No cyclist has a story quite like that of Óscar Freire, our No. 4 pick among the Greatest Road Sprinters of the past four decades. Five hundred meters before the finish of the 1999 world pro road race championship in Verona, Italy, virtually no one had heard of him. So when, in the far distance, we saw a rider in a mostly white jersey burst out of the final turn alone, many thought it was Germany’s Jan Ullrich taking a flyer. But as he came into focus, we saw it wasn’t the blue shoulders of the German national team jersey but the red and yellow of Spain.
John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada
With that late burst, Freire won the rainbow jersey solo, four seconds clear of the winning breakaway. Scrambling for information on the new world champion, we learned that Freire was 23 and barely raced in his first two years as a pro, chalking up just one victory—taking a reduced group sprint on a windswept stage of the 1998 Vuelta a Castilla y León. And he was a last-minute addition to the Spanish worlds team after knee surgery had restricted him to racing just 11 times in 1999.
We also learned that Freire was the youngest of four brothers who grew up in Covadonga, a working-class neighborhood of Torrelavega, a port city on the Cantabrian coast of northern Spain. At 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds, he didn’t have the typical build of a pure sprinter, but he showed us that he had the speed to beat the fastest finishers, especially at the end of long, hilly races. // Freire proved his worth on signing for the world’s No. 1-ranked Mapei team by taking seven wins in 2000, along with third-place finishes at Milan–San Remo and the worlds. And though injuries kept him from racing much in 2001 he came back to form at the Vuelta a España, took second place at Paris–Tours (behind solo winner Richard Virenque) and then won his second rainbow jersey in Lisbon, Portugal.
Freire began his first Tour de France in 2002. Stage 2 into Saarbrücken, Germany, was made for the home country’s Erik Zabel, but Spain’s world champion used all his speed and strength in a long sprint to take the verdict (this image) ahead of three other redoubtable sprinters (left to right), Robbie McEwen, Zabel and Baden Cooke.
By the end of a 15-year pro career, Freire had won seven Vuelta stages, four Tour stages (and the green jersey), three editions of Milan–San Remo, Paris–Tours and Ghent-Wevelgem—and joined record holders Eddy Merckx, Rik Van Steenbergen and Alfredo Binda as the winner of three world pro road titles.