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Fast Fred Rodriguez
By Jaime Nichols
Date: 6/6/2004
Fast Fred Rodriguez

Fred Rodriguez of Acqua & Sapone.
Click for larger image.
Photo by Scott Schaffrick.

You've been riding in Europe for years, but you always come back to race here for this week - what keeps you coming back to Philly every year?

I think it all started the year I won Lancaster, and was second in Trenton. That was the year I started coming out as a top rider, but I was an amateur, so I wasn't able to race in Philly as a pro. Everyone was saying, "yeah, Freddy's still an amatuer, but he should be racing as a pro," and I just thought - that's a race I want to do, and it was taken away from me, basically. That was in 1995. I've always shined in all the big American races - Atlanta, Lancaster...

For some reason, for me, I live on the fact that it's the biggest race, and everyone's looking for that. This is the big race, it's the big show. Everyone really wants to perform well here, and I always just rise to the occasion. That's what I really do. I have a harder time doing really well in smaller events.

What do you remember most about the first time you did ride US Pro in 1996?

Well, just everyone's focus is on it. The whole aspect of the event was just really: "This is it. This is the event." I could feel that everyone was tense, but excited, and you just feel the vibe. Even within the team. I was on Saturn at the time, the whole mood was like: "This is it. We have to perform here, we're going to race like a team." I mean, just everything revolved around this event, and you get this pump of adrenalin that's just building throughout the week. I remember, just that build-up for that Sunday.

What happened to you that first time? You were third, right?

I think that year I was the strongest guy in the field, and I lost the event. Basically, I felt I could have won the race, and in that last roundabout, Eddie Gragus attacked, and I was boxed in, and Bart Bowen, I think, was still left, but Bart was pretty fried, and he didn't have it to chase him down, so I had to chase myself, so I basically had to sacrifice the race, and anyway, it was too late.

How did you feel, heading into those final moments?

Well, I was really confident. I knew I had it in me - I was flying. The team basically switched roles, and I was the captain, even though it was my first year as a pro and everything, and I was relying on the team as much as possible to keep it together, and Bart was covering a lot of the moves. I don't remember who else was with me, I think I had two other guys, and at the end, I knew I was one of the fastest guys. I think Gaggioli was my main competition, and I was in there, and just playing the race, not the jersey, so I was still confident, that I could win the event, or win at least the jersey. But, when that corner came, it was just gone. It walked away from me. I felt destroyed - I mean, I had covered everything, kept it together, it was under control the whole day... and then, just to lose it like that.

There are always moments like that in bike racing. What's different about how they feel now, with all your experience and confidence?

I follow a plan, but basically for me to win here, I have to sacrifice it and be in a position to lose it all. I have to play my card, and that's it. If another card comes out, and I pull out my ace, then I could lose the whole event, so I have to play the ace when I think I'm supposed to play it, and hope all the other guys play their cards first. It's a hard race, but at the same time, there's a lot of strategy, and the race could be lost in just a moment like that, so it's a gamble. There's certain risk involved in the way I race the event, but on the other hand, it's the only way I can assure myself the possibility of winning, more than playing for just a result.

You're always one of the strongest guys here, but there are a lot of strong guys here. You've won the race once and the jersey twice - what is it that makes you able to put it together and succeed here, or is that a secret?

No, I've never made a secret of the way I race here.

So what allows you to get it right?

I think it's a race of attrition. I let the attrition take place, and then I play my cards at the end. The day that doesn't happen is the day I'll lose. It might happen this time - an early breakaway, or an attack that I don't cover, but if I cover all those moves? I've come here a couple of times, really nervous, and I've lost it, like I did last year. I was nervous. I didn't feel I was as strong as I had been the last couple of years, and I started playing other cards to see if something would come out.

For a lot of guys, there's also a team aspect, too; where the team's saying, "We can't lose it, we can't lose it," and I've always had the luxury that when my team comes here, it's only for one reason, and that's for me. All the teams I've brought here, that's the only reason we're here: for me - because I want to be here.

Every time I sign with these teams, I say, "Okay, I'm going with you, but I have one request: I have to race in America, and in Philadelphia for sure." They always accept, and so when they come here, it's just for me. The team has no expectations, and it would be great for me to win and carry the jersey in Europe, but the stress is all on me, and there's no one else here saying, "You have to do this, or we'll lose the event. Help the other guy, or let's play another move." I have one game plan, and I'm allowed to keep that. I make the game plan, and I stick to it.

Photo by Jaime Nichols.

That's a lot of responsibility to take on.

Yeah. I think that's what makes winners win. I mean, sometimes I'll notice that myself: I'll hesitate to take the leadership, and that's because I'm scared of failing. But, I know I have to take that leadership, because just by allowing yourself to get into that position, you have to rise to the occasion, and sometimes, just because you're driven to do that, it comes out, even if you didn't think you had the legs that day.

This is really a career-defining race. When you came back and did it the first time, you already had a career as one of the top pros in Europe. What was it like the first time you won it?

The first time I won it, I had just come off of winning five or six races, and I knew this had always been an important race, and I wanted to come here and win it - that was my goal from the start - so when I won it, I was content. What I wanted from the event was to win, and it proved to me and everyone in the US that what I was doing in Europe was up to that level.

Who do you think will be there with you at the end?

Well, basically, I think everyone showed their cards in Trenton and Lancaster. I showed my cards, showed that I'm strong. Jakob Piil has shown that he's strong. Bobby's strong. Horner's there, Van Heeswijk's there and he's strong, Lieswyn's showed that he still here and he wants it bad. I see all those guys there.

Do you expect it to really be the Americans who animate the race?

I think so. I think the Europeans have always come here in more of a following role, and I think they know that the Americans really want this one, so they just follow and maybe get an advantage off the Americans playing against each other. That's always a problem.

The first time I won the US Pro jersey, I lost the race, and that first year I came over, that was my goal: the jersey. In the final 10k, my director came up and said, "Do not worry about any European rider. That's not your job right now. You need that jersey." So I said, "Okay. I'll take that," so that was my goal at the moment. So, you really do have this race within the race, and you have to think realistically about what's more important to you. That day I wanted - I needed - the jersey. When I came back the second year, I needed to win.

How about this Sunday? Jersey, or victory?

The overall win is hard, and it's good, but the jersey is still more important. I mean, we'll give up the race for that, and so the Europeans have that advantage. If they attack, we're going to hesitate. The only time I didn't hesitate was the year I won, and that was because I knew I had the strongest legs, and I was willing to spend the extra energy. If I feel that again, I'll do that again, but I won't know that until that exact moment.

In part two, Freddie talks about his life in Europe, his big victory in the Giro, and what keeps him going in the rough times...

Fred wins in Trenton and his teammate celebrates. Click for larger image.
Photo by Scott Schaffrick.

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