Victorious Freire joins Worlds greats

A record-equalling third world championship win in six years places Spain's Oscar Freire alongside a

A record-equalling third world championship win in six years places Spain's Oscar Freire alongside a
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Oscar Friere spoke earlier this week of his burning ambition to enter history as the greatest ever world championship rider. On Sunday evening in Verona, five years after bolting out of obscurity for his first rainbow jersey in the same city, Freire could boast three world championship crowns. Thus, the Spaniard has matched Eddy Merckx, Rik van Steenbergen and Alfredo Binda, the only other three-time world champions. At 28 years of age, Freire now appears to have ample time to reach the immortal status he covets. As in his last world championship win in Lisbon, but unlike his 1999 victory in Verona, it was Freire's sprinting prowess that proved irresistible. Erik Zabel took silver, and the Italian Luca Paolini bronze. The underrated Paolini might have fared even better had he not spent much of the middle part of the race tending to Italian team captain Paolo Bettini. The Olympic champion had knocked his right knee on his handlebars after a wheel-change on lap 11, sustaining a bruise to his right tibia and also suspected nerve damage. Bettini eventually gave in to the pain and retired with 51km remaining. Even before his majestic sprint out of a group of 15 riders, Freire had dropped strong hints that he was the strongest rider in the race. The other obvious contender for that accolade, Ivan Basso, saw Freire react first behind him when the Italian accelerated hard out of the peloton on the penultimate ascent of the Torricelle climb. One lap later the Dane Michael Rasmussen briefly stole away on the Torricelle before his Rabobank team-mate Michael Boogerd closed the gap with Freire, Alejandro Valverde and the Italian duo of Basso and Damiano Cunego in his slipstream. A further nine riders including Erik Zabel and Stuart O'Grady had caught up on the final descent, but none was able to prevent Freire from taking an emphatic sprint win. O'Grady finished fourth and drew meagre consolation from his resolute performance over a world championships course which many riders described this evening as the "hardest in years." If Freire was masterful, then Spain was again the dominant team. Tonight, Freire paid tribute to Isidro Nozal's role in softening up the competition on the penultimate ascent of the Torricelle. Spain then swept into the final, 14.75km lap with Valverde, Francisco Mancebo, Luis Perez, Isidro Nozal, Marcus Serrano and Freire accounting for the first six positions in the peloton. On Verona's Corso Porta Nuova, the world number three Valverde cast personal ambitions aside to provide Freire with the perfect lead-out. In the Italian camp the performances of Cunego, Basso and especially Paolini were a source of satisfaction, but not the early withdrawals of Bettini and also Stefano Garzelli. At least threats by the Davide Rebellin's fans to block the race in protest against Italian national selector Franco Ballerini proved to be unfounded. Support for the absent Rebellin, the local hero along with Cunego, was limited to a few, forlorn Argentinian flags waving against Verona's stunning Rennaissance backdrop. Of the other favourites, Alexandre Vinokourov's failure to reach the finish in the front group represented perhaps the biggest surprise. Peter van Petegem, too, was decidedly off-colour, coming in only 29th. Erik Dekker, Tom Boonen and Laurent Brochard were among the illustrious names not to even complete the 265.5km course, while defending champion Igor Astarloa struggled into 64th place. For every under-performing star, however, there were young and unheralded riders who rode with distinction. Manolo Saiz's Liberty Seguros prodigy, the Australian Allan Davis, was one of the latter, as was American Chris Horner, who finished eighth. Franck Schleck is also a name which will be unfamiliar to most fans. This didn't stop the 24-year-old CSC rider from Luxembourg taking 10th place behind Freire, champion of the world for the third time in five calendar years. 1 Oscar Freire (Spain) 265.5km in 6.57.15 (38.18kph) 2 Erik Zabel (Germany) 3 Luca Paolini (Italy) 4 Stuart O'Grady (Australia) 5 Allan Davis (Australia) 6 Alejandro Valverde (Spain) 7 Michael Boogerd (Holland) 8 Chris Horner (USA) 9 Damiano Cunego (Italy) 10 Frank Schleck (Luxembourg) 11 Ivan Basso (Italy) 12 Paco Mancebo (Spain) 13 Michael Rasmussen (Denmark) 14 Danilo Hondo (Germany) 15 Marcos Serrano (Spain) 16 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazakhstan) 0.05 17 Luis Perez (Spain) 0.09 18 Steffen Wesemann (Germany) 0.26 19 Matthias Kessler (Germany) 0.58 20 Karsten Kroon (Holland) 1.39 50 David O'Loughlin (Ireland) 4.26 74 David McCann (Ireland) 9.54 79 Guido Trenti (USA) 81 Michael Rogers (Australia) 85 Frank Hoj (Denmark) 10.30 87 Charles Dionne (Canada) 28.45
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