Erik Zabel, Michael Rasmussen and Michael Boogerd reflect on today's race and on how the Spanish proPICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Once again sprint ace Erik Zabel had to settle for second place in a major race when Oscar Freire outsprinted Zabel the German on the finishing straight in Verona. Still, Zabel managed a smile though it was close but no cigar, writes Susanne Horsdal. "My medal has two sides. On the one side, it's an honour to finish behind such a great rider as Oscar. On the other side, it's so close to being a world champion. But, after all is said and done, I'm happy with my silver medal," said the T-Mobile sprinter. The German seems to be haunted by second places. One of the most painful ones must have been the defeat in Milan-San Remo in March when he began celebrating too early and was overtaken by Freire literally on the finish line. Added to that, over the whole season he has finished second no less than 18 times. "My record is from 1999. Then I was second 21 times and I won't manage to break that record this year," joked Zabel. But obviously he doesn't find it too amusing to be constantly beaten - and not twice in a year in a duel with Freire in a very important race. "Maybe it's confidence. In my situation it's not that simple to explain. Rudy Altig would probably have said: 'If you constantly crash maybe it's no coincidence.' So maybe if you finish second that often it's no coincidence." However, one thing differentiates Zabel and Freire. Zabel rides all year round at a high level. "Whereas Oscar can pick his highlights," as Zabel expressed it. That Zabel was the rider the German team ended up supporting hadn't been evident from the start, especially not after Steffen Wesemann and Matthias Kessler had told German media prior to the race that Zabel wasn't the natural- born captain as a result of the absence of Jan Ullrich. "But we had a meeting last night and talked about how we would do it. We decided that we would be on an equal level until the last lap, and from there we would let the race decide how to go about it. I think we proved today that we were able to work in the interests of the team," explained Zabel. Knowing his sprinting abilities are limited to say the least, Dane Michael Rasmussen knew he had to attack if he was to have a shot at the title, and so he did on the last ascent of the Torricelle climb, quickly opening a small gap. But with the speed being at 25-28kph even uphill it turned out to be impossible to stay away. The first rider to catch him was his Rabobank team-mate Michael Boogerd, who was quickly followed by a small group of the absolute favourites. "Spain was there with six riders and pulled everything back, so it was actually impossible to do anything, but I tried the only chance I had. Michael Boogerd and I talked about it, because he was in the same situation as me. And as the Italians didn't go, we had to. They should have known that they wouldn't get the title under these circumstances," said Rasmussen, who felt that Spain was the best team and that the best rider won. But from his point of view - that is that of the pure climber - the race turned out to be far from hard enough, despite the 18 ascents of the Torricelle climb. "It was clear that people had a lot of respect for the climb and we missed Ullrich. He would have made the German team even stronger, which would probably have meant that the Germans would have contributed to making the race much harder," said the Danish climber, who finished 13th. Boogerd was completely in agreement with Rasmussen. He was also disappointed in the way the race evolved. "I'm happy that the title went to someone from our team and I'm happy that I was in the final and rode well, but I'm disappointed that the race wasn't harder. Last time we rode here (in 1999) the attacks began from the bottom of the climb. This time they came much later. I felt the peloton was afraid of it," said Boogerd, who was the best-placed Dutchman in seventh place.