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America’s Men For the Classics
By Janna Trevisanut
Date: 3/27/2002
America’s Men For the Classics

By Jaime Nichols

There’s been a lot of buzz at the start of this year’s Spring Classic campaign about America’s handsomest bike racer, George Hincapie. Hincapie comes into this year’s spring season with wins at last year’s Gent-Wevelgem, the inaugural San Francisco Grand Prix, and a score to settle with the Queen of the Classics. Add to that the promise of the unprecedented support of his super domestique-for-the-day, Lance Armstrong, in several World Cup events this season, along with a US Postal team stocked with big guns for the Classics, and you’ve got material for plenty of good copy. Meanwhile, there’s another American contender quietly spinning his wheels in the European peloton without so much hype, and he showed some great early season form in last weekend’s Milan-San Remo: two-time US Pro Champion Fred Rodriguez.

Now a veteran European racer, Fred Rodriguez started his professional career with Saturn in 1996 after a Junior Championship title in 1991, and stint with the US National team. After 2 years of consistently strong domestic results, he started showing his form in races abroad, coming in 8th overall with two stage wins in the 1998 Tour de Langkawi, and was snapped up by Mapei in the 1999 season.

Fred calls his 2000 season the turning point in his career, and it certainly is his biggest to date. Winning form in Dunkirk, Niedersachsen, and the UNIQA Classic in Austria prompted Mapei to shift Rodriguez from the team’s Giro contingent in favor of sending him to Philadelphia to ride for the US Pro Championship. Fast Freddy returned to the US to win in the First Union Classic, and donned the stars and stripes as the US Pro champion when he finished 2nd in Philadelphia behind Australian Henk Vogels. Ten days later, he out-sprinted Sven Teutenberg and Markus Zberg to win the 2nd stage in the Tour de Suisse, while proudly wearing the US National Champion’s jersey. In July, he made his first appearance at the Tour de France in style with a podium finish in stage 17, and two other top five stage results. The 2000 season also saw Fred’s first appearance on the US Olympic team.

In 2001, Rodriguez made a move to Domo-Farm Frites, and has no doubt been picking up some tips from the King of the Classics himself, (and Rodriguez’s sometime training partner) Johan Museeuw. The 2001 spring campaign saw Fred taking a low profile in the early season World Cup races, with his only Spring Classic appearances at Milan-San Remo and the Amstel Gold race. His biggest moment of the season was a resounding second consecutive win at the US Pro Championships, this time sealing his victory with a triumph over the whole field as he took advantage of a fatal moment’s hesitation from George Hincapie and Trent Klasna who both failed to cover a perfectly timed attack in the last kilometer. Later that month he carried on his tradition of wearing the Stars and Stripes to victory in the Tour of Luxembourg with a sprint win in stage one, and a third place overall podium finish.

A late season crash last September at the Coppa Sabatini resulted in a separated shoulder that sidelined Rodriguez at the end of last season, as he nursed an arm in a sling for five weeks off the bike. Fred’s winter-time return to fitness may have been a bit more grueling than he might have preferred, but his off-season was a happy one, as December saw him married to his longtime sweetheart with none other than good friend George Hincapie as best man.

Racing his bike since 1987, George Hincapie’s career highlights include 10 National titles, and two world titles as a Junior and stints with the US Olympic team in 1992 and 1996. He has seen a steady string of top ten and top five finishes in World Cup races starting in 1999 with 4th place finishes in both Gent-Wevelgem and Paris Roubaix. He has participated in six Tours de France, the last three as part of Lance Armstrong’s guard. George’s heroic ride in last year’s Paris-Roubaix, coming in 4th after facing two flat tires, suffering an ill-timed crash in the muddy Arenburg Forest and showing enormous tenacity in chasing what would be the Domo podium monopoly at the end of the bike race, has earned George the strong support of his fans and has given the cycling press something to talk about as he heads into the 2002 season. In September of 2001, US Postal brought George’s show to the states. His victory at the inaugural San Francisco Grand Prix, carved out of the final climb in a decisive attack on what looked like a distinct two-man Saturn advantage of Canadian National Champion Michael Barry and the inimitable Trent Klasna, gave an estimated 350,000 cheering attendees an exciting stateside taste of the drama of elite road-racing.

George has shown some good early season form this year with podium finishes in the Volta ao Algarve, and at the Classic Haribo, though in recent weeks he’s been side-lined by a stomach flu. Nevertheless, he sounds strong, confident and ready to rumble going into the 2002 Classics season, and perhaps for the first time has a good, handpicked team in support. Still, even with the big guns in George’s corner, it was Fast Freddy in the thick of things in San Remo on Saturday, with Hincapie managing a 16th place finish after getting boxed in as the race ended in the sprint that carried Mario Cipollini to a well-deserved victory.

Coming across the line second only to Super Mario in the "Classicissima di Primavera" is just the kind of performance that demands attention. Fred Rodriguez continues to consistently show himself to be a clever sprinter with a fast finish, who isn’t sluggish on the climbs. He may just be America’s other big contender for the classics.

Look out, George!

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