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An interview with Fred Rodriguez
Let the games begin
Two serious crashes, an incessant back problem, anal retentive race officials, a classics season gone bad. But no matter - Fred Rodriguez is quickly climbing back to 100 per cent, and the red carpet's ready to roll in cycling's equivalent of the World Series baseball finals. And as Anthony Tan discovers, Fast Freddy loves being on top.
"MY GOAL HERE is to showcase myself at the biggest event in cycling and to someday win a stage and continue winning stages. I love winning and I love being on top."
Confident words from 29 year old sprinter Fred Rodriguez - especially when you consider his performances on the bike this spring left something to be desired.
Rodriguez was one of the last riders to be allocated to a Division I team, eventually signing the dotted line with Sidermec (now Vini Caldirola-So.Di) in mid-January. After ex-pro turned directeur sportif Mauro Gianetti pulled some strings to get the Californian on board, Rodriguez declared that he was ahead of the game in terms of his off-season training, believing he could improve on his excellent performances that made him a classics contender last year.
"I'm ahead of where I was at the same time last year," said Rodriguez to the press. "Using the experience I gained with my success in Gent-Wevelgem and Milan-San Remo [Rodriguez finished second behind Mario Cipollini in both events], I feel like I can improve upon that in the classics this year."
At his first tune-up race before the World Cup races began, the Tour of Rhodes, Rodriguez's words proved accurate. A stage win and a top five overall looked promising, however, a bad crash on the final stage hampered his preparation for Milan-San Remo, and then an even worse pile-up a week later at the GP E3-Harelbeke destroyed his chances for every spring classic after that.
"It [the crash] was right at the critical point [of the season] where I needed to be going 100 per cent," Rodriguez recalls from his team bus, heading towards Paris for his third Tour de France. "So I kept training hard when I shouldn't have been, and then I did de Panne - which was probably the biggest mistake I made. I really needed to let the body heal itself and start from ground zero again."
The mentality of virtually every professional bike rider doesn't not allow one to start at ground zero though. Rodriguez is no different, and tells me the sport of cycling is all about suffering - "we try and suffer through our injuries", he says. "So I continued and kept hoping for the best."
Following withdrawals at the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix, punctuated by a fairly ordinary 82nd at Amstel Gold, it appeared 'hope' had gone on permanent vacation. "At the end, I felt my spring was a complete loss," he says, still sounding forlorn upon reflection.
Then, out of nowhere, Fast Freddy appeared to be back: within the space of a week, a seemingly Forlorn Freddy had morphed into the Fast Freddy we all used to know and love. At the Tour of Georgia, Rodriguez won two of the five stages, finished second in two, won the sprinter's classification and finished second overall (and had it not been for some anal retentive race officials, Fred points out, he probably would have won, too).
"At Georgia, my body was feeling really strong, but at the same time, I was pedaling incorrectly and having a lot of back pain. I knew I couldn't continue like that," says Rodriguez.
It was a case of once bitten, twice shy for the Fast and the Furious Freddy, Rodriguez opting wisely to park his bum in the States and recuperate. At the USPRO Championships, a title he won twice in succession, it was clearly a rejuvenated Rodriguez, chasing down attacks all day long, but doing too much to have anything left for the final sprint. "I was one of the strongest guys and a little too confident, so I ended up trying to cover too many moves and wasted a lot of energy," he says, though somewhat unusually, not sounding too disappointed with himself.
I then discover why. "All my training in the US before Philadelphia was based more on being good for the Tour," he says. "Not going to the Tour is like not having a full season."
Rodriguez may be on an Italian team, but the three guns on Vini Caldirola - Stefano Garzelli, Romans Vainsteins and Rodriguez - are yet to prove themselves in 2003. Quite frankly, however, with so many class riders for the Centenary Tour, Garzelli would be doing well earning a place in the top 10 - which ostensibly means this team is focused on winning stages.
Vainsteins and Rodriguez are very clever bike riders, each with their own unique style of winning, so both should profit from their stature within the team. Also interesting is that both have also ridden on the same team for the past three seasons, and have participated in the last two Tours de France together. "We're both riders capable of winning stages, so we have to share that podium together and pick different days to help each other. It's a good combination I think," says Rodriguez.
Asked if he and Vainsteins have analysed the stages that best suits their talents and abilities, Rodriguez tells me in a roundabout sort of way that my question is... well, stupid.
"For a sprinter, you really have to decide based on each situation - it's not something you can calculate how it's gonna work. My job is to stay as calm as possible during the stage, and it's really only in the last 10k of the race where we really need to be active. You can't really sit down and analyse the course and say 'we're going to do this or we're going to do that'; it's all done as you're going." That told me.
Now you might be thinking that Rodriguez's way of thinking and behaving is: 'my way or the highway', but in actual fact, it couldn't be further from the truth. Rodriguez has spent his last four seasons as the only American riding on an Italian (Mapei-Quick Step) or Belgian team (Domo-Farm Frites) - something a majority of European-based American pros would find almost impossible to deal with. Just ask Jonathan Vaughters.
"I'm an American with an American way of thinking", acknowledges Rodriguez, "but for me, it's an interesting situation; it's all new, so I treat it as a learning experience. In two years with Domo, I learned a lot from them, but I now I'm part of a different culture. At times, it can be hard until you figure out how things work, but you just try to work with them [the Italians]."
As grandly as he has gone about assimilating with his new team, Fred Rodriguez has handled the ebb and flow resulting from injury and disappointment with equal finesse. But Fast Freddy tells me he is now at 85 per cent - "quickly climbing to 100" - and the red carpet ready to roll for the premiere cycling event of the year.
Says an excited Rodriguez, "This is our NBA finals, our World Series [baseball] finals... THIS IS THE EVENT!
"For some guys, just finishing might be a result; for some people, helping their captain might be a huge result. For me, it's going in there and winning a stage."