MAASTRICHT, Holland (VN) — Spaniard Óscar Freire figures all he needed was another 100 meters and he might have pulled the cat out of the Amstel Gold Race hat.
Freire took it to the wire with a daring, give-all attack at 7km to go, and nearly pulled off a major surprise win.
BMC Racing was forced to dig deep to bring him back and Freire was left dying on the line as Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) sped past for what was an even bigger surprise win.
“I was very close to the victory. I think another 100 meters less and I would have won,” Freire told VeloNews.com after the race. “When I put it into the small ring to make my sprint, my legs wanted to explode. The last 400 meters of the Cauberg felt like the hardest climb I have ever done.”
The three-time world champion is enjoying a renaissance of sorts in what he promises will be his final season. A fourth-place finish Sunday comes after a strong start to the year, with two wins, second places at E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl and fourth at Gent-Wevelgem.
And a win at Amstel Gold, the race that had always eluded him during nine seasons with Rabobank, was just the way that Freire hoped to leave the sport.
Katusha teammate Joaquim Rodríguez, who was second last year to Philippe Gilbert, told Freire on the Keutenberg climb that he wasn’t feeling great. “Today was not so bad, but not so good, either,” Rodriguez said. “Unfortunately I suffered from the cold weather more than I expected. I was able to stay with the lead group until the end, but on the last climb I couldn’t make the difference. So I spoke with Freire. He was in a good shape, so we agreed he would attack.”
That opened the door for Freire’s bold solo flier. Rather than try to match punches with the likes of Gilbert on the Cauberg, Freire made the calculation that he would have better odds if he got a head start. He quickly opened a promising gap, stretching it out to 12 seconds, and swept through the lefthander to the base of the Cauberg fending off the chasing peloton by a promising margin.
“The wind was very heavy. It was a strong headwind and it’s impossible to recover when you are attacking alone. Had the wind been slightly different, I think I could have won,” he said. “I had good sensations and I went for it.”
Freire probably deserves more than fourth for his effort, but he has no regrets.
Now 36, the Spaniard is making the most of what he says is his final season racing. The three-time world champion has coming into 2012 doubly motivated. Not only does he vow to hang up the cleats, but he ended the 2011 season upset that Rabobank dumped him after nine years with the team. He insists his ride today was not in part to take a shot at the Dutch Rabobank team, which always tries to win the Amstel Gold Race, Holland’s most important cycling race of the year.
“No, this isn’t against Rabobank,” Freire said with a smile. “It reminds me of Mapei. We tried to win Milan-San Remo every year and never did, and later it seemed like everyone who left the team later won the race.”
Freire will race through Flèche and Liège, though he’s never won those races, either. “Those are different races, with different finishes, maybe Flèche is the best one of me of the two,” he said. “And the worlds? It’s a similar course as here, maybe even better in the worlds because the finish line is almost a kilometer after the Cauberg. A lot can change in six months, we shall see.”