This article originally appeared in Spanish at Volata
Óscar Freire was always a different kind of cyclist. A born winner. A lover of the Classics. His way of understanding cycling was more similar to the cycling culture of Italy, Belgium or the Netherlands than to the Spanish ethos at that time, which is why he carved out such a successful career abroad.
Three World Championships titles (1999, 2001 and 2004) are Freire's greatest achievements in one-day races, while his victories in the La Flèche Brabançonne (Brabantse Pijl), Paris-Tours, Gent-Wevelgem also stand out. But if there was one uncontrollable race he was able to tame, that was Milan-Sanremo. The Cantabrian conquered the Monument – notoriously difficult to win – three times, in 2004, 2007 and 2010.
Here, we catch up with Freire to look back on his Italian successes and find exactly what it takes to win.
This Saturday is Milan-Sanremo, do you relive memories every time this event approaches?
Well, I did especially in the early years, when I just quit professional cycling, I was very excited to watch it. Now the years have gone by and, let's see, a Milan-Sanremo is always a great event because of the final part and because it has always been one of my main objectives. However, lately I've been away from home attending cycling events in March, like this year, and it's more complicated, but I'll try to keep an eye on it.
What has Milan-Sanremo meant in your career?
A lot. In the end, my first foreign team was Mapei and it was a structure that practically won all the Classics, but they lacked a Sanremo. From the very first training camp they were already talking about this race, they put it into your head. As it was a course that suited me very well, I knew that it had to be one of my objectives.
Freire wearing his second rainbow jersey at the 2002 edition of Milan-Sanremo (Image by Getty Images)
Your first victory was in 2004 against Erik Zabel, with whom you had already shared the podium in your first participation in 2000. It was a very close finish in which the German raised his arms early, how do you remember it?
It was very special moment. The truth is that it was a mistake by Zabel because he got overconfident. But I think that it was fair that I won in terms of performance. I remember that just before the sprint we were fighting for the position and I gave it to him, so he came out better placed in the last metres and I relaxed a bit and came out very late.
You were catching up…
Yes, I was stronger than him, but of course there was less and less metres to the finish line. I didn't have enough space to react, but he was too confident and I was able to put in the last kick to take the victory. Until you cross the finish line, you have to keep the tension and not relax.
That tension is the great characteristic that could define Milan-Sanremo. Is it possible to describe that nervousness?
I have always said that Milan-Sanremo can be lost in any of the 300km of the course and won only in the last one. The tension is very high as soon as you leave Milan, because you come across the train tracks, a segment of pavé, people who want to get ahead to get into the breakaway. For those who want to compete, there are not many moments of be relaxed. In the second part, the kilometres simply fly by with the tension of staying well placed.
Zabel celebrates the victory in Milan-San Remo 2004, but in the last breath it was snatched by Freire (Image by Getty Images)
The Classicissima is considered to be the easiest Monument to finish, but the most difficult to win. What do you have to have in order to win?
You have to have very specific qualities, because you have to be fast, skilful and able to handle yourself well in the group. Cyclists who aspire to victory have to be very technically complete. The team counts, but it becomes an individual effort in the last seven or eight kilometres and that's why it's much more open. In the end the strength changes after so much wear and tear and that's what makes it special.
Is it physically demanding?
Indeed! The following week you're knackered. My experience the days after has always been an accumulation of tiredness that I've rarely felt before. And it's not because of the parcous in particular, nor the toughness, but because of the tension. It's very difficult to reflect that stress, the fights, the elbows and even the shouting on a TV screen, but managing those situations is what makes the difference in Milan-Sanremo.