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Is Fast Freddy fast enough to make his mark?
By John Wilcockson
He’s stronger, smarter, leaner and more confident than at any pointin his career. Now in his fourth season of full-time European racing, FredRodriguez, 28, knows what it takes to win a stage at the Tour de France.His Domo-Farm Frites squad is expecting its best Tour results from GC ridersRichard Virenque and Axel Merckx. But given the right breaks, the two-timeU.S. pro champion also has a great chance of success — particularly sincehis second-place finishes this spring at Milan-San Remo and Ghent-Wevelgem.
“I think the team will now have more confidence that I’m capable, ifI get a good lead-out,” said Rodriguez in a recent interview. “Maybe the… stages that are hillier are good for me — it could be a group of 30 or40.”
The American feels that sprinting in a medium-sized group will be betterfor him than trying to win a mass sprint or find an opening with a smallbreakaway group. He experienced both options when he raced for Mapei atthe 2000 Tour — leading out Tom Steels for several field sprints and featuringin a long breakaway on the stage to Villeneuve-sur-Lot (in which threeothers jumped clear for the podium spots while he took the sprint for fourth).
“When they know you’re fast, it makes it twice as hard to try to wina stage in a breakaway,” he observed, “for they’re for sure not gonna wantto take you to the finish line.”
“I’ve been close a couple times,” he continued, probably thinkingof his third place at Lausanne in 2000, when Erik Dekker made a late breakfor the win, and Erik Zabel took second. “But I don’t think I’ve had itto win it; I’ve been in right situations, when I’m there with Zabel orsome of the other sprinters, but haven’t had my top-end sprint. I feellike I’m a lot stronger this year. So I think in the right situation Icould give Zabel a run for his money.”One reason for his improvements this year, he said, has been keepinghis weight down. The 5-foot-10 Rodriguez has never been heavy, given thegenes of his father, a Colombian cyclist, but he now realizes that everyounce counts after hours of racing over frequent climbs.
Compared with last year, he said he was 4 kilos (about 9 pounds) lighter,weighing in at 67 kilos (147 pounds) for the spring classics. “This hasmade a big difference in the hills,” he said. “In my overall performance,I seem to ride a lot better at this weight. When I was younger with Saturnand as an amateur, I was a lot faster around 70, 71. It’s a fine point:Do you want to be faster, but suffer a lot more? In higher level racingyou can’t be suffering too much or you’re not gonna have a sprint anyways.”
Domo isn’t built around a pure sprinter, so it doesn’t have a sprint-lead-outmentality. That’s why, he said, “I want to be in the finales where guysare on edge, where it’s more about the strong guys surviving, not so muchabout being a sprinter. I didn’t want to be a sprinter this year.”
Given the all-around form he showed at this year’s spring classics,and his natural speed, it doesn’t seem such a stretch to see Rodriguezwearing the Tour’s green jersey. Is that something he’s thought about?
A sort of smile warms his bronzed, angular face as he replies, “That’sa possibility. I’ve thought about it. I think it’s just gonna bethe year that I really feel comfortable in the Tour, and maybe I’ll wina stage at the beginning and then just ride off the confidence and theform, and just keep clicking away at the points and see what happens.”
That may not be this year, although he is confident that the 2002 Tourwill be a much better one for him than last year’s, when he dropped outon the rugged 13th stage through the Pyrénées. This is howhe explained it: “Last year, I got sick, really bad, right before the Tour.I don’t think many people knew about it. I mean, I was flying coming outof Philadelphia (where he won the First Union USPRO Championship).”
His good form continued right after Philly when he won the first stageof the Tour of Luxembourg, going on to take third overall.
“Then I went to [the Tour of] Catalonia,” he continued, “and got whatmust have been a stomach virus, because I was really sick for a week; mystomach was just a mess. But I had such good form that it was hard to tell.So [the team] said drop out of the race, rest for a week and start theTour.
“I never came back. I just dug myself a hole by staying in the race.And even after I dropped out of the Tour, it took me a couple of weeksto recover.”
Rodriguez has taken a different approach this year, focusing on longertraining rides and fewer power workouts to develop his endurance. He wentto January’s Tour Down Under in Australia for the base mileage. Then atDomo’s early-season training camps, he “always added something” after eachgroup ride.
Rodriguez had problems cramping up in races at the end of February,before finding that the measurements on his race bike were “completelyoff.” The corrections were made before he rode Italy’s Tirreno-Adriatico,which gave him the hard racing he needed before his successful classicscampaign.
Following the Amstel Gold Race in late April, he returned home to SanFrancisco, to “take two weeks easy, then do three weeks of building, justmiles, for Philadelphia. That should be good for the Tour, too. I’ll probablydo one stage race, Catalonia or the Tour de Suisse, then the Tour. Lastyear I did the Tour of Luxembourg, which I didn’t really want to do. Theteam said, no, you need two races, a big race and a small race. I feltthat was pushing it.”
This year, Rodriguez has the confidence to make his own calls. Lookfor him during the Tour on those stages when only the tough guys are leftto contest the win.