Óscar Freire is enjoying the sweet life of retirement, but expresses surprise to see former rivals like Alejandro Valverde and Philippe Gilbert continue to flourish in the peloton. There’s no talk of a comeback for “The Cat,” but Freire sees a peloton void of big personalities.
Now 42, Spain’s “El Gato” said today’s peloton is missing out on the big champions of his era. Freire singled out Peter Sagan as the only rider who stands above today’s highly calibrated peloton.
Freire was a natural-born winner who won the first of this three world titles as a relative unknown in 1999. Two more rainbow jerseys and a host of other major wins came his way, but he fell short of winning a record fourth world championship. Freire and Sagan are in the elite three-win road world title club. Others include Alfredo Binda, Eddy Merckx, and Rik Van Steenbergen. Freire was part of Spain’s golden “Spanish Armada” that dominated much of the peloton from the early 2000s until even today with the unstoppable Valverde.
Freire believes Sagan has the capacity to win a fourth rainbow jersey. He cautioned that Sagan should never let down his guard. Freire also had won three world titles by the time he was 27, but circumstances, injuries, and tactics started to stack up against him.
VeloNews recently caught up with Freire. Here’s what he had to say about life in retirement, the world championships, and why pro cyclists have to fight for every opportunity:
VeloNews: So you retired after the 2012 season, what are you doing these days?
Óscar Freire: I’m doing a little bit of everything. When I retired, I wanted to build a house, so I’ve just completed that project. I’ve also organized a gran fondo event, which we will continue working on for the future. Most of all, I like to do what I could never do when I was a cyclist. Things that were dangerous, like competing in rally cars. And I like to downhill ski now as well. Just about everything you had to sacrifice when you are a professional cyclist I enjoy now. Above all, enjoy time with the family. When you are professional, you’re away from home almost all the time. Now I am lucky enough to enjoy my time with my family to the maximum.
VN: Will you ever want to share your experience as a sport director?
OF: I’d like to, but the problem in Spain is there are not many teams. There is only one WorldTour team [Movistar] and there still isn’t a lot of institutional support for cycling in Spain right now. We don’t have this mentality to make a big bet on cycling. Some 15 years ago in Spain it was completely different. There were many big teams. Now there is only one strong team.
VN: Yet we still see Spanish cyclists at the top of the peloton.
OF: Spanish cycling continues to excel. We are seeing a new generation coming in behind what was ours, but what cycling is missing right now in Spain is the most important, and that is the support of the sponsors. Today we are seeing the majority of Spanish riders racing on foreign teams out of Spain. That was not the case before. That’s a bit sad, but that’s the way it is.
VN: Do you still follow the sport closely?
OF: Two years ago I was on Spanish radio working commentary. I left that behind and there’s a new generation coming up, with new names and new teams. The people you used to know are no longer in the game. So it’s natural that you’re a bit disconnected from the pulse, but when there is a big and important race, I always watch it on TV.
VN: What changes have you noticed most in the peloton since your retirement?
OF: There are only a few riders who are still racing from when I retired six years ago. Guys like Cavendish, Gilbert, Terpstra, and not many more. It’s a natural evolution. When you look at it from the outside, the level seems very high, but what’s missing a bit at least from my perspective are the big champions. There are not big figures like before. You have a rider like Valverde or Gilbert still winning at a certain age, and it appears to be even easier for them. So there are not the big champions who are coming up to replace those at the top like before. I don’t know if it’s that Valverde or Gilbert have improved or if the overall level of the peloton is a little bit lower. You can see that the overall level of the peloton is higher, because everyone trains and prepares better than ever and they have the best tools, but it’s surprising to me to see riders from when I was a pro still winning the most important races. Look at Milano-Sanremo, Nibali wins and he was racing when I was racing. The only one who seems to stand above the rest is Peter Sagan.
VN: So it is time for a comeback?
OF: No, no! Everyone has their moment, and for me, that’s all now in the past. It’s like everything, you have your time, and younger riders take over. What doesn’t change is that there is only one winner.
VN: Speaking of Sagan, you won the world title three times. Do you believe Sagan can win the record fourth rainbow jersey?
OF: I think he can. He has capacity to win in every type of race. Not just in a sprint, but he’s a rider who can climb as well. He doesn’t make a mistake. He’s always there for the win in all the big races. Of course, you cannot win every race. He will have his opportunities, but you never know how things go. It was the same for me. By the time I was 27 — just about Sagan’s age right now — I had won three world titles. And after that, I never won another one. It’s not so easy. Just look at Milano-Sanremo, every year he’s coming close but he still hasn’t won. And when you’re the favorite for every race you start, it’s not so easy. Everyone is marking you.
VN: So it’s all about trying to win every race you can?
OF: You can never take for granted those opportunities. You might think, OK, so I did not win this year, but I will next year. That’s never true. Because there can always be something to block your chances that you were not counting on. Any type of problem, a health problem or injury, and you can miss a whole spring season. A crash or bad luck with a puncture, and you’re out of the race. And of course, there are top rivals who can be stronger. You have to fight for every chance.
VN: What was it that kept you from winning your fourth world title?
OF: Every world championship is different. Some years I was in great form and didn’t win, and other years not so good, and you can still have a good result. It depends on so many circumstances. Sometimes the tactics turned away from you. That’s why you have to keep fighting for every opportunity as a professional cyclist. Even when it appears all is lost in a race, you have to keep fighting, fighting, and fighting, because things can change on a dime. Cycling is like this. It’s a bit of a casino, but in the most important races, you always see the big champions coming to the front. It’s rare to see a ‘lucky’ winner in a major and important race like Sanremo or Flanders or the worlds.