Fred Rodriguez begins his final stage race in Grande Prairie, Alberta today, the day before his 42nd birthday and 21 years after a win at the Lancaster Classic in Pennsylvania launched his racing persona as Fast Freddie.
The Colombian-born rider’s career includes grand tours, folding teams and far-flung sprinting victories from China to Greece to Malaysia. He’s on the eight-rider Jelly Belly squad competing in the third Tour of Alberta, and it’s ironic.
A four-time national road titlist, Rodriguez will end his career in his third season season with the longest-sponsored American team. It’s the ninth pro team for Rodriguez. Two squads folded while he was on their respective rosters. Among the rider’s other employers, only Lotto-Soudal (formerly Davitamon-Lotto) still exists.
“When Rock Racing folded, I didn’t feel good about the way I was going out,” said Rodriguez, who rode for the controversial short-tenured team in 2008 and 2009. “It felt unnatural in the way I was being forced out.
“But once I got my clothing line up (2011) and got some partners to keep it up and going while I was racing, I decided I wanted to go out on my own terms. Of course Exergy (2011-2012) folded, too, so when Jelly Belly picked me up, everything worked out perfect. I won nationals and decided after two more years this would be my last race. I can go out on my terms and feel good about it.”
As it turned out, Rodriguez’s fourth national title in 2013 was his last win. He’s ridden an abbreviated schedule since, and he hasn’t raced this season since the Cascade Cycling Classic at the end of July.
“Basically, like I told Danny (general manager Danny van Haute) when I came on board, I am excited to finish off my career with the team and help the young riders,” Rodriguez said. “I really believe that’s what Jelly Belly is about. It’s a stepping stone for these young guys. It’s about showing up at a race like Alberta and showing the Garmins and Treks what they’ve made of and hopefully getting that chance to race in the Tour de France.”
After a diverse collection of wins in five years, Rodriguez rode in the first of his nine grand tours at the Tour de France with Mapei in 2000. He rode in the event seven times, finishing twice. He also completed the Tour of Italy where he claimed a stage in 2004 and the 2006 Tour of Spain. He withdrew from his last grand tour, the 2007 Tour de France.
“I’ve thinking out it (retirement) and friends bring it up,” said Rodriguez, who moved with his wife and three children from Emeryville, California, to nearby Berkeley a few years ago. “I’ve kept bikes from Mapei and from the Olympics and Tour de France.
“I’ve kept my Eddy Merckx bikes from winning nationals. I’ve kept my Milan-San Remo bike. I’ve kept all my jerseys and race numbers, so I have a lot of great memories. I can look back and say those are great moments. And now these are great moments.”
Rodriguez claimed Tour of Georgia stages (2003, 2006 and 2007) his four national road titles span 13 years (2000, 2001, 2004, 2013). In 2003, he finished second to Mario Cipollini in both Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem.
But Rodriguez will also retire with his last win a source of skepticism. Critics questioned his national road title in Tennessee as an improbable result from a 39-year-old rider who hadn’t won a race in several years.
Rodriguez adamantly defended himself a few days later in a media conference call and moved on.
“I think the sport is doing a better job with its education of young riders,” he said. “Long term, I’d loved to see a strong union. We want a fair game.”
Well aware his retirement begins in less than a week, Rodriguez is targeting the final Tour of Alberta stage, a circuit race in Edmonton. “When I look at this race, and if I had a dream finish it would winning on the last day of my final race,” he said. “It wouldn’t be my birthday, but those are the kinds of things you think about at the end of a career.”
(Originally published on Velonews.com on Sept. 3, 2015)