Spain's Freire wins third world cycling title
Posted: Sunday October 3, 2004 10:42PM; Updated: Sunday October 3, 2004 10:42PM
VERONA, Italy (AP) -- Oscar Freire renewed his relationship with Verona by winning the world cycling title here for the second time on a course ranked as one of the toughest challenges in the sport.
"I've had many emotions and reminders of my first win in training the last few days on this course," said Freire, who won his first world title in Verona five years ago. "Verona is very special for me."
With his third title overall, including his win in Lisbon in 2001, Freire joined Eddy Merckx, Rik Van Steenbergen and Alfredo Binda as the only three-time winners in the race's 77-year history.
Freire beat Erik Zabel and Luca Paolini in a sprint finish Sunday in the marathon-like 265.5-kilometer (164.6-mile) race, which concluded just outside Piazza Bra.
He completed 18 laps, including the renowned "Torricelle" climb, in 6 hours, 57 minutes, 15 seconds, with Zabel and Paolini given the same time.
"I think five years ago is still my most beautiful victory," Freire added. "I didn't think I could win and I was not very well known. This year I was much more confident because we had a good team and we worked well together. We had a little luck with Bettini today."
Olympic gold medalist Paolo Bettini retired in the 15th lap after injuring his knee in a freak accident with his team car.
Bettini and Freire were the pre-race favorites in a race that lived up to its expectations of a battle between the powerhouse Spanish and Italian teams.
Without Bettini, this year's Giro d'Italia winner Damiano Cunego became Italy's lead man.
Cunego and Ivan Basso, the Italian who finished third in the Tour de France, battled with Freire and teammate Alejandro Valverde, Michael Boogerd and Stuart O'Grady on the final climb.
The six riders led at the summit but several others caught up on the high-speed descent, and Freire was set up with an excellent lead out by Valverde in the final sprint on the long, straight finish.
"I just took Valverde's wheel and I did a perfect sprint with a perfect teammate," Freire said. "I spoke with Valverde five laps before the finish and he said he felt good and I told him I was feeling good and we decided to work together in the finale.
"It was quite fair for a nervous sprint in the world championships."
Freire praised nearly all his teammates for pushing so hard on the front of the pack throughout the second half of the race.
"This team is not just me, Valverde could also have won today, he provided an excellent lead out," Freire said.
Valverde finished fourth overall in the Spanish Vuelta a week earlier.
The 28-year-old Freire also won the opening World Cup classic Milan-San Remo race and a stage in the Vuelta while riding for the Dutch trade team Rabobank.
He could become the first four-time gold medalist when the worlds are held on home soil in Madrid next year, but he downplayed any comparisons to Merckx, Van Steenbergen and Binda.
"They raced in another era," he said.
O'Grady and fellow Australian Allan Davis finished fourth and fifth, and Valverde was sixth. Cunego came ninth, with Basso 11th.
The top 15 riders each received the same time.
Only 88 riders of the 199-man field finished the race on a highly selective course that included cobblestone sections, a twisting climb, a fast descent and a long, straight and wide finish.
Defending champion Igor Astarloa, another Spaniard, struggled on the penultimate climb and dropped out of contention.
Spain and Italy featured the only 13-man teams in the race. They were awarded an extra spot for the defending champion and Olympic champion. Each of the other top cycling nations qualified 12 riders, while smaller countries were represented by fewer members or just one rider.