Farewell to Oscar Freire

A number of riders are hanging up their helmets and we’re going to be paying homage to some of them during the off-season. First up, Oscar Freire, a diminutive rider with a massive palmares  – wins in every season as a professional – which might have been even longer and more illustrious were it not for his even longer list of medical complaints. Oscar’s been threatening to retire for a number of seasons but 2012 really was his last, not even a role as a rider/trainer at Euskaltel-Euskadi could tempt him to remain in the peloton for a moment longer. So let’s have a fond look back at his prolific career which included three World Championships  – equalling the records of Alfredo Binda, Rik Van Steenbergen and the legendary Eddy Merckx – and three Milan-San Remo victories, among many others.

The Cantabrian’s career got off to a promising start with 41 victories and three local titles as a junior with SC Besaya (1992-94). Next he rode for Joxean Fernandez (who went on to manage Saunier Duval and Geox), notching up a further 17 wins, the most important of which was Memorial Valenciaga in 1997, where he beat a number of future professionals including Carlos Sastre. He finished the year as runner-up to Norwegian Kurt Asle Arvesen in the under-23 World Championship road race in San Sebastian.

A fresh-faced Oscar Freire in 1998 (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Oscar turned professional in 1998 with Spanish squad Vitalicio Seguros  – the only time he rode for a domestic squad – winning a stage of the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon. In 1999, he surprised everyone by winning the world championship in Verona when he was frankly making up the numbers. He spent his prize on an elevator for his grandmother’s apartment rather than replace his modest Opel Corsa.

The following year Oscar joined what was recognised as the best team, Mapei-Quick Step, and won 11 races including two stages in the Vuelta a Espana. He also came third in the world championship. In 2001 he won two races and took the points competition in the Vuelta a Burgos, before becoming world champion for a second time in Lisbon. In 2002 he won his maiden stage in the Tour de France.

In 2003 Freire moved to Rabobank where he was to remain until the end of 2011. In his first season he won six races but it was in 2004 that he was to enjoy some of his greatest triumphs: Milan-San Remo, Trofeo Luis Puig, a stage and runner-up at Tirreno–Adriatico, another stage in the Vuelta a Espana, and his third – and final – World Championship, again in Verona. He started 2005 in fine fettle winning three stages, the points classification and the yellow jersey at Tirreno-Adriatico, as well as the Brabantse Pijl, Trofeo Alcudia and Trofeo Mallorca, all before the end of March. His season was then cut short by a saddle sore, a recurring problem throughout his long career.

Oscar: looking good in green (image courtesy of the official race website)

In 2006, Freire won his second consecutive Brabantse Pijl, another stage at Tirreno–Adriatico, a stage at the Tour de Suisse and two stages in the Tour de France before retiring due to illness. He bounced back by winning the Vattenfall Cyclassics before his season was cut short by neck and spinal injuries, forcing him to miss the Vuelta a Espana and World Championships. In 2007, he won a second Milan-San Remo title and three further stages in the Vuelta and in 2008, he won a stage and the green points jersey in the Tour. In the 2009 Tour he was shot in the thigh by an air-rifle on stage 13, in a year where he’d already broken his collarbone and was still plagued with injuries to his back.

In March 2010, he recorded my favourite of his wins in Milan-San Remo where he snuck out of the peloton just before the line to deny Tom Boonen victory. Later that year, Oscar became the first Spaniard to win Paris-Tours becoming the new holder of the ruban jaune for setting the fastest average speed in a Classic, he covered the 233km at an average of 47.7km/h.

In 2011, after racking up stage wins in Ruta del Sol and Tirreno-Adriatico, sinus problems forced him to miss the Tour and abandon the Vuelta. He said that if he didn’t win the World Championships in Copenhagen, he would retire. He didn’t win, but neither did he retire. Rabobank, having taken his statement at face value didn’t offer to renew his contract in a timely fashion and he moved to join the Spanish Armada at Katusha.

Oscar had a promising start with a stage win in the Tour Down Under followed by anotherat Ruta del Sol and top ten placings in a number of the Spring Classics and semi-Classics. Having crashed out at the Tour, as the year wound down he again said that he would prolong his career if he won the rainbow jersey in Valkenburg.

Oscar Freire at the World Championship (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

It’s nice to finish racing here in Valkenburg, where it all started and in a country, Holland, where I’ve spent most of my career [with Rabobank]. It’s a coincidence that I’m here, but there couldn’t be a better way of finishing.

The Spanish team threw their support behind Oscar, who you might remember finished fourth in Amstel Gold, but either his poisson pilote had other ideas or the lack of team radios meant that Oscar was isolated on the final ascent of the Cauberg and teammate Alejandro Valverde finished third in Valkenburg. After a bit of post-race handbags, the two have since kissed and made up.

So as Oscar heads off into the sunset and back to Spain where it all began we wish him health, happiness and much success in whatever he does next. I’m going to leave you with a demonstration of his versatility as a sprinter with those three world championship victories:

Tour de France hosts: Up pops Pau again!

After Paris and Bordeaux, Pau is one of the most-visited staging posts in the Tour – it has previously hosted a start/finish 64 times – largely, it has to be said, because of its proximity to the Pyrenees. The list of riders who’ve won on Tour stages into Pau reads like a Who’s Who of cycling, so I’m going to be dipping in and out of Tours where either the Tour, or that stage, or both were won by some of the biggest names  in the sport.

Pau was first visited in the 1930 Tour, which introduced a number of firsts in its 24th edition. For the first time ever, teams were organised by country, with ten riders apiece, plus there were sixty touriste-routiers (amateurs and pros not allied to a national team) organised into French regional groupings. The entire peloton raced in either approved national jerseys or plain ones – no advertising whatsoever – and they all rode on identical yellow bicycles. This proved to be a successful format for the French, six of whom placed in the top ten overall. Andre Leducq, the star of the French team, won the overall while Charles Pelissier, ninth overall, achieved a stunning eight stage wins. [An early incarnation of Peter Sagan? – Ed]

Alfredo Binda (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Alfredo Binda (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

This wasn’t the only piece of modernisation. 1930 also saw the introduction of the publicity caravan and the abandonment of the rule whereby cyclists had to do their own repairs. Team time trials were given the heave-ho for a few years and an overall team classification was introduced based on the times on GC of the three highest-ranked riders. The Tour was broadcast live on the radio. The organisers named the Tour’s  ‘best climber’, an unofficial precursor to the current King of the Mountains competition. One of the more notable foreign cyclists taking part was Alfredo Binda who had, in recent years, dominated the Giro d’Italia with victories in 1925, 1927, 1928 and 1929. He was paid not to compete in 1930, so started the Tour instead winning stages eight and nine, which finished and started in Pau, before being forced to abandon the following day probably due to injuries sustained on stage seven where he lost over an hour, and all hope of Tour victory.

The Tour visited Pau every year thereafter up until 1939, returning post-war in 1947, 1949 and 1950. It was back in 1952 with a Tour which saw the introduction of more innovations – mountain finishes on stages 10, 11 and 21 – including the now iconic L’Alpe d’Huez and Puy de Dome. The overall was won by Il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi, the first cycling superstar who was now managed by Binda. In 1952 he was at his zenith, winning five stages, including stage 18 into Pau, the mountains classification and was a member of the Italian winning team.

The charismatic Fausto Coppi (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The charismatic Fausto Coppi (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Such was his dominance that the Tour organisers had to double the prize money for second and third places to retain interest. Coppi won by a margin of almost half an hour – such a margin hasn’t been seen since. Coppi’s domination aside, the 1952 Tour saw the introduction of the daily combativity award and TV coverage started.

Thereafter, the Tour stopped off in Pau every year. In 1964 it featured on stage 16, a mountainous parcours won by the 1959 Tour winner, Frederic Bahamontes –  known as the Eagle of Toledo – who went on to finish third overall and win the mountains classification. Trade teams were back on the menu, after Tour organisers succumbed to financial pressure in 1962. This was the only Tour to have included a mid-stage climb to Alpe D’Huez. The race was eventually won by Jacques Anquetil, his fifth Tour victory, following an epic battle in the mountains with eternal runner-up Raymond Poulidor. Having earlier won the Giro, Anquetil emulated Coppi’s Tour-Giro double.

Bernard_Hinault (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Bernard Hinault (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Fast forward to the late 1970s and the start of the reign of ‘The Badger’, Bernard Hinault, France’s last Tour winner. The 1979 edition started, most unusually, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, visiting Pau as early as stage three, where Hinault emerged victorious, having taken the maillot jaune on stage two. He went on to win the Tour, his second of five victories. He also won the points’ classification and his team won the overall team classification, which required them to wear yellow caps, and the team points competition. In fact, the 1979 Tour had a total of 16 competitions, each with its own sponsor!

1979’s Tour was also notable for a number of modifications and firsts. Doping tests performed in a Cologne laboratory were now able to detect anabolicals. Those found guilty of this transgression typically lost points and were given time penalties. It was the only Tour to ever visit Alpe d’Huez twice. US TV broadcasting of the Tour started, split-stages were banished and, as a consequence of the unwarranted attention given to the lanterne rouge [the last rider on general classification – Ed], a new rule was introduced for the following year whereby the last-placed cyclist was removed from the race every couple of stages.

From the 1980s onwards, the Tour halted in Pau most years and in 2005 it also became, as it is again this year, the location of one of the Tour’s precious few rest days. This was to be Lance Armstrong’s seventh consecutive Tour victory and, at the time, it was thought his final Tour appearance. This edition was notable for a number of reasons. It commemorated the death of one of Lance’s former team mates, Fabio Casartelli, who had crashed and died ten years earlier on the Col du Portet d’Aspet. Additionally, it commemorated the Tour’s first official mountain climb in the Tour, the Ballon d’Alsace, 100 years after its first inclusion in the race. For the first time, the race was part of the UCI’s recently introduced ProTour circuit and required to invite – albeit begrudgingly – all 20 ProTour teams. The Tour granted a single wild card to AG2R.

Oscar Pereiro (image courtesy of Oscar Pereiro)

Oscar Pereiro (image courtesy of Oscar Pereiro)

As a consequence of Michael Rasmussen making a complete balls-up [is that a technical biking term? I can’t find it in the glossary – Ed] of the penultimate stage’s individual time trial while lying third – he dropped to seventh – the race jury invoked the “rain rule” for the final stage on the Champs Elysees meaning Lance won the overall the first time the race crossed the finish line, rather than the eighth and last time. Additionally, it was the first and only time since 1994 that the stage didn’t end in a bunch sprint, rather it was won by Alexandre Vinokourov after a trademark escape in the final kilometre, a move which saw him rise from eighth to fifth in the overall. During the award ceremony, the winner was for the first time allowed to address the crowds, a practice which has since continued.

The mountainous stage 16 into Pau was won by Oscar Pereiro who also took home the race’s overall combativity prize. He was belatedly awarded overall victory in the following year’s Tour after the previous winner, Floyd Landis, was convicted of doping. Pereiro suffered a serious crash in the 2008 Tour and never really recovered his nerve. He retired in 2010 and achieved a boyhood ambition playing football for Coruxo FC in the Spanish second division. He now works as a race commentator and runs his own sporting foundation.

Will Pau be the setting for some interesting stories in this year’s Tour? The rest day is preceded by stage 15’s 158.5km run from Samatan to Pau – one for the sprinters, albeit those who can cope with a slight uphill to the finish. Here’s Chris Boardman’s  preview of the stage: