history, which makes winning it very nice. For a rider with my characteristics, it is one of the most important races one can achieve. This was the second and let's see what happens next year."
However, it hasn't helped Freire that his performances have been wildly inconsistent. He's won Milano-Sanremo and then gone months without even a podium finish. He's had season after season plagued with injury, yet even racing schedule which is much shorter than just about anyone else, he still managed to pull off those three world titles.
The injury that has set him back time and again is a mysterious pain in his neck - not in the figurative sense, but a quite literal and debilitating pain that he's gone to great lengths to heal. This year, however, it was something far more acutely painful for a cyclist which interrupted his season and forced him to leave the Tour de France - a saddle sore. He quit the Tour in order to let the cyst heal before it required surgery, and now is preparing to get revenge at the Vuelta a España.
"I couldn't race with this cyst problem," stated Freire. "I did 32 competition days during the first part of the season and now I am doing 38. I did three days in Switzerland, five days in the Tour and now this race in Hamburg.. but there is still much of the season left. I hope that now in the Vuelta a España I will be able to get some wins."
Freire predicted that this year's Tour of Spain will afford him the opportunity to pad his palmares for the season. "I think that in the Vuelta there are plenty of chances [to win stages]," stated Freire. "I think there will be more than one or two sprints. Considering the last two bunch sprints I raced, I was second in both. One stage in the Tour and now in Hamburg. Now let's see if I am able to climb up one step and improve on that second place."
Freire made his comeback from the saddle sore in the Vattenfall Cyclassics, where he finished second behind Italy's Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital) in a sprint which was disrupted by a late race crash. However, for a real champion like him second place is never good enough. "I was close," said the Spaniard about the race. "I think I did well. The point is that these circumstances are not very usual in bunch sprints," Freire explained. "Normally, Ballan is going to launch his team-mate and he realised he got some metres [of advantage]. Then, the wind was blowing against us and it was too far to get out and I waited. Finally I couldn't do it."
Back in Spain after a long and tiring trip, Freire is beginning to regain his form and is happy to report that his pesky saddle sore has vanished. "I feel well, very well. I am a bit tired because it was a somewhat long trip back home [going from Hamburg to Torrelavega in northern Spain] but I didn't have the problems I did in the Tour. They didn't continue. Let's see what these remaining weeks before the Vuelta a España hold - we'll see if I can train well and if I can continue with a normal season," the Spaniard commented. Of the troublesome cyst, he said, "I still have it but it doesn't hurt me. Right now, it doesn't hurt me. Apart from having that, I had aches before. Now I have it in a very small size and it didn't cause me trouble in competition."
The situation was quite different during this year's Tour. Freire was working his way up in the sprints, and had just scored a close second behind Tom Boonen in stage six, and fans were waiting to see more from the former world champion. But the mountains were looming, and fruitless days in the saddle could have spelled a premature end to his season if the cyst grew large enough to require surgery. "I left [the Tour de France] when I saw that I had to go," Freire said. "I think that if I hadn't had [health] problems, I would have certainly continued. But with this problem I wasn't at my very best. Before reaching the Tour I hadn't trained well and I lacked a little bit to be able to get a win. I took part in five stages [aside from the prologue -ed.], where I was third and second twice. But I didn't get a victory. Let's see now in the Vuelta a España and in the Worlds, which matters to me the most, if I [can] reach first place."
Freire has worn the world champion's rainbow jersey for three seasons, and, as expected, the World Championships are always his biggest goal every year. "I couldn't race the World Championships during the last two years," he commented. "I couldn't even take the start. The last time I did, I was world champion. Let's see how I do this year," Freire smiled.
"I think the parcours is good and if I stay healthy, I hope to be up front as on former occasions." However, Freire didn't have time to personally examine the course in Stuttgart. "I just saw it in some magazines," said Freire. "It is a route that will certainly become hard, but it will all depend on how the race is going. If it rains, if it doesn't rain, if it becomes very fast, if riders are afraid or riders are not afraid. The finale is a bit hard, but I think this kind of finish suits me very well because it eliminates riders who could become dangerous facing the final bunch sprint, and that is an advantage for me."
If Freire achieves a fourth world title, recognition and respect in Spain may finally reach the level seen in his hometown of Torrelavega, where there is a velodrome and a race named after him - something very unusual for a rider who has not even retired. "They wanted to do something here because of two world championships that I won [after his triumphs in 1999 and 2001]. There was already a velodrome," explained the Spaniard. "They built some sporting infrastructure and they named it after me."
Having that kind of honour is quite different, and welcome for Freire. "It's nice to have something like this done when you're still alive and can enjoy it. When you're dead, it's no longer necessary... That's why I think it is something different." He also has a race named after him which is held in the velodrome which bears his name. "It was held last Saturday [August 18] and by chance my wife's brother won it. His name is Roberto Cobo. He has won its last two editions. There in the velodrome they do points races, elimination races, it is a track competition," said the Rabobank rider.
No talk of Spanish cycling can steer clear of the Operación Puerto affair, and the problems the doping scandal has caused for the sport saddens the 31 year-old. "I heard many things said by people, said by newspapers, said by the media - but you never know if it's actually 100% true. They said at first that there were more sportsmen involved [apart from cyclists] but... the case was closed in the end.
"It seemed it had ended, but because the mass media focused on it once again, everything concerning that case came back into the spotlight and there is more talk about cycling's problems," Freire lamented. "I think it is not good at all for cycling. It is certain that cycling is losing a lot, very much, because the news about the races is getting less attention than news about doping. It is not good at all for the sport."
Perhaps equally important to the sport is the ProTour, which has seen its share of trouble throughout the season. Freire, who was in the rainbow bands in the first season of the ProTour, thought the concept was flawed from the start. "I saw the ProTour in the beginning that it was going wrong, and I think now it is finishing worse. Day by day cycling in general has less importance," Freire commented. "That means that the ProTour had done nothing. Most of the race organisers are against it, they don't agree [with the ProTour rules]. Honestly, the original idea is good but many things should have been changed from the very beginning. The problem between the UCI and the Tour in the end affects cycling in general again. It is a battle for power, better said, for the business rather than for the good of a sport."