Un Rey de los Adoquines? ¿Por qué no?

Make a few cracks about Spanish classics riders on Tuesday, and Oscar Freire wins Gent-Wevelgem on Wednesday. That’s just great. Though in my defense, I did intentionally exclude Freire and his key man Flecha from that discussion to guard against just this eventuality. But, even though it was Freire taking out the win, it does mark the first Spanish victory in Gent-Wevelgem, and the first Spanish victory in any of the cobbled Flanders-Roubaix week races. Have the floodgates opened to a string of Spanish classics victories?

Probably not.

Freire may be the first Spanish winner to net one of the three biggest cobbled classics, but he missed out on being the first Spaniard to win a big Belgian classic. That honor goes to Igor Astarloa, who became the first Spanish winner of the mid-Ardennes week Fleche-Wallonne in 2003. I guess the Spanish ride better on Wednesdays than Sundays? Maybe it’s a religious thing. Astarloa has another point in common with Freire in that he’s also worn the rainbow jersey, earning his in Hamilton, Ontario, the same year as his Fleche win. Of course, Freire has won an astonishing three of those fancy shirts, some Milan-San Remos, and a host of stages to go along with them. Astarloa, not so much.

Regardless of their career trajectories, probably the most telling similarity between Freire and Astarloa has been their choice of teams during their respective 11 and 9 year careers. With the exception of Freire’s first two seasons with the Vitalicio Seguros squad, at the conclusion of which he won his first world championship, neither has since ridden for a Spanish team. With the rainbow stripes boosting his market value, no home team was willing to pay Freire his worth, so he went off to the Italo-Belgian Mapei-Quick.Step for three years, and then to Dutch team Rabobank ever since.

While Freire opened his career at home, Astarloa didn’t even do his stagiare ride for a Spanish team. Instead, he did his test run with the Swiss Riso Scotti-Vinavil squad in 1999 before signing his first pro contract with Mercatone Uno in 2000. After two years there, he stayed in Italy, signing for Saeco-Longoni Sport, where he had his fantastic 2003 season. For 2004, Cofidis was stocking up on world champions, and signed both David Millar and Astarloa, but Astarloa quickly jumped ship to Lampre when Cofidis pulled its team from competition on the eve of the 2004 Paris-Roubaix. The Cofidis scandal would eventually cost Millar his jersey and a couple of years on the bench, while Astarloa would spend an anonymous year with Lampre before moving on to the allegedly South African Barloworld squad during its modest early years. After a couple of years in the hinterlands, a win in Milano-Torino was enough to gain him a ride with Milram, where he remains today.

So here we have two riders who, in the scope of the last 9 years, have given Spain four world championships and some of its biggest professional victories. And in that time, neither has ridden for a Spanish team. Why don’t Spanish teams want classics riders? I think it’s due to Miguel Indurain Disease (MID). MID is very similar to the malady known on this side of the pond as Lance Armstrong Disease (LAD). The common thread is a nation having one rider so dominate the collective consciousness for so long that people begin equating that rider’s specialty with bike racing itself. And in both cases, that means stage racing, not winning burly one-day classics. MID, which is principally tied to GC victories, is rendered far more potent by the long Spanish legacy of spindly climbers who, despite their inability to win the grand tours, make a good living genuflecting across their mountaintop finish lines.

What makes MID even more dangerous is that the Spanish don’t build antibodies to it; instead, due to the nature of the disease, they just keep getting re-infected. Young Spanish riders watch the current Spanish professional squads, dream of success in the mountains of the grand tours, and focus their attention there. Young talent is groomed for the hills, not the crosswinds. The Spanish teams and their sponsors know that the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Dolomites are where the fans will expect them to make their mark, so yet another “Next Indurain” is signed while proven classics contenders are exported to Italy and the north. And there they stay, because even if the Spanish teams would pay them, they wouldn’t have the support they need in their races, because everybody’s too busy preparing to ride five mountain passes a day. While they’re outside the Spanish border, their day-to-day exploits go underreported to their countrymen, and the cycle starts again.

If the next Oscar Freire is coming up through the Spanish ranks right now, I can guarantee you someone’s jabbering in his earpiece trying to make him the next Iban Mayo. Meanwhile, Flecha, Freire, Barredo, Reynes and others are dispersed among the northern teams, more appreciated by a host of Flemish lunatics than their countrymen until it’s time to hoist the flag at the World Championships. Venga, venga, venga.

(If you want to see the reverse, look at Belgium’s recent grand tour history versus their role in the one-day classics. I believe it’s called the Johan Museeuw Disease (JMD).)

But back to Spain. People like to use the phrase, “exception that proves the rule.” I’m never sure exactly what they mean, and I don’t think they are either, but in this case, I’m pretty sure that exception is Alejandro Valverde. Despite winning both Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2006, he somehow still rides for Caisse D’Epargne and, in fact, has not ridden for a non-Spanish team in his career. I think that’s because, in spite of his sprint, his palmares, and his lack of time-trialing ability, he has just enough high-mountain staying power that people continue to whisper “Vuelta a Francia” in his ear.

God bless him, Valverde is doing his best to fight MID by winning sprints and generally being an exciting rider, but the disease just keeps recurring. Every half-decent time trial and second place mountaintop finish is like Miguel himself sneezing in his face. And like LAD, MID is a tough illness to kick. Over here, many in the competitive cycling community have hoped that a big win from George Hincapie (High Road) in the classics could provide the antidote to LAD, but so far, the results aren’t propitious. An unexpected win from Tyler Hamilton in Liege-Bastogne-Liege looked promising, but that research later proved to be flawed. However, if we learn from the MID work the Spanish have conducted with Freire and Astarloa, it looks as if Hincapie could win Paris-Roubaix three times this Sunday, and we’d still be a long way from finding the cure. I’m thinking of starting a charity ride.