Shorn of their major favourites in the Tour, Oscar Freire gave Spanish cycling fans something to cheer about when he ambushed the opposition for victory in the final bunch sprint at Caen yesterday.
With all eyes on the world champion, Tom Boonen, as the finish line approached, Freire delivered a sneak attack down the right-hand side of the road that even the 32-year-old did not expect to succeed.
"I had mistimed my attack and accelerated too early," the three-times world champion said. "I was riding into a headwind into the bargain. It was one of the few occasions in a sprint where I've actually taken the initiative and gone for it." Freire's claims that he had somehow blundered into the limelight and a second Tour stage win of his career were very much in keeping with his reputation for absent-mindedness.
He regularly forgets his race number - back-up staff take red and black pens, paper and Sellotape with them so they can knock up a makeshift replacement - and once drove 100 kilometres to pick up his riding licence but got so engrossed in eating yoghurts at a friend's house that he forgot to take it home with him.
Regularly beset with long-term injuries, Freire's first breakthrough came in October 1999 when he succeeded with a sneak late attack in the World Championships at Verona. Out of a contract for 2000, rather than finding himself working back in the huge papermill that dominates his home town of Torrelevega, the Rabobank rider has since - one suspects much to his own surprise - become Spain's most successful one-day specialist.
Freire is also one of the few Spanish stars to have avoided both the mass exclusions of the Tour build-up and the crashes on stage three that saw his compatriot Alejandro Valverde forced to abandon the race.
He pulled no punches when asked about the recent declarations by the man at the centre of the drugs scandals behind the exclusions, the former team doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, that other sports like athletics, tennis and football could be implicated.
"Cycling is treated as the scapegoat, and it's only fair given the context that all these stories have come out in. But it's a more widespread problem, and should be treated as such."
In France in any case the Tour is all but eclipsed by the World Cup final, as the 10-metre high photos of Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry and profusion of tricolores as the race wended westward, showed.
One of the day's two breakaways, the local rider Samuel Dumoulin, has even gone so far as to shave the word France on to the back of his hair, but such acts of patriotism were insufficient to get him closer than four kilometres from the line before he was reeled in. Sunday's football match, so the French hope, will have a rather different ending.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'Reuse content