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By Andrew Hood
Juan José Haedo (CSC) is riding high into this week’s Vuelta a Murcia following an impressive victory Sunday against three-time world champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank) in the Clásica de Almería.
The Argentine ace edged Freire by inches in a photo finish to score only his second win on European soil at the end of what was his first day of racing on the continent this year.
The newly confident Haedo looks even stronger this year as he roars into his second season with Team CSC.
“We can definitely tell that Haedo has become stronger this year,” said CSC sport director Dan Frost. “I think he’ll win a lot in 2008. And this also gives us a great morale boost ahead of Vuelta Ciclista a Murcia.”
The 27-year-old looks to have matured since making the transition last year from racing in the U.S. domestic race series to the much more difficult European scene with CSC.
Haedo delivered on his promise last year by racking up six wins, but only one of those came in Europe when he won the Rund um Köln ahead of last year’s Giro d’Italia. He struggled to find his position in the Giro sprints and only notched two top-10 results in the sprints before abandoning in stage 10.
After a strong U.S. campaign that included two stages at the Tour of California, a stage at the Tour de Georgia and two big wins in Philly week, Haedo returned to Europe looking for more podium time.
Despite close calls with two second places in the Tour of Denmark and third places in the Tour of Britain and the Tour of Germany, Haedo came up short in Europe.
In an interview last winter, Haedo admitted the pace of racing in Europe was higher than he expected and said he underestimated the fitness and strength needed to compete at the sport’s highest level.
“I’ve learned a lot about how to train and rest between the various races, because it’s very important that I plan these things better than I used to,” Haedo said. “For example, I should have had more rest ahead of the Giro d’Italia, because after one week I was completely worn out.
“It’s a whole other way of doing things over here simply because the level is so much higher (in Europe),” he continued. “A lot of the time in the States, I could win a race or at least be at the top of the list even though I was only giving about 70 or 80 percent. Over here, that’s just not possible. You get dropped straight away if don’t make an effort.”
Team CSC believes in Haedo and is confident its first pure sprinter will rise to the occasion in 2008.
Haedo already had a stage at the Tour of California and two stages in the Tour de San Luís in his native Argentina in the bag before flying to Europe last week ahead of a busy spring schedule.
Sunday’s Almería result only boosts expectations as Haedo pushes toward a likely start in Milan-San Remo later this month.
Haedo endured Sunday’s bumpy 187km route that included some short, but quite steep, climbs early in the race before surprising the Rabobank duo of Freire and Graeme Brown to snag the win with an impressive last-minute spurt.
“J.J. was a bit unsure whether he had the strength to do the sprint because there were a couple of climbs halfway through the race,” Frost continued. “The whole team stepped up and really worked hard for him. Brad McGee helped J.J. to the sprint at the very end when Rabobank entered the scene. J.J. managed the last bit to perfection all by himself.”
Of course, there are always two versions to every story. Freire said Haedo caught the Rabobank team by surprise in what he thought was going to be a win for Brown, who came through third.
“I wasn’t going at top speed because I wanted my teammate to win. Then I saw Haedo moving up and I tried to restart my sprint. It was a difference of 8cm,” Freire told reporters. “What’s good is that it’s a sign that my condition is improving. I really would have liked to have won because I am not sure if I am going to be racing again in Spain before the Vuelta.”