Back pain no obstacle for Freire

The world road race champion, Oscar Freire, defied chronic back trouble to sprint home first on the second stage of the Tour of Spain yesterday.

The world road race champion, Oscar Freire, defied chronic back trouble to sprint home first on the second stage of the Tour of Spain yesterday.

Victory on the 167.5km run from Malaga to Cordoba was achieved despite a serious question mark over the Spaniard's health. Freire has been plagued by a back injury for the last two years and some specialists have said he needs surgery that could rule him out for four months.

The Mapei team helped to manoeuvre their rider into position in the last two kilometres as the peloton swept into the historic Andalusian city of Cordoba. The Spaniard then timed his sprint to perfection and broke clear to win by a length from Dutchman Jans Koerts.

"My team had set me up and I felt strong, so I went for the victory," said Freire, who is using the event as preparation for the Olympic Games. He has said he will probably withdraw after the 13th stage, in his home region of Santander.

"I had the aim of winning a stage in this year's event and now I have done it earlier than I expected. I'd still like to win in Santander though."

Perhaps the day's real hero was Spain's Andres Bermejo of the Relax team. He made a spectacular break after only 10km, building up a lead of nearly 13 minutes. Bermejo stayed ahead for 140km in the searing heat. But once the Lampre and Saeco teams took control of the peloton, the gap was gradually eaten away. His valiant attempt ended 17km from the line.

The Swiss rider Alex Zülle, who won the opening time trial on Saturday, retained race leadership by two seconds ahead of Monday's third stage of 198.4km between Montoro and Valdepenas.

Lance Armstrong proved his pre-Olympic fitness yesterday, combining with his US Postal team-mate Viatsjeslav Ekimov to win the Grand Prix Eddy Merckx time trial in Brussels yesterday. The pair finished the 40-mile two-man time trial through the Belgian capital in 1hr 16min 18sec. Armstrong cycled the time trial as preparation for the Olympics, where he will take part in the road race and the individual time trial.

It was the third time trial he has won this year, after victories in the Tour de France and the Dauphiné Libéré.

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