Óscar Freire is the most successful rider in the history of the World Championships. Alfredo Binda and Rik Van Steenbergen also have an argument but the fact that he did in the highly competitive landscape of the early 2000s, makes Freire the cream of the crop in this race. In addition to this, he is a three-time monument winner in the form of the Milano Sanremo, and an eleven-time Grand Tour (GT) stage winner (four in the Tour along with a green jersey in 2008 and seven in the Vuelta).
He was a very peculiar rider. He was never the fastest sprinter despite the fact that most of his wins came in a sprint. And he was never a complete classics rider despite the fact that his most important wins came in one-day races. I would argue that Alessandro Petacchi and Robbie McEwen were faster, Paolo Bettini or Davide Rebellin were better classics riders, and even Erik Zabel was faster while being as effective on short climbs. I would compare him to Michael Matthews in today’s peloton. A fast rider who can comfortably follow the leaders on shorter climbs and rival the best sprinters on their best days.
Still, Freire’s resumé is all-time great. And I have to admit I have some trouble figuring out how. If we want to distill his career down to the most basic achievements, he had six all-time great days: three in the world championships and three in the Milano Sanremo. As a sidenote, Óscar Freire is the second Spanish world champion we cover in this series after Abraham Olano.
The video below is precisely of one of his Milano Sanremo victories, in one of the most iconic finishes ever. Erik Zabel lifts his hands too early only for Freire to swoop in and take the victory right from the German’s clutches.
Unlike the rider we examined before, Vittorio Adorni, Óscar Freire won a lot of important one-day races with very little heartbreak. I think his win-rate is exactly the explanation for his all-time great career. When he could win, he won. Even his green jersey win at the Tour comes on the only time he fought for it, in 2008. The Spaniard only finished the Tour four times (2003 and 2008-2010) in his career and his classifications in the green jersey standings are as follows: 14th, 1st, 7th, and 14th. Freire won the green jersey win just one stage win, one 2nd, and one 3rd place. Only three podium places in the entire Tour were enough for him to take home the points classification.
He was also highly successful in the Flèche Brabançonne, winning it three times and finishing 2nd on two other occasions. He won the Gent–Wevelgem and the Hamburg Cyclassics once each and finished on the podium once in each race too.
Ironically, the first big result of Freire’s career was not a win, but a silver medal in the 1997 U23 world championship behind Norwegian Kurt Asle Arvesen. The Spaniard spent the following two seasons in the Vitalicio Seguros team. He only amassed two wins in his first two seasons as a pro: a stage in the Vuelta a Castilla y Léon in 1998 and the world championships in 1999. He came out of nowhere to win the race, perhaps taking advantage of his relative anonymity to leave the front group behind with about 500 meters to go only to be caught after the finishing line was behind him.
In Vitalicio Seguros Óscar Freire had Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano and Angel Casero as high most high-profile teammates. This Spanish team wasn’t a small team by any means, placing in the top-10 of all GTs in 1999, including a 2nd place in the Vuelta through Gonzalez de Galdeano and a 5th in the Tour through Angel Casero, the future Vuelta winner. Daniel Clavero was 9th in the Giro.
From 2000-2002 he rode for Mapei. In his first season, as mentioned, he took two 3rd places (his only podium places in those races that were not wins) in the Milano Sanremo and the world championship but he also won the first two GT stages of his career in the 2000 Vuelta. Fun fact, despite rider his home GT nine times during his career, he never finished it. Proof of how seriously Freire took his preparation to the world championships. In 2001-2002 he didn’t win much but, just like in the beginning of his career, two of those wins eclipse most riders’ careers: he took back his rainbow jersey in 2001 and won a stage in the Tour in 2002, both in a sprint.
After Mapei folded in the end of 2002, Óscar Freire moved to Rabobank, the team where he spent most of his career. At Rabobank he had most of his victories. In 2004 he added the third and last rainbow jersey to his resumé, once again in a sprint, defeating Zabel on the line. From 2003-2011 he won three stages in the Tour along with a green jersey, five stages in the Vuelta, and all three of his Milano Sanremo classics (2004, 2007 and 2010). He also won the 2005 Tirreno Adriatico, three Fléche Brabançonne editions (2005-2007), 2006 Hamburg Cyclassics, 2008 Gent Wevelgem, and 2010 Paris Tours.
For his final year, 2012, he moved to Katusha, in a similar move to that of Robbie McEwen, two years prior. At this point Freire was 36 years of age but he didn’t move to the Russian team just to enjoy his final season, without any results. He won a stage in the Tour Down Under and another in the Vuelta a Andalucia. These were the last wins of his career but throughout the season he achieved important results, such as: 7th in the Milano Sanremo, 2nd in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, 4th in the Amstel Gold Race. Al three World Tour rated races. He was also 2nd in the Fléche Brabançonne and 3rd in the Paris-Bruxelles.
Fittingly the final race of his career was the 2010 world championship, where he finished in 10th place, an honorable result for the most successful rider in the history of the world championships.
After retirement, he tried his hand at being a rally driver, participating in several Spanish rally championship level races.
Of all the teammates Óscar Freire had throughout his career, he picked the following as the ideal classics team to support him: Pedro Horrillo, Juan Antonio Flecha, Elio Aggiano, Robert Hunter, Maarten Tjaalingii, Juan Manuel Garate, Mathew Hayman, and Paolo Bettini. I have to admit that the first thing I thought is that this is the perfect team to win the Milano Sanremo with. A lot of fast riders that can get climb well, as well as very skilled domestiques. Had Freire had this team throughout his whole career he would have even more sprint victories, that’s for sure.
In the end, Freire’s career is dominated by the multiple world championships and Milano Sanremo victories. He was never the fastest, the strongest, or the best climber. But very often he was the best. And that’s all that mattered.