Spain?s Oscar Freire (Rabobank) team won Milan-San Remo on Saturday with a perfect final sprint to the line that left the other sprinters struggling in his wake for the minor places.
The 31 year-old three-time world champion nudged Tom Boonen off Alessandro Petacchi?s wheel in the final kilometre and then perfectly timed his charge to line in the final 200 metres to beat Australia?s Allan Davis (Discovery Channel) and Boonen (Quick Step). Robbie McEwen and Stuart O?Grady finished fourth and fifth to give Australia three riders in the top five places. Petacchi was only eighth after fading and sitting up in the final hundred metres.2006 winner Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) was only 19th after struggling with stomach problems before the start.
Jeremy Hunt (Unibet.com) was best British finisher in 17th, with Roger Hammond (T-Mobile) 42nd. Both finished in the same time as Freire. Steve Cummings (Discovery Channel) impressed in his first big classic, finishing just 21 seconds down, leading in a small group that also contained David Millar (Saunier Duval), who finished in 71st place.
It was Freire?s second Milan-San Remo victory after winning it in 2004 and he again outwitted and out-sprinted the bigger favourites.
?I felt very good and knew I could win,? Freire said.
?I decided to get behind Petacchi for the final kilometre because I knew his team would lead him out and that it was the best position. I had the legs, the position and even had to the space to get past Petacchi, so it was a perfect sprint.?
In 2004 Freire won by just a few centimetres, passing Erik Zabel just before the line after the German put his arms in the air to celebrate. This year Freire recovered from an injury-affected 2006 and was clearly the fastest sprinter in the legendary Via Roma finish.
?The thing that counts is to win, it?s not important by how much,? Freire said.
?I had a lot of problems with my neck in 2006 and hardly race after the Tour de France but I always try to think positive and I always had faith in myself. After getting over my problems I started training earlier this winter and so I think I?m stronger and fitter than in the past.?
Freire movingly dedicated his victory to his uncle but insisted his first world title in 1999 is still the best win of his ten-year career.
?This win is for my uncle Antonio. He bought me my first bike when I was nine years old but at the moment he?s in hospital. I hope this makes him happy and helps him recover.?
?This is a great win but can?t be compared to my first world title. I?d say that even if I won the Tour de France because when I won in 1999 it changed my life. I?d had lots of injury problems it was only my second win as a professional.?
The 294-km race was characterised by a long attack by six riders who attacked after 86 kilometres. Rain showers caused several crashes and the six opened a lead of seven minutes before being caught at the start of the Cipressa, 28km from the finish.
Liquigas then took over with first Manuel Quinziato attacking before Franco Pellizotti, Andrea Molletta (Gerolsteiner) and Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel) opened a good gap on the false flat. Molletta crashed spectacularly on the descent but the other two opened a 26-second gap before being chased down by the bunch before the Poggio.
More attacks came on the Poggio, with 23 year-old Riccardo Ricco (Saunier Duval) doing as promised and ripping the bunch apart near the top. He opened ten-second gap with Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux) and dived down the descent, dreaming of victory. Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) sacrificed his chances and led the chase down the dangerous corners and hairpins, with Milram taking over on the flat. Ricco and Gilbert were caught in sight of the last kilometre banner and everything was ready for a bunch sprint.
Milram had a three-man lead out train ready for Petacchi and did a perfect final kilometre but the 2005 winner just did not have the legs in the Via Roma, and like Boonen, was passed and left behind by an impressive Freire. Davis was on his wheel and got second, with Boonen hanging on for third.
1 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank 294km in 6.43.50
2 Allan Davis (Aus) Discovery Channel
3 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quickstep-Innergetic
4 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Predictor-Lotto
5 Stuart O’Grady (Aus) Team CSC
6 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram
7 Gabriele Balducci (Ita) Acqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo
8 Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Milram
9 Vicente Reynes (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne
10 Robert Hunter (RSA) Barloworld all same time
17, Jeremy Hunt (Unibet.com) at same time
42, Roger Hammond (T-Mobile) at s.t
64, Steve Cummings (Discovery Channel) at 21secs
71, David Millar (Saunier Duval) at s.t.