By Andrew Hood
Fred Rodriguez (Acqua & Sapone) etched his name in the history books in stage 9 when he became the fifth American to win a stage at the Giro d’Italia. Rodriguez also did what few have been able to do in the past two seasons – get around Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) in full flight. VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood caught up with “Fast Freddy” before the start of the Thursday’s stage. Following are excerpts from the interview – Editor
VeloNews: Congratulations on the big victory, tell us how it happened?
Fred Rodriguez: Petacchi’s team is so strong it’s so hard to get there fresh to do a sprint. That day I tried to save as much as possible and I was feeling really good. I wasn’t feeling my greatest, but I was feeling okay. It was finally one of the first times I was able to do my sprint and come out when I wanted to, be fresh, be at my speed and hold it. It was a hard sprint, as you could see everyone was waiting to the last minute. There was a head wind there. I took it out from pretty far out. It was a pretty risky move.
VN: Was it about 300 meters to go?
FR: It was a little less than that. I knew I was going early. I knew it was going to be close on whether I was going to be able to hold it. You could tell in the last 50 meters I started to die. Petacchi looked like he was moving up on me, but basically I was fading. I was giving it the last couple of pedal strokes I had.
VN: Looks like you timed it just right. Had there been a few more meters Petacchi would have come around you?
FR: Actually, I think I timed it wrong. I should have waited longer, then I would have won by more. I wanted to make sure I was going to be a player. I didn’t want to get boxed in from the back. I took it long. If I had waited another 50 meters, I would have won by a larger margin. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, Petacchi almost had you.’ I looked at it the other way. I made more of the mistakes because I went from long. He had all the advantages. He had the free ride until the final sprint. He jumped on my wheel, he had a draft on my wheel, he still couldn’t come around me – and I died. He had so many positive things on his side that day. I was just faster that day.”
VN: Fassa Bortolo is so strong now, it almost seems like they hold an unfair advantage over everyone else.
FR: Petacchi is getting pretty cocky about being the fastest guy in the world. Let’s put him one-on-one and see what happens. I don’t think any of us have had a chance to go one-on-one on him when he’s had to do the same kind of effort we’ve had to.
VN: You saw at San Remo, when he had the team working for him, he died against the strong sprinters after a long race.
FR: “Petacchi is so used to having his train. He can go from a long way, he goes from 200 meters and he usually can hold that. Milan-San Remo is 300km, you don’t have the same snap you have in a stage race. He went way too early. When I saw him go, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s way too long.’ Even when Cipollini beat me (in 2002), I think he jumped with 125 meters to go. He waited to the last second with the lead-out he had. You can’t go with 200 meters to go at Milan-San Remo.
VN: You came close to beating him last year at the Vuelta, and Petacchi is king of the sprints right now; how rewarding is it for you to beat him?
FR: It’s good. It builds the confidence in me, that’s where I belong. It builds confidence in the team to get a stronger team behind me. Here, other than (Andrea) Ferrigato and (Crecenzo) D’Amore, I don’t really have a train. My guys did their best the last couple of days, but that’s not their style of racing. They’re skinny guys who go well in hilly races, so they just did as much as we could. We tried to do our train the other day, but it’s partly experience and horsepower. Petacchi, he has eight guys that are just for him.
VN: What does the Giro stage victory mean for you at this point of your career?
FR: It’s huge. It’s the biggest win of my career so far, especially with beating Petacchi. No one’s hardly beat him in the past two years, that’s huge for me because I’m feel like I have a lot more to grow.
VN: Do you think you proved yourself to a lot of people with this victory?
FR: I think so, to my team, to my people around me. I’m always getting second, third; second, third, that win justified a lot of those seconds and thirds.
VN: Is it a big breakthrough psychological as well, in the sense that now you know you can do it?
FR: Yeah, it is a breakthrough. I’m the type of rider who’s always switched roles. Sometimes I’m kind of a classics rider, sometimes more of sprinter, sometimes I can climb better. I think after this, mentally, I am really looking forward to working on becoming a more explosive sprinter. Because I really haven’t worked at it. Sprinting has always been secondary. Classics were always more important. I’m not saying I’m putting the classics on the back-burner, but I am going to put more effort on becoming stronger, faster, which I haven’t in the past.
VN: You almost won on Monday (Rodriguez was second to Petacchi in Stage 15 to San Vendemiano), how did that play out?
FR: My guys did a great job at keeping me at the front. We tried to beat his lead-out, but we ended up coming short. It was with about 2km to go his team took over. I got to his on wheel, but (Alessio’s Angelo) Furlan came shooting on the outside to fight for the wheel and we sat out there in the wind for 300 meters – mostly me in the wind and him against the barriers. I was like, ‘Give me the wheel, it’s my wheel.’ It cost me a lot of energy because I knew I needed at least that wheel because whoever came around that last corner, it was going to be hard to make a progression past that. (Fassa Bortolo’s Marco) Velo made an amazing corner. Once I won the wheel, coming into the last corner, I just took a breather and Velo just took that corner way too fast, my tires were sliding and I couldn’t hold the wheel. I lost two bike lengths on Petacchi and basically, I came back to his wheel, by then, he had already come up to full speed and I had already spent most of my energy trying to get back to his wheel. It was good, I was there, I proved I was fast. I didn’t win, but I bet if you took the timing from the corner to the finish, I bet I went faster than he did.
VN: How hard is that fight to grab Petacchi’s wheel?
FR: It’s do or die. We all know he has the best lead-out and there’s not enough organization with the other teams, it ends up that you need to get on that wheel. To really beat him, you have to do what I did, you have to do your own sprint, then it’s more one-on-one. In the speeds we’re going, if you wait for them to start their sprint, it’s almost too late. If he goes at 200 meters and you have to make up a whole bike length at 70kph? That’s pretty tough.
VN: You’re going to try to make it to Milan?
FR: It’s important for the team, but it’s just as important for me to get to Philadelphia. I’m playing it 50-50. The legs are feeling OK. I saved as much energy in the last mountain stage. I’m true to myself and I told the team that I’m going to try, but I’m going to play it by ear.
VN: You obviously don’t want to go do too deep to get through the mountains to try for the final stage victory and risk the U.S. races?
FR: I’ve done plenty of grand tours, I know it’s hard to recover mentally and physically. The more I save now, the more I’ll feel better for Philly.
VN: When do you head to the United States?
FR: Monday. We race, Tuesday, Thursday, doesn’t leave me much time.
VN: How do you recover after a long flight like that?
FR: Right now I’m trying to convince the organization in Philly to reserve me a business-class ticket to help out a little bit there. Sunday night instead of having a party with the team, go to bed early, cut corners here and there and try to save energy.
VN: How big would it be for you to win at Philly for a third time?
FR: It’s obviously been a big race that I’ve done well at, so for me to do well again, it would just prove to me. It’s one of my favorite races – it’s long, it’s hard, it’s also for someone who’s fast. The crowd is huge and it’s home.
VN: Will you have a strong team to support you?
FR: I have four or five of the guys that are here are going to go.
VN: How’s it looking for you for the Olympics?
FR: I misread the schedule. I thought that Olympic qualifying race is the week after Philly, but I guess it’s two weeks after instead. I don’t know if I can hold my form. I’m already pushing it for Philly. I’m hoping that the Olympic committee that’s in charge of cycling is looking at what I am doing, seeing that I’m not only the fastest American, but one of the fastest guys in the world. That’s enough to get me coach’s selection for the Olympics. That’s how I got the spot last time, because I was the fastest guy.
VN: If you make the Olympic team, would you stay in the States or return to Europe to train? And later, the Vuelta?
FR: I would come back to Spain. I’m not doing the Tour this year, so I would train in Spain, do some of the races in late July and get ready for Athens. The team might do the Vuelta, but I will be racing at San Francisco.
VN: So how are you feeling so far on the new team?
FR: It’s getting better and better. It’s a new team, everything was put together at the last minute. There are growing pains, as riders it’s a really good group. We had a team training camp for me to keep me in check to make sure I was good.
VN: What about your future? You have a one-year contract with this team?
FR: Yes, it was a new team, I wanted to see how things went. I’m really hoping this Pro Tour works out for next year. I think it’s a positive thing for cycling. It needs to consolidate and look at quality, so for it’s to be part of one of the big teams. If my team here can put that together, then it would be good. But that’s a major goal for next year.