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Fighting for every inch

The eighth stage of the 2002 Tour de France was the sort of race a healthy Fred Rodriguez loves. The 217.5km trek from the Normandy region of France toward the southern coast of Brittany suited the talents of the American Domo-Farm Frites rider perfectly. “Today might be one of those days where one of our guys gets to go out there and try to go for a stage win,” said Rodriguez before the start of the long stage that finished on the road circuit of the 2000 world championships in Plouay. Just as he had hoped, Domo did get one of its men in position for a win when Servais Knaven made the final

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Rodriguez in his element this opening week

By Kip Mikler, VeloNews editor, in Plouay

Rodriguez signs an autograph before Stage 5

Rodriguez signs an autograph before Stage 5

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

The eighth stage of the 2002 Tour de France was the sort of race a healthy Fred Rodriguez loves. The 217.5km trek from the Normandy region of France toward the southern coast of Brittany suited the talents of the American Domo-Farm Frites rider perfectly. “Today might be one of those days where one of our guys gets to go out there and try to go for a stage win,” said Rodriguez before the start of the long stage that finished on the road circuit of the 2000 world championships in Plouay.

Just as he had hoped, Domo did get one of its men in position for a win when Servais Knaven made the final group of seven, but on any other day Rodriguez probably would have been tipping himself as a rider to watch, rather than just teammates. He knows he has the finishing speed to take the win from a small break, and the tough 13.5km finishing circuit in Plouay — with its narrow, twisting roads and uphill approach to the finish — was the type that favors overall strongmen rather than pure sprinters with well-organized finishing squads.

Rodriguez, however, was still feeling the effects of a crash he was involved in on stage 1 last Sunday. “I haven’t been feeling a 100 percent,” he said. “I had that crash and injured my hamstring. It’s still bothering me a little bit — I’m feeling okay but not like I’m on top of myself.”

Crashes in the first week have had a major effect on the race, and while Rodriguez avoided the pileups that marred Saturday’s stage 7 and ended the race for world champion Oscar Freire (Mapei-Quick Step), the 28-year-old American said it wasn’t easy.

“I got lucky,” he said. “I stayed toward the front until the last 50K. With these small roads and everyone being really keen on being at the front, it’s just a battle.”

While the long rolling stages may appear on television to be nothing more than 200-kilometer set-ups for the sprinters, Rodriguez said things aren’t as easy as they look, and that the mental aspect of these so-called “flat” stages can be exhausting.

“You’re fighting for every inch of the road,” he said. “Eventually you lose the battle and you have to brake. Guys behind you will brake even harder and eventually there’s gonna be a crash. You always have your finger on that brake.”

The crash that affected Rodriguez last week appeared innocuous enough, but when a group went down in front of him, he tangled with another rider in an awkward position. “There was a big crash and I had some wheels that were not braking too well. I just couldn’t stop, I crashed into somebody and rammed my hamstring into his bike.”

As promised, Rodriguez rode aggressively on Sunday, joining a 12-man attack just past the 80km mark. The group gained 35 seconds, but with the peloton ripping along at an average speed of 49.7 kph in its second hour on the road, the 12 men couldn’t stay clear. They were caught at the 100km mark, and the winning break made its move just 8km later.

Rodriguez knows some of his best chances are behind him, but as the leg heals and his confidence grows, he’s still looking to survive the Pyrénées — where he abandoned the 2001 Tour during the 13th stage — and make some more opportunities for himself.

“Maybe in between the mountains there will be one more stage I can go for,” he said. “And then there’s Champs-Élysées.”