Cafe Chat: Anatomy of a National Championship

Garrett Ellwood, Getty Images Sport

Fast Freddie Rodriguez dishes on his career, sprinting, and his latest iconic triumph

"Fast Freddie" Rodriguez and my kids run in the same circles, so it was with great excitement that I got to meet him at an event one day back in early 2012. And then I promptly insulted him.

Chatting about a local domestic pro, I was shocked to find out he was 29. "Woah," I responded. "I thought he was younger. Not much left in his career I suppose." Rodriguez paused for a second, then said quietly, "Well, I'm still racing." I had just written off the last decade of then-38-year-old Rodriguez's career.

A charitable soul might forgive my transgression. At the time Rodriguez was a three-time U.S. national road champion, but his last had come in 2004, the same year he won a stage of the Giro d' Italia. Since then, his palmares had gradually thinned. Talking to him, he spoke with great passion about his Fast Freddie Foundation and new apparel business, and little of racing.

And life had certainly intervened in the interim with three children and a string of bad luck, from a deal with an European team that fell apart when it failed to procure a Pro Tour license, to whatever the hell it was that happened with Rock Racing -- the team that enticed him back from Europe in 2007. His latest racing project was Team Fast Freddie, a developmental squad in which Rodriguez took the role of elder statesman. By all outward appearances, it seemed as Rodriguez was headed into his post-retirement period, ever passionate about all things bikes, but his glory days behind him.

A few months after I met him, Rodriguez (riding for Exergy) took 3rd, 5th and 6th in the first three stages of the 2012 edition of the Tour of California, bested only by such names as Peter Sagan, Heinrich Haussler, and Tom Boonen. He would finish the race 26th, just eight minutes off the lead, most of that time lost up the queen stage to Mt. Baldy ("I was with the leaders, then I bonked").

But that was nothing compared to last May, when he shocked the domestic cycling scene by winning his fourth national championship. While some of his foes grumbled in the cycling press, Rodriguez proved that despite his apparel business and foundation work and family stuff, he wasn't quite done with that "racing" stuff. Or the "winning" part either. So I sat down with him to discuss exactly how he came to wear that stars and stripes jersey nine long years after he'd last won that honor.

Surprise start

While riding with his developmental squad in early 2013, Rodriguez met up with the Team Jelly Belly folks at a Tour de Cure event. The team was looking to improve its chances for key race invites, being shut out of the Tour of California since 2011, and adding a marquee name never hurt matters. "They were needing to step up the game," Rodriguez said. "So I talked to the director, and he said ‘can you be ready for nationals'? I had four weeks, I did the math, and I said ‘I think I can.'"

Rodriguez had a solid base to work with. He was pleased with his 2012 performance, from California to the US Pro Challenge in Colorado. He thought he could've won the 2012 US professional road race championship if Liquigas-Cannondale's Timmy Duggan hadn't gotten away on a solo break. At 148 lbs over the winter, he was the leanest he'd been since bulking up early in his career to sprint (to a beefy 155 lbs). "I was sprinting well [at 155], but that caused more fatigue, I got dropped in climbs," he said. "That wasn't my forte. My forte was to be the thin guy who could still sprint. Hard races where sprinters get dropped and I'm still there."

Still, 2013 was a light racing year, spent doing mostly charity rides. He did the Sea Otter Gran Fondo. A week before nationals he was at the Echelon Gran Fondo in Napa, California. You know, stuff like that, basically promotional outlets for his apparel company and foundation. "As a sprinter, we tend to sit on all day waiting, waiting, waiting," he said. "We're not doing much effort and then we sprint. Doing these long kind of bike rides I was able to ride hard tempos with people sitting on my wheel as I was breaking the wind. It was fun, I was working hard, people were enjoying sitting on my wheel. I was putting out a lot of watts, but it was a relaxed environment. I wasn't race fit, but I was pretty fit." He also did some local races with Team Predator -- Redlands Bicycle Classic and a few stages of the Tour of the Gila -- as part of a sponsorship deal with his apparel gig. But when he got the contract with Jelly Belly, he had just four weeks to truly prepare.

Crash training, slow style

"The fitness was okay, but the time was very tight so I couldn't mess around," he remembers. "I can't get too creative with, ‘I've got to do intervals, I've got to do threshhold, I've got to do motorpacing. So I went back to what has always worked for me, and that's basically sitting on the high end of my zone 2 [heart rate]."

His rationale -- and I'll dig into this in a future article -- is that the best training is zone 2 training: it limits athlete fatigue allowing him to train day after day without the need for recovery time off the bike. It is a level that allows for regular conversation, no breathing heavy or gasping for air. Zone 2 works the cardiovascular system, creating a more efficient engine, one that better utilizes fat for fuel and builds out a capillary network to better deliver oxygen to working muscles. It improves fitness without overly punishing the body, preventing injury and contributing to the kind of longevity that Rodriguez exemplifies. "I needed to do what was going to maximize my volume," he said. "Most people, including many pros, don't spend enough time doing base 2. So if your foundation isn't 100 percent, there's no reason to do interval training."

The game plan

"All my victories are tactical," he said. "I'm very good at one-day racer, and that's because one-day races take more tactics to win. The bigger the race, the easier it is to predict." That makes sense. We know going into the Tour de France that perhaps five riders can win it, and then it's a process of elimination -- who gets hurt, who has the bad day, whose team is lacking. Sure, a Chris Horner can occasionally shake things up, but it is the one-day races that offer the biggest surprises. "People are fresh, people are smarter, people won't fatigue in four hours, one guy can sit all day, the strongest guy might attack early, there are so many variables," he said.

So with four weeks, in addition to cranking out those long steady miles, he was mapping out how he was going to win, "I'm looking at the course, playing back other races, how I won them, how I lost them." The fact that those races happened on other courses is immaterial. "They are still one day races. If you follow one plan, I can guarantee you win more often." And Rodriguez's plan?

1. Know your strengths and stick to them. Only play the cards you know you can play. Rodriguez is a sprinter. His path to victory is a bunch sprint. Anything else and he simply doesn't contend.

2. Know the strengths of the opposition. Pretty self-evident. Like pieces on a chess board, you have to know what the players are capable of.

3. Pick your opponents and stick with them. "You're going to win a race when the winners come out, not when they are not playing," he explains. "If you watch most races, the winners are almost always playing their cards at the same time. You go where they go." He puts it another way: "Who has the most to lose other than me? That guy isn't moving without me."

In 2012's national championship, eventual winner Timmy Duggan went early in a big group with heavyweights like Tom Danielson and Tejay van Gardenen, playing a card that Rodriguez bet was doomed to failure. Rodriguez saw a bunch of stage-race riders without experience winning one-day races (rule #2), and bet they'd be caught. He expected key one-day riders in the chase group, like George Hincapie, would help bring back the leaders. So he stuck with them (rule #3). It turned out to be the wrong call, but Rodriguez doesn't have regrets, sticking with the game plan that best maximized his chances of winning (rule #1). "If I had made that breakaway, it wouldn't have worked," he says. "I was marked. It would've been brought back and we would've been back to square one. Except I would've wasted all that energy." In other words, fate wasn't in his favor that day, he was damned if he did, damned if he didn't.

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Garrett Ellwood, Getty Images Sport

2013: And the race begins

The US Nationals race course was brand new, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. On paper, it looked easier than the previous year's route in Greenville, South Carolina, with a shorter climb in the main circuit. Greenville had a seven percent climb that took about nine minutes at race pace. The Tennessee climb, Lookout Mountain, was steeper, but shorter at 6-7 minutes. Yet when the riders arrived in Chattanooga, it turned out that the climb had been significantly lengthened after the city failed to secure the proper permits through a state park. That meant double the climb.

"We pre-rode the course and found that the climb would be almost 15 minutes, at 9-10 percent," he recalls. That revelation simplified Rodriguez's game plan: Organizers had removed an entire circuit from the race, meaning riders would only go up Lookout Mountain four times instead of the originally planned five, but the increased length guaranteed that the pure sprinters wouldn't factor. On the other hand, it meant that teams like Bissell with strong climbers were now a bigger threat, as were the Europe-based pros like RadioShack's Matthew Busche, BMC's Brent Bookwalter, and Cannondale's Ted King (all riding solo without team support).

Rodriguez's first task was surviving the "long" 14.4-mile circuit, with four visits up that steep climb. "The first lap, like any other American-style race, people go crazy," he said. "Races in Europe are a lot longer so they can't do that. You hit the climb the first time, guys want to make the early breakaway, people are flying through it. The first 45 minutes are full speed, flying around every corner." Rodriguez was pushing into his threshold up the climb, pushing watts in the mid-400s, where he certainly didn't want to be, "it's already fatiguing because guys are attacking with everything they have."

Once the early breakaway got away, Rodriguez found himself in the middle of a whittled down chase group of about 30 guys, though they were soon caught by the stragglers. "It was my first mistake of the race," he said. Letting the stragglers catch the chase group? Hell no. Being in that smaller group in the first place. "I shouldn't have gone that hard. Had I played my normal card, I wouldn't have followed the selection knowing that most likely it wouldn't have stayed away. Time after time after time again that move will come back."

With the early break up the road, things settled down a bit. Rodriguez delivered marching orders to his team: "On lap two I'm going to drift, so I want you guys to stay with me. Give me water, give me food, keep me hydrated." One guy was in the breakaway, but as for the others, "don't follow anything, it doesn't matter if we have someone in the breakaway. We don't need to be there." Elsewhere in the peloton, younger guys were getting nervous and trying to bridge to the breakaway, which expanded its lead to four-minutes at one point, but Rodriguez stayed "mellow." He was playing his cards, and if that breakaway stayed away (like in 2012), there was little he could do about it. So why worry?

It was on lap three, with the break still a couple of minutes up the road, that other teams started to get nervous. Bissell came to him asking for help with the chase. He demurred; they pressed on, frustrated, "Freddie, you are one of the fastest guys here!" or "I thought you were a contender here!" But he knew his competition, thinking, "You are anxious to bring the break back, but we still have two climbs to go, and you have some of the best climbers in the field. I'm not going to give you guys more ammunition for the end of the race." If they wanted to chase, it was up to them. He wasn't going to blow out his team to put others in a better place to win. Though he did deliver one promise: "I will help after we get over that last climb. You'll have my whole attention. Every rider on my team will be up there."

The final selection

Rodriguez feared Bissell's climbers, and they asserted themselves early, setting up the first attack the last time up Lookout Mountain. But it was RadioShack's Matthew Busche who tore the field apart, rolling around the Bissell crew and setting a blistering pace up the climb. "He was flying, he just walked away from those guys," Rodriguez said. "I followed the acceleration for a little bit until I felt it was a little too much, then I backed off."

At that point, he had two teammates left, and one turned to Rodriguez and asked, "Can I follow?" He was a climbing specialist, so Rodriguez gave him the green light. But it proved to be Rodriguez's next big mistake as the teammate quickly blew up. "He thought if he could hang on the hill, that was his winning ticket. I strongly believed that wasn't the winning ticket." The plan had been clear: don't follow, don't chase. Going off-plan cost him a teammate.

Halfway up the climb, paced up by his last teammate Alex Hagman, Rodriguez surveyed the competition. The pure sprinters were gone, "As soon as we hit that hill, they knew they didn't stand a chance." What was left was a final selection of about 20 guys, including pre-race favorites like Ted King and Benjamin Jacques-Maynes. "I could see everyone killing themselves to stay with that main little group of core climbers," he said. "One by one, they're fading off. Even Ted King fell back to us." So he and Hagman started picking up stragglers, and soon their "posse" was nine or so.

But Hagman was on the rivet holding that "perfect pace", and Rodriguez had a decision to make. He spied a switchback about a kilometer from the top, "I can jump across right now, and it would take a lot, but I'd get across." On the other hand, "I do that, I've lost Alex." Thus, deciding that having a teammate on the finishing circuits was critical to his chances, he worked to keep him in the game. "I'm feeling good, we're not that far off the back, I got in front of Alex and started pacing him." Thus, he crested the final climb towing not just his teammate, but the likes of Ted King and Garmin's Alex Howe. This wasn't charity, though. Rodriguez needed to chase down the leaders, and for that, he needed bodies, "If I can get five or six guys together, we're going to catch the leaders 100 percent."

Upon cresting, the Rodriguez group accelerated to full speed, rotating through on the descent, "Time was against us, we needed to get to that front group as soon as we could." They had a 30-second gap to close if they wanted to be in the game. They could see two support cars up ahead, and zeroed in on those. "We know we have them, so we do everything we can to get across." They were all riding balls out, at their limit. Meanwhile, Rodriguez took stock of his group and felt good about himself. Ted King and Alex Howe are undoubtedly elite riders, but they had blown themselves up the final climb. Rodriguez was confident that his tactics up that last climb had given him the edge.

But they weren't the only ones killing themselves. The leading group had been fighting all-out to keep Rodriguez from catching them. "We were trying to ride hard to keep the gap to the group behind, but they joined up on the first circuit," Ben Jacques-Maynes told Cycling News. "As soon as I saw Freddy there you kind of know it's going to be a sprint and he was going to be the guy to beat." Once the catch was made, everything slowed down. Rodriguez went from a lung-busting zone 4 heart rate, to that more relaxed zone 2.

But while they could catch their breath, it didn't mean they could let their guard down. "It became stop and go, stop and go," Rodriguez said. "You get these accelerations, and that's where things become dangerous. Everyone wants to get away." The group was sizing itself up, seeing who looked strong, who was a danger. For Rodriguez, Jacques-Maynes and the Europe-based riders ("they can handle longer races") generated the most worry. He'd need to follow any of those guys (see rule #3 above), with one major exception: "One guy, never follow. Two guys? Three guys? If that happens, everyone goes so you don't have to follow."

Ultimately, it was Bissell's Phil Gaimon who broke free with a solo effort with 16 miles to go. Rodriguez couldn't have ordered up a better scenario. "It was perfect," he said. "People tried to go across and couldn't. What I did was put my guy up front to chase, not to bring him back that moment, but to neutralize the race." By giving Gaimon some leash, it kept Rodriguez within striking range while disincentivizing further attacks. UnitedHealthcare assisted with the chase, feeling good about their sprinter Kiel Reijnen's chances. With three riders in the chase, they were the best represented. Everyone else sat in letting the two sprinters teams do the work.

As his team's protected rider, Rodriguez was also sitting in. "It's a waiting game, I'm tired, muscles are cramping," he said. "We've been racing for four hours, lots of attacks, lots of surges, it's humid, it's hot." Yet his heart rate was in that easier zone 2, benefiting from the work of his teammate Alex Hagman and that of the UnitedHealthcare chasers. However, Rodriguez wondered if UnitedHealthcare's tactics were hurting his chances. "They had three guys, but put only one guy at the front at a time. So when we really needed to hit it hard, they blew one guy and then brought up the other one to do the hard chase," he said. "They should've been working together to save each other's energy so they could both be there for the final phase of the chase."

Rodriguez was confused by that approach, as this weakened the chase. "I wasn't sure what kind of cards they were trying to play," he said. "I think they were hoping to get other people to help, and if they put both guys up there they would be showing too many cards." No one was fooled. Just as Rodriguez wasn't interested in helping teams with climbers get over the climbs, they weren't interested in helping the sprinters get to the line.

With five kilometers to go and Gaimon still up the road, Rodriguez's teammate was done. "I knew at this point that somebody has to go," he said. "All these guys haven't been sitting here for the last 30K just to watch one guy walk away." Rodriguez wasn't going to make his move until the sprint (remember rule #1), but he needed to make sure he was in position for it, "The next guy to move, I'm there and I'm full gas."

That rider happened to be Radio Shack's Matt Busche. Rodriguez closed the gap to Busche, and the rest of the chase group followed. "He looked back when he was caught, and he just decided at that point to keep going at 100 percent," Rodriguez said, "He did three kilometers as hard as he could go. It was pretty amazing to watch." Busche's initial attack was for the win, but when it failed, he decided to drag the rest of the chase up to Gaimon -- confirmation for Rodriguez that the Europe-based riders competing without team support had an alliance, "I would call it ‘friendly support.'"

The final kilometer

"About a kilometer and a half out, I realize this is my race," Rodriguez said. "I knew my main threat was probably Ben [Jaques-Maine] and the UnitedHealthcare rider [Kiel Reijnen], who won at [the Philly Cycling Classic] the next weekend. He was on fire."

The first major move came from Optum rider and newly minted U.S. time trial champion Tom Zirbel, but everyone covered his move. "I knew that at that point, I couldn't let anyone go," Rodriguez said. "Someone would want to take a flyer, and it was too close and not enough power for a good leadout to happen. So someone attacking late could win." That person taking the flyer was Jamis' Ben Jacques-Maynes, with 700-800 meters to go. And then things got crazy, and quite a bit weird.

"[Jacques-Maynes] got a small gap and I went straight up and got on to his wheel," Rodriguez said. "I caught him going through a bit of a chicane where the road was kind of rough, and through that chicane, Kiel dropped his chain." Kiel Reijnen was in third position at the time, and he faded to the right as he quickly got his chain back on.

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That dropped chain created a gap between Jacques-Maynes and Rodriguez, and the rest of the field.

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"When I caught Ben, he was done. He had already done his sprint, so he was about to try and do a second sprint to see if he could hold us off." However, Jacques-Maynes had lost his speed and, as Rodriguez sees it, stalled around the final corner, "He came around that corner slow. He didn't accelerate out of it fast enough. I was already in my sprinting gear [53-11] thinking we were going to go faster, and we weren't." That gap behind them had suddenly become a liability. "I'm thinking ‘this is kind of dangerous' because the people from behind are going to come with speed. And they did, making contact once again before finishing that final turn:

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Jacques-Maynes was spent, unable to get back up to speed. Rodriguez was stuck behind him in his biggest gear without the speed to spin up easily. And the rest of the leading group had gotten back up to speed, charging quickly from behind. "I didn't want to go too early, but if I waited too long they would come around me and I wouldn't have time to accelerate," Rodriguez said. "I gauged where I thought I could pass [Jacques-Maynes] and hold off the other guys."

At this point in the TV coverage, the action, covered by a helicopter, is obscured by trees. But Rodriguez explains what was happening under that canopy as he cranked out 1,300-1,400 watts on his final sprint, "Brent [Bookwalter] actually came up to me and drag raced me all the way to the line because I was trying to get back up to a high speed. I think Kiel really thought he was going to win, because he was coming from further back and we were kinda stalled. So it created a sprint that looked really close." It was close, just inches ahead of Bookwalter, with Reijnen about a bike-and-half length back.

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Rodriguez pumped his fist and flashed four fingers, representing his four wins. Bookwalter hung his head in disappointment. Reijnen banged on his handlebars in frustration. He had dropped his chain within 1,000 meters of the finish line and still come just a bike length from winning.

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Things that seemed like advantages -- opponents dropping chains and gaps heading into the final stretch -- became liabilities to Rodriguez's chances for victory, "Goes to show that on a sprint, anything can happen. I'm a sprinter that likes high speeds, so the speed wasn't to my liking. Being on a second wheel is usually a good thing, but in this case it almost cost me." Rodriguez believes that absent Reijnen's chain incident, his victory would've been more secure. "These guys shouldn't have been so close to me. They had the advantage. Technically I led out the sprint."

In the end, it was a long road back to the top of the podium at a U.S. championship. In one of those early victories, the race promoters were so amateurish that they forgot to print up a winner's jersey. They had to steal a flag nearby to wrap around him (it remains one of his most prized possessions). Not this time.

At a celebration party soon after, his wife toasted the victory, proud that her husband had been able to win the national championship "one last time." Rodriguez quickly shot back, "I'm not done yet!" With a 2014 Jelly Belly team he considers his best in years, Rodriguez plans to still be a factor at age 40.

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