Ósca r Freire
15 Feb 1976 – When an unknown Spaniard pilfered the World Championship in 1999, cycling fans were by turns perplexed and incandescent. How could a winner of precisely one previous race hijack the sport’s blue ribbon event? How shameful was it that the jersey worn with such distinction by Coppi and Merckx could be sullied by a nobody from Cantabria?
The reality, of course, was the exact opposite. Freire, by his own admission, was something of a bubble-head in everyday life – famously he once turned up to race minus one of his shoes. Yet he was a genius on a bike. A sprinter-roadman of immense class, he trained and raced less than the rest but his results were astonishing. He’d eventually add two further rainbow jerseys, three editions of Milano-Sanremo, a green jersey and Paris-Tours.
In purely numerical terms, Freire’s palmarès doesn’t warrant a place even in the top 50, so why have we used our discretion to include him here? Despite being just about the least conspicuous of riders, he was touched by greatness. At Sanremo and the Worlds you rarely, if ever, saw him until the last 200 metres, yet from there he was superb. He also survived the most turbulent period in cycling history by and large unsullied by the scourge of doping, quite a feat in itself… Greatest win: In 2008 he became the first Spaniard to win the green jersey. Though not the fastest, his was a triumph of longevity and cycling intellect. 1977 Vuelta a España: Maertens won 13 of 21 stages. In a show of utter dominance he held the race lead from start to finish to claim his only Grand Tour win. Tour de France: 16 stages, three points classification wins, 1976, 1978, 1981 Giro d’Italia: 7 stages Vuelta a España: 13 stages, overall and points competition: 1977 World Champs: 1976, ’81 Paris-Nice: 1977 Gent-Wevelgem: 1975, ’76 Paris-Tours: 1975