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Rodriguez wins fourth U.S. men’s road title

Weeks after signing a contract, "Fast Freddie" Rodriguez shocks the field in Chattanooga to reclaim the record for U.S. pro titles

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Freddie Rodriguez (Jelly Belly-Kenda) won the men’s road race title at the Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial National Championships on Monday in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The win was Rodriguez’s record fourth U.S. professional road title and came in his first race since returning to the pro ranks with Jelly Belly earlier in May.

Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) was second and Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare) was third.

“I’ve been feeling good and I’ve just been waiting for an opportunity,” said Rodriguez. “It all just came together and I’m back.”

Look out, Lookout Mountain

Four 25.9km laps, each of which included the 4.8km, eight-percent Lookout Mountain climb, were the challenge on the map for the first professional nationals event held in Chattanooga. Similar in format to the previous seven nationals events held in Greenville, South Carolina, the 161km main event started with four laps of the 8.2km start/finish circuit and closed with three short laps over the rolling profile.

Five riders formed the day’s long breakaway: Saturday’s time trial champion Tom Zirbel (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies), Chris Jones (UnitedHealthcare), James Stemper (5-hour Energy-Kenda), Tyler Wren (Jamis-Hagens Berman), and Brad Huff (Jelly Belly). The quintet pushed away to a maximum advantage of just more than four minutes, but the peloton kept them on a fairly short leash.

Huff was the first to fall off the pace and lost contact on the first climb of Lookout Mountain. Oscar Clark (Hincapie Development) was among the riders trying to bridge to the escape during the second of four laps. Clark and teammate Joey Rosskopf caught Huff, but couldn’t hitch onto the leaders on the climb. Clark was the last of the three to survive. The peloton drew him in on the descent and with 90km to go, the four leaders held more than two minutes on the Bissell-led bunch.

Bontrager led the peloton through the start/finish for the penultimate long lap.

The breakaway held 2:30 over the peloton on the third ascent of Lookout Mountain.

Pat McCarty led the bunch up the climb for Bissell. Teammate Chris Baldwin sat second wheel with Phil Gaimon and and Carter Jones behind.

With 71km to go, Wren and Jones decided it was time to move. The gap was down to 2:15 — the leaders had lost almost 30 seconds on the climb — and the pair dropped Stemper and Zirbel off on the climb. Wren led Jones with 1km to go to the summit and took top points at the summit to secure the day’s mountains classification.

“I wanted to be out front and sort of be ahead of the action so I could get into a good group on the final time over Lookout Mountain,” said Wren. “But as it turned out it was kind of a smaller breakaway, so I changed by tactic and I went for the KOM jersey again. I had success with that last year and it feels good to have defended it.”

Behind the the two chasers, McCarty’s pace shredded the peloton. Roughly 20 riders crested the climb together for the penultimate time.

Stemper and Zirbel caught back on with Wren and Jones before they rode through downtown Chattanooga to start their final lap over Lookout Mountain.

Bissell continued to tick over the kilometers at the front of the peloton. With 54km left, the gap was down to 1:10. Alex Candalario (Optum) jumped and tried to bridge, but a single Bontrager rider went to the front and drew the veteran Californian in.

Busche blows the race apart

The leaders carried a roughly one-minute advantage onto the climb before the race exploded.

Matthew Busche (RadioShack-Leopard), the 2011 U.S. champion, attacked with Chris Butler (Champion System) and Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare) with 46km to go. The trio quickly rode through the breakaway and Busche soon dropped Butler and Euser.

With 45km to go, Busche had 15 seconds on the pair of chasers.

Butler and Euser stood on the pedals and threw their bikes from side-to-side, Busche in view up the road.

Caleb Fairly (Garmin-Sharp) launched out of a roughly 10-rider chase group with 44km to go, but was soon back with his companions.

Busche went over the top of the climb alone, Butler and Euser inside 30 seconds behind. The trio came together on the descent, but a chase group of eight men closed on them on the flat run-in to town: Zirbel for Optum; Gaimon and Baldwin for Bissell; Fairly for Garmin; Reijnen for UnitedHealthcare); Bookwalter for BMC Racing; Nathan Brown (Bontrager); and Ben Jacques-Maynes (Jamis-Hagens Berman).

With 36km to go, the chasers caught Busche and co. and there were 11 riders at the front, headed for the finishing circuits.

Eight riders soon made contact with the leaders: Ted King (Cannondale); Alex Howes (Garmin); Carter Jones (Bissell); Jamie Driscoll (Jamis); Alex Hagman and Freddie Rodriguez (Jelly Belly); and Gavin Mannion (Bontrager).

Gaimon throws his dice

The regrouping changed the dynamic in the group with Bissell putting three riders in the move and Rodriguez bringing big-time sprint chops to the finale.

Fairly attacked heading into the start/finish with 26.5km remaining. Bookwalter followed, but the acceleration shredded the group. Gaimon countered and found himself solo with 25km to go.

Behind Gaimon, five riders chased: Brown, Busche, Reijnen, Driscoll, and Hagman. On the wrong side of the split, many of the chasers sat up and looked around.

Gaimon crouched low, his forearms pressed onto the tops of his handlebars. With 22km to go, he had 15 seconds.

The 18-man chase group was soon back together, Rodriguez tucked in behind King near the back. Jones made contact with the chase and worked his way toward the front to work for Reijnen.

Brown and Mannion started cracking off attacks, trying to bridge across to Gaimon, but they couldn’t shake the group. The lone leader held 15 seconds with 20km to go.

Busche led the chase group through for the penultimate short lap, Gaimon barely in sight up the finishing straight. The Bissell man was in full-on time trial mode and pushing his advantage out. With 18km to go, he had 20 seconds and that gap held.

With 13km to go, Hagman and Jones led the chase for Jelly Belly and UnitedHealthcare — and Rodriguez and Reijnen.

“Numbers was the game we wanted to play from the get go and [the team] did a fabulous job with that from the get go,” said Reijnen. “I had Lucas and Chris both in the front right down to the final. I don’t think we could have done what we did without the team.”

The two climbers couldn’t close the gap, however, and Gaimon took 25 seconds inside of 12km to go.

Gaimon came through for the final 8.2km lap, still crouched over his bars. Hagman led the chase group under the finish banner 30 seconds later. King and Bookwalter each hid back in the group, resolute to let the Continental teams do the work or see Gaimon win his first national title.

Busche jumped with 5km to go. Baldwin followed, content to take a free ride with his Bissell teammate up ahead. The group pulled Busche and Baldwin back with 3km to go.

‘Fast’ Freddie goes for four

Meanwhile, Gaimon pushed up a long false flat with 2.3km to go. He held 15 seconds, Busche stomping on the pedals at the head of the group. The acceleration from the former national champion cut the gap to under 10 seconds.

Zirbel countered and led the chase group through to the front of the race. Gaimon was finished with under a kilometer of downhill approach remaining.

Jacques-Maynes took to the front with 500 meters to go, Rodriguez in his wheel, and drove a wedge behind the three-time national champion. Rodriguez, riding his first race for Jelly Belly, came around Jacques-Maynes and held off a late charge by Bookwalter to win his record fourth U.S. profession title.

“When I came into the last couple of corners, it was just back to basics,” said Rodriguez. “I didn’t even have to think. It was just follow the wheels and wait. It was just instinctual.”

Bookwalter tried to get the jump on the former Giro d’Italia stage winner, but could not. He nearly came over the top of Rodriguez, but had to settle for second — the same result he logged in the time trial on Saturday.

“I was telling myself to go into the sprint in front of Freddie because I knew it would be really hard to come around him,” said Bookwalter. “But to hold him off is something else. I got out of the last corner and started my sprint about the same time as him. I was coming up along side him, but didn’t quite have enough road.”

Reijnen slammed his hand on his handlebars after crossing the line, venting his frustration at a third nationals podium with no jersey to show for it.

“I think the hardest thing is that when you have teammates out there working for you, you want to repay them with a win,” he said. “That’s the hardest part. The team was incredible today. You know, we had a plan from the get go and we stuck with it and I had a lot of nerves the last couple days, just because I was excited for the race and feeling really good. You know, the guys did a really good job of keeping my hydrated, keeping me calm. We had the horsepower together at the end, but it didn’t work out. We’ll be back for next year.”

Rodriguez’s win came just weeks after he signed with Jelly Belly. The runner-up at the 2002 Milano-Sanremo classic and a top-10 finisher in a number of major Belgian classics, Rodriguez, 39, rode his experience to perhaps the biggest surprise win of his long career.

“It was a little nerve-wracking to come back and have the first race be the U.S. pro championships, but the training was good,” he said. “I was a little afraid due to my lack of competition, but it all worked out ok. I’ve always specialized in one-day races. I know how to read them and I know how to conserve and be smart about how much I can do and this played out the way I needed it to play out, which was a group sprint from the right position. It was a perfect finish for me.”

Race notes

Rob Squire (Ceramica Flaminia-Fondriest) crashed during the race. USA Cycling officials confirmed to VeloNews that Squire had been admitted to the hospital and is in stable condition. Due to patient confidentiality requirements, no additional details were available at press time.

Velo contributor Dan Wuori contributed to this report.