Friday, January 13, 2012

On Oscar Freire's Coming Retirement

After a few back-and-forth decisions between continuing in the sport and retiring, it has finally been announced that Óscar Freire is retiring after 2012. Best known for his three World Championship wins and two Milano-Sanremo wins, Freire is one of the last graduates of the Mapei school of one-day racing on the late 90s and early 00s. If his fame and talent is obvious today, it wasn't so in the beginning. 

And I have to confess: for the longest time, I disliked Freire as a rider. I had thought of him as an opportunist and inconsistent sprinter who won only because he was below the radar. 

In fact, an joke that we shared was that he would only peak twice a year, once for Brabantse Pijl (3x consecutive wins) and later in the season for the Worlds race (3x wins). The rest of the time he seemed always to been plagued by injuries. In fact, his injuries were so frequent that he has his own page on ThinkExist with the following quote,
“I feel powerless to not be able to defend my world title, ... I'm frustrated because it's one thing to miss the world's if you're not in shape or strong enough, but it's another because of injury. These things happen in cycling and unfortunately I've become accustomed (to being sidelined with injuries).”
Freire in 2001, from Wikipedia commons. Photo by Eric Houdas.

Oscar Freire, Il Gato: The Cat. The man who could still beat Merckx' 3 Worlds titles in 2012. Twice winner of Milano-Sanremo, a three-peat of Brabantse Pijl, Gent-Wevelgem, and multiple grand tour stages. The man who was injured nearly always, trains almost never, but wins big races. This is a story of how I came to respect Oscar Freire after desisting for a very long time.

His first major win, at the 1999 World Championships in Verona, was seen as a fluke. After all, who would have thunk that a Spaniard from a small team could be a genuine contender? That race was remembered more for the Frank Vandenbroucke's failure to win the race outright, having earlier in the season won Het Volk and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in convincing style, and later on showing ridiculously strong form in the Vuelta. Commentators were busy making remarks on VDB's broken wrists suffered after a crash at the Worlds race, his telling neither teammates nor DSs, and still finishing seventh from an elite group of nine. Surely Freire won only because contenders of that elite group - which included Ullrich, Zberg, Konyshev, Casagrande, and Camenzind - were so busy watching each other that the unknown Freire was able to sneak away. Just read Velominati's excellent account of this race. Oh, and did you know that VDB was so charismatic in that race that he met the woman to whom he ended up married? Freire's must certainly have been a fluke win. 

Invited to join the Mapei super-team for the next season, he proved foil to the Italian team's ambition to groom Italian riders to be world champions. In the 2001 Worlds race he beat Italian Paolo Bettini in the finale, Bettini himself considered a rising star on the Mapei team. But surely Freire won only because of inter-squad feud between Bettini and his former mentor Michele Bartoli. If only the two had co-operated, Bettini and Bartoli must have done a one-two for the glory of Italy and Mapei!

The demise of team Mapei brought Freire to Rabobank, then heavy with Dutch riders. He always seemed to be the odd one out. Sure, he did score wins in the 2004 Milan-Sanremo (surely it was because Erik Zabel had raised his hands too early) and in the 2004 Worlds race (surely it was only because Bettini, who had just won Olympic Gold in Athens, banged his knee on the team car during the race, and then all he had left to beat was Zabel once again), but was he simply becoming Zabel's accursed rival? How does he manage to stay injured for such long stretches and yet still produce brilliant results when he isn't? The pre-race murmurs full of speculation of whether he would be in shape for the 2004 Worlds clouded my expectations, and thus my understanding of the outcomes.

To be fair, he still seemed the odd man out in Rabobank. In the 2005 Amstel Gold he angered the team by not admitting his poor form. The entire team gamely led him out, only to discover that he had been dropped in the run up the Cauberg climb. Local favorite and teammate Michael Boogerd had plenty to not say. No matter that he managed to win Brabantse Pijl three times in a row, from 2005-2007.

Does he seriously only peak twice a year, during the time of de Pijl and the Worlds race?? Even worse, in my mind he was a speculator rather than a real contender, winning opportunistically from the back rather than from the front.

It was in 2007 that I started to think of him not as an opportunist or a speculator but as a consistent contender. More than anything else, his second Milan-Sanremo turned my opinion of him. He was former winner, the finale was hotly contested, and he still won. It was then that I remembered MSR was a long race early in the season, and I had to then re-consider that his 2004 was not stolen from Zabel nearly as much as it was earned by Freire. Here was a man who pushed beyond his means, not giving up until the finish line even if most of the time he doesn't succeed.

Winning a very hard Gent-Wevelgem in 2008 further impressed me. Here was a hard-charging Rabobank team, united in their goal to deliver their sprinter to the finish line, pushing other sprinters out of contention. It was a moment when he truly led the team.

From this point on, his TdF Points Classification win, a third MSR, and a Paris-Tour, all seemed an inevitable sequence of victories.

It is too bad that the 2011 season was truly punishing for him, with very few wins. It may have been hard enough that he went flip-flop on retiring or staying. He claims that he still had more than a few offers, and in the end struck a one-year deal with Katusha, where the only other sprinter is youngster Denis Galimzyanov.

It may seem unlikely that 2012 will be the year that he wins his forth Worlds, but many will not dare bet against it. A few factors are in his favor. First is the timing. A lot of top riders and teams are sure to target the Olympics and may not show up fresh nor eager to win the Worlds race. Second is the course. As usually the case, it is an attrition-style long course that Freire favors. It is true that the course in Limburg, Netherlands contains the Cauberg as it nears the finish, and it can be a death knell for the ambition of many pure sprinters. However, recall that even team Rabobank used to think that it was perfect for Freire. It would be ironic if their prediction were to come true just in time for Freire to slay the host riders in the host country of his former team.

What do you think of Freire's retirement? Do you have a favorite Freire moment? Might he beat Merckx' record in 2012? 

No comments:

Post a Comment