Rallying with Oscar Freire

Three times world champion, three times a winner of Milan-Sanremo, green jersey winner at the 2008 Tour de France, one of the finest sprinters of his generation rallies in a car that accelerates much slower than he did. Former team-mate and good friend Pedro Horrillo navigates in the Basque Country while Oscar takes control at the wheel

“… 3, 2, 1, Go!”

We’re off; the needle of our vehicle’s speedometer begins to move round, climbing rapidly until it reaches the 50 mark. “There, there,” I say to Oscar. Then we glance toward the other screen; tiny and more modern, and digital of course; a brutal contrast to the austerity and anachronism of the rest of the dashboard. The faces of those seeing this contraption for the first time remind me of those that discover one of the extras in a film set in ancient Rome is wearing a wristwatch.

51.3, 51.1… “Slower, slow it down a little, take your foot off a bit, we’re a little bit over,” I say to him.

You don’t reach a checkpoint until you’ve covered three kilometres of each section, but it’s important not to lose concentration at the beginning and to get straight into the mindset we would have to maintain all day.

If memory serves me correctly, I’d swear that Oscar Freire has never won a time-trial in his life. Perhaps at lower levels, but what I’m getting at is that he was never a time triallist, never one of those accustomed to the pressure of the inexorable ticking away of seconds.

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Oscar liked to ride without stress, calmly allowing the kilometres and the time to drift by in the greatest possible comfort, whenever possible  –  which it often wasn’t  –  letting the tension of the race itself keep the necessary adrenalin alive for the final kilometres. That was why he never liked to contest the green jersey at the Tour de France. That’s why, on the day he won it, which was a new landmark for Spanish cycling, he said something along the lines of: “This is all well and good, but you won’t see me trying to take it again.”

Now that he’s put a stop to it, now that he enjoys the sweet idle life of a young retired cyclist, with thousands of projects in his head to fill his free time, he doesn’t think twice about putting on a number and heading out to compete in a race against the clock in which it is very important to be extremely precise when gauging your times. Only now, he’s not wearing the number: the car is. And besides, there’s no team for him to get the better of, and he doesn’t have to fend for himself, as had happened to him before.

No, now we’re a duo, or a trio if we add the great protagonist, our vehicle, in which we’ve been driver and co-driver; ‘navigator’ and ‘steering-wheel holder’.

This is a rally for historic vehicles, a trial reserved for cars that have passed the 25-year mark; ours well exceeds the age limit. This is the third rally that we’ve done together, so we’ve already gained a little experience and a certain degree of coordination. But in our case, it seems that this experience is no guarantee of good results, because they’ve been somewhat variable and aren’t in accordance with our veteran status. However, the point is to have fun, and in this aspect we’re definitely improving with every race…

Our vehicle is a Volkswagen Beetle 1300, a 1974 model. The car belongs to me and I’ve been lavishing attention on it since 1998, the year I bought it. To a certain extent, the Beetle has also been witness to the evolution of the youngster who got behind the wheel one afternoon in January ’98 and took her out on the motorways of the province of Alicante. I’m not talking about me, but Oscar Freire, who over the years would become triple world champion.

In 1998, Oscar and I turned professional with the Spanish team Vitalicio Seguros. That January, we took part in the first team training camp, which was held in Javea. It was on one of those first group training rides  –  a head-on collision with the world of professional cycling  –  while passing through a town near the Mediterranean coast, that we saw the claret-coloured Beetle parked with a tempting “for sale” sign stuck to the rear window. Opportunity hit me right there and then, but due to the dynamics of work in those days, I could do little more than gaze longingly at the car whenever we passed by on the way to the mountains.

Nevertheless, the chance to further that desire came a few days later on one of the rest days. “Go out and ride for a couple of hours so you can do some active recovery,” our then-trainer said to us. We immediately began to think about the Beetle. We grabbed our bikes and pedalled off to look for it. After searching all over the area, we called the contact number and arranged an appointment with its owner to take it for a test drive that same afternoon.

Once behind the wheel of the car, I was convinced about buying it. I thought the price was right and the car was a solid framework to customise to my own liking. It was just what I was looking for.

I asked Oscar anxiously: “What do you think?”

“It’s old, uncomfortable, slow and headed for the junkyard… but don’t hesitate, buy it,” he replied.

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That last piece of advice gave me the push I needed, so I went and bought the thing. How I managed to get it home, 1,000 kilo­metres to the north, is a very long story which I won’t go into here, but as an anecdote, I had to borrow 60 kilograms of oranges from a field to put under the bonnet in order to improve the stability of the front end.

The car thanked me for it and I had a guaranteed supply of natural fruit juice for several days. As you can see from the photo­graphs, that old Volkswagen is still going strong today, enjoying a second youth at more than 40 years of age. It was made in Brazil, registered for the first time in Portugal and re-registered years later in Spain. And now, it’s roaring along the highways of the Basque Country with its new zebra skin upholstery.

Historic regularity rallies consist of a course marked out with a route planner in which you have to complete sections according to certain average speeds. These averages are always less than 50 km/h and take place on the open highway, which is why it’s necessary to respect all traffic regulations. They’re structured in timed stages between link sections and the checkpoints are electronic and random. That is to say, a 40km section can have two or five checkpoints  –  you never know. They can be hidden behind signs, which is why you’ll never find them, but they take your exact time when you pass through, thanks to a microchip attached to the window of the car. This, together with the constant changes to the averages marked in the road book, makes it very challenging, although it might not sound particularly complicated.

In the Valle de Pielagos rally we’re competing in, the total distance is 181km, divided into nine timed sections which make up 132 km, the longest being 28km and shortest just 4.6; the rest of the distance consists of the link sections. The route through the small Cantabrian highways lies close to Oscar’s native Torrelavega. We started one minute after the preceding vehicle at the point marked as the start in the road book.

There’s no marshall to tell you when to go, nor does anyone tell you the exact place or time of the start beyond the sketch in the road book and your pre-established schedule. Falling behind is penalised as much as getting ahead, and the penalties are measured in tenths of a second, which is why correctly synchronising your watch is critical.

As far as technology goes, we had a Cateye cycling computer inherited from one of our old bikes mounted in the car, with the magnet welded to one of the wheel nuts and two terminals so that both the driver and the co-driver could analyse the information. We also had an old iPhone stuck to the dashboard with duct tape using an app to tell us the ideal number of kilometres that we should have covered.

Theoretically the metres measured by the Cateye had to tally with those indicated in the road book, but as we cut corners excessively, it always came out a few hundred metres short. So it wasn’t uncommon to see us do a few laps of any convenient roundabout to try to recover those lost metres (a couple of old dogs up to some well-learned tricks).

This event takes place in a single day, which is an advantage in Oscar’s case, because that format is his speciality, as we’ve seen at the World Championships, Milan-Sanremo and Brabantse Pijl. Except here, it is possible to go off course. It’s a case of being aware that it’s going to happen and being prepared to improvise accordingly.

When it comes to Oscar, both getting lost and improvising are par for the course; his reputation for being a little scatterbrained is not in the least bit undeserved. To add difficulty to the task, there are sections in which the information in the road book is purposely lacking, or even blind sections, which means that the required average speeds are unknown and you only have the transit time for each 100 metres — meaning they give you a table where it says, for example, that at kilometre 8.3 you should have a time of 10.27, or at kilometre 19.3, a time of 24.53.4. From then on, it’s up to you.

As I had experience in these matters and Oscar was making his debut at my prompting, I left him at the controls of the Beetle while I took care of the dirty work as co-driver. As for working in the shadows, it didn’t feel strange to me since it was what I did for him on many occasions in my cycling career.

But as far as trusting him behind the wheel of my car, that was more complicated. As a cyclist I had faith in his legs  –  they were guaranteed and his rivals knew it  — but his hands and his lust for speed made me fear the worst in a vehicle that didn’t brake well, had no working lights and lacked the same grip on bends as a modern car.

But after three rallies with him, I can now confirm that my worries were unfounded. Freire the driver has as much talent as Freire the cyclist: put him behind the wheel and you’ll soon see what I mean.

Nevertheless, we have found ourselves in the occasional predicament or two. At one rally, it began to pour down and the car was sketchy in the turns. While we were waiting at the start of one of the sections, as we lowered the pressure of the tyres, Oscar checked the numbering on the sidewalls.

“When was the last time you changed the tyres?” he asked.

“I never have, those are the original ones, they even have the original markings on them,” I replied.

“I believe you,” he said, “because according to the numbering they were made in week 17 of the year 1997, and it’s been a while since then…”

In the following rally we raced with new tyres but, sure enough, new problems emerged. On a particularly potholed stretch of road, the car suddenly started to make a rumbling sound. When we finished the section we stopped and, to our surprise, part of the exhaust pipe was missing.

“Leave it like that, it sounds more like a sports car,” Oscar said to me. And he was right, but after the rally the Beetle had to be taken to the mechanic to remove the temporarily exciting sports car rumble, which is also illegal.

Oscar has always been passionate about the world of motoring, but it wasn’t until he became world champion, and began to receive a salary corresponding to such status, that he could succumb to his four-wheeled whims. An uncle had given him a modest Opel Corsa when he was a junior, and such was his affection for the car that he only began to think about changing it when it occurred to him that he could buy three or four of them on just one month’s pay.

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This was back in 2000 when he signed for Mapei. At one of the first team meetings, he was surprised to see a Ferrari parked by the hotel entrance. He looked at it admiringly, and then its owner appeared; a certain Michele Bartoli, who spotted his new team-mate, the reigning world champion, ogling the spotless sports car.

“Hey Oscar, you like the Ferrari?” said Bartoli. “Later on I’ll let you have the keys and we’ll take it for a spin… By the way, what car do you have?” the Italian asked, hoping for an answer that matched his new high-profile status.

“I have an Opel Corsa,” replied Oscar, proudly. “It’s getting on a bit but I take good care of it.”

“Ah yes, a utility vehicle for daily use. But as a fancy car, to go to events, tributes and those things, what do you have?” asked Bartoli.

“Well, just that one, I use the Opel Corsa for everything. Besides, it’s more practical than this one. I mean, don’t tell me you can get a bike in there,” was Oscar’s laconic response.

“I’ll never forget the look on Bartoli’s face,” says Oscar as he recalls the amusing situation.

A year later, after chewing it over for a while, he bought himself a snazzy BMW M3, his childhood dream, but without forgetting his beloved Opel Corsa. Unsurprisingly, he still owns it and drives it around from time to time.

“When I started making money, my first priority was to buy a nice place for my family. I still lived with them and, in fact, I bought a new flat for me to enjoy too. But what I wanted was to give back to my family everything that they had done for me by simply improving their quality of life. In the same neighbourhood of Torrelavega where I’d always lived, a few metres from my old house, I got them a new, much more ample flat with an elevator in the hallway.” The call of the car could wait for better times. “What’s more, I was happy with the Corsa,” says Oscar when reminded of the matter.

But I digress, let’s get back to the rally. Minutes after each section, when the theoretical moment is marked at which the last participant should have passed through the final checkpoint, the timekeepers send a text message which informs us of the penalty we accrued in that particular section and the overall leaderboard.

After two long sections, we arrived at the general regrouping and saw that we were in 26th place with 47 penalty points accumulated at 16 checkpoints. Then we realised that the level of the participants was very high in this race, in spite of the fact that the vehicles were not particularly glamourous. In our first rally we finished in seventh place and did it in a similar fashion. We felt we had been doing well, but the standings told us that the others were doing it rather better. It was like a flashback, because this often happened to us in our cycling careers.

This seemed to throw us off a little because just as we were starting the third section, the fiasco of the day began. At a junction, we interpreted a sketch in the road book our own way, hesitating and arguing to share out the blame in case of error, and so we went with our intuition. A few kilometres later, we realised that we’d got mixed up, because the subsequent information didn’t match what we were seeing. “I think we got confused with the previous diagram,” I told him. “I went straight on like you said but I knew that we should have turned right after the last town,” he remarked in his defence.

Thinking about it now, I’m reminded of two of Oscar’s little-known victories in which he pulled his own personal touch of genius out of his sleeve by taking a different approach in both. (Not to mention his first World Championships win in Verona in ’99 in which he surprised the rest of the group of favourites by launching into a sprint from way back on the right when everyone was looking to the left, undoubtedly his greatest masterstroke. It was a manoeuvre that, if you’d seen it, you’d never forget, but if you question those who were riding in that leading group, they’re probably still asking each other how the Spanish guy did it.)

The first was in the 2004 Trofeo Luis Puig where, as he was approaching the finish line, he took the left side of a roundabout that theoretically should have been taken on the right side. The metres that he gained were enough to roll over the finish line in Benidorm alone.

The other was on the seventh stage of the 2006 Tour de Suisse which finished very close to his home. He broke away with a group vying for victory, and when he got to a roundabout that also should have been taken to the right, he bunny-hopped the central divider to take it on the other side. “I knew that roundabout well and I knew that it was much shorter on the left side,” he later said.

That intuition, that way of doing things so determinedly without hesitating, without a second thought, had worked for him so often on other occasions; like knowing exactly which wheel to choose when it came to launching into a sprint, distancing himself with those 50 lethal metres of acceleration he always kept in reserve, or which wheel to avoid in order to dodge the frightful falls at the end of a sprint. It’s incredible to think that, considering the amount of times that he’s been in those battles, he has ended up kissing the tarmac on very few occasions.

But that day his intuition wasn’t so good, although he insists on blaming me for everything. “I did what you told me,” he repeats, unloading the responsibility. We made a turn and, to top it all off, tried to get back onto the route of the section by taking a short cut using intuition. The result was that we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere.

We saw a bar in a small village. “Let’s stop and ask a fellow countryman,” we agreed. We showed an old man the sketch in the road book of the junction in question and it was like showing him a map of Saturn’s moons: he had no idea what we were asking him.

While driving around in circles we came across another participant and we decided to follow them until we were able to analyse the situation. And so we arrived at the end of the section in a better position. It turned out that we’d skipped two checkpoints, thereby accumulating the maximum penalty of 30 points for each one of them. We could forget about getting a good position in the overall rankings.

“I told you we had to turn right at that junction, you need to let me be the co-driver, because you’re not getting this,” Oscar insisted, making me take all the blame for the mistake.

The rest of the rally, once we’d lost all ambition and were more relaxed in our task, was an accumulation of nonsense. We continued to incur penalties relentlessly, but thanks to the previous error, we had some of the best moments of the day, remembering anecdotes and enjoying the scenery without any pressure. Exactly as happened so many times to us in races after falling behind: the pressure to compete was forgotten and it was time to enjoy it until the finish line. Tomorrow would be another day.

Among other things, Oscar has a passion for cabinet-making, which he works on in the garage of his house. That’s how the ex-champion spends his days now.

“I enjoy time with my friends and my family as if I were on a permanent vacation. It wasn’t until I left cycling that I realised how much I’d had to sacrifice for my career, so now, little by little I’m trying to recover what’s still possible.” A good philosophy for life for someone who’s in a position to allow himself such. “I feel that all my sporting life, I’ve been accumulating and accumulating, often depriving myself of enjoyment, so now it’s time to be more pragmatic and to enjoy everything that I have achieved,” he reflects.

And he’ll do well as long as he lets his intuition be his guide, of that I am totally convinced, because Oscar is one of those people who often didn’t know how to explain the hows and whys of his actions.

“I just did it, and that’s just how it turned out,” was usually his way of explaining things. And you’re left wondering if only I had such a gift…

From issue 57 of Rouleur magazine

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