Freire Wins Milan-San Remo
Oscar Freire (Rabobank) has won his first World Cup race. The two-time world champion, aided by a premature celebration by Erik Zabel (T-Mobile), threw his bike at the finish line to win the 294-km Milan-San Remo, the first round of the World Cup, in 7:11:23. Zabel finished second, and Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis) took third. Freire has taken the early lead in the 10-event World Cup.
The racing started early. After numerous abortive sallies, Toni Tauler (Iles Baleras-Banesto), Ludo Dierckxsens (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago), Nicolas Portal (Ag2r-Prevoyance), Carlos Barredo (Liberty Seguros), and Giulio Tomi (Vini Caldirola) attacked at 60 km. Within 10 km, the five men had forged a 2:34 lead, an advantage that ballooned to 17:00 at 100 km. At that point, Fassa Bortolo, Rabobank, and Phonak began to chase.
On Capo Mele, with the escapees' lead down to 6:25, Dierckxsens tried to drop his companions. They brought him back. With 40 km remaining and the bunch leading the break by 1:00, the Belgian tried again on Capo Berta. He succeeded.
As the field approached the Cipressa, CSC and Saeco took over at the front. The field reeled in Dierckxsens at the foot of the climb, and defending champion Paolo Bettini (Quick Step), Yaroslav Popovych (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago), Alexander Vinokourov (T-Mobile), Erik Dekker (Rabobank), George Hincapie (U.S. Postal Service-Berry Floor), and Mirko Celestino (Saeco) sallied off of the front. Dekker dropped this group, although Steffen Wesemann (T-Mobile) joined him. After four km of the 5.7-km climb, the pair led a chase group that contained Bobby Julich and Jens Voigt (both from CSC) by 0:11. The pursuers kept at it, however, and the field was together at the top of the climb.
On the descent, Celestino attacked. Behind him, Michele Bartoli (CSC) crashed and took down Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Leon Van Bon (Lotto-Domo) with him. As the Poggio approached, Fassa Bortolo, T-Mobile, and Rabobank took over at the front. The peloton, which was down to 50 riders, increased its pace. This group reeled in Celestino just short of the base of the Poggio.
On the ascent, Matteo Carrera (Lampre) attacked. Three other riders joined him, but the field was too strong. Vinokourov attacked several times, and Bettini attacked in the same spot as last year. This time, however, the peloton did not let the Italian escape. At the top of the climb, the peloton was strung out but together.
On the descent, world champion Igor Astarloa (Cofidis) escaped, as did Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), but Fassa Bortolo was having none of it. The Italian squad took team captain Alessandro Petacchi into the last 150 m, where Guido Trenti pulled off. Zabel, however, had Petacchi's wheel and bolted past the exhausted Italian.
Going into the last 50 m, Zabel led. Unaware that Freire had his wheel, the four-time Milan-San Remo winner threw his arms into the air to celebrate victory. Freire came around the German to win with a bike throw.
Freire was happy because he had won his first major victory outside of the world championships. He dedicated his win to the victims of last week's bombing in Madrid. Zabel was disconsolate and honest about his error. "I thought I had won," the German said. "I realized my mistake right away when Freire passed me."
Freire leads the World Cup with 100 points for today's victory, with Zabel in second place with 70 points and O'Grady in third with 50. These riders will meet again on April 4 at the Tour of Flanders. Who will win? Check in at http://www.roadcycling.com/ and find out!