At the U.S. professional national championships in 2010, a 21-year old rider on the developmental Livestrong cycling team, Ben King, broke away less than four miles in and held on to win the 115-mile race. In 2011, a former collegiate running star, Mathew Busche, 26, beat 16-time Tour de France finisher George Hincapie, 38, in a whisper-thin sprint. In 2012, Timmy Duggan, 29, who’d suffered a near career-ending head injury four years earlier, won solo, arms wide across the line.
The three consecutive victories fed a narrative of a domestic cycling scene emerging from an era dogged by doping. The wins seemed to be evidence of a new, clean generation of American pros, whose time had finally come.
Then, at the 2013 Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial National Championships on Monday, Jelly Belly-Kenda’s Fred Rodriguez, 39, outsprinted a select group of top domestic racers and up-and-coming European-based pros to win his record fourth national title. “I’m back!” Rodriguez shouted as he crossed the line. The win inspired a slew of stories about an aging pro, claiming one last major victory. It also left a lingering sense that ghosts of cycling’s past had returned.
In the 2000s, racing for major teams like Mapei and Lotto, Rodriguez had placed second at Milan San-Remo and won a stage of the Giro d’Italia. He had gone toe-to-toe with top European sprinters like Mario Cipollini and Alessandro Petacchi, who’ve since been implicated in doping scandals or suspended outright.
Though Rodriguez was never publicly implicated or suspended, he competed during an era we now know, especially in the wake of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s damning Armstrong investigation, was rife with cheaters from our own soil. And on Monday, when he crossed the line first in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, many people weren’t happy.
One rider crossed the line in a frenzy and yelled, “Anyone but him.” Another pleaded to his soigneur, “Please, tell me Freddie didn’t win.” On Facebook, a racer wrote, “The entire field put their head down in disappointment.”
To be clear, sprinters, especially those who are uneasily shaken by steep hills, are often unpopular in the peloton. They suck wheel. They sit on. They win, a lot.
But in the discontent over Rodriguez’s victory, there was a deeper implication. In the online race recaps, many commenters lauded the victory by “Fast Freddie.” Others wrote insinuating jabs, like, “Not normal.”
I felt a certain sinking in my stomach, too. In this new era of U.S. bike racing, one assumed to be much cleaner, we can’t help but treat impressive performances with a certain level of suspicion. Though I’d rooted for Rodriguez a decade ago, it was hard for me to cheer for him now. I wondered if another young, clean racer had been cheated. But I also wondered, was it fair for me to feel that way about Freddie?
Rodriguez, who’s raced domestically since joining the former bad boy outfit Rock Racing in 2008, had failed to sign with another domestic pro team after Exergy folded last November. Without a pro contract, he competed for the amateur Predator Carbon Repair team, and partook in a handful of national races like the Merco Cycling Classic, Redlands Classic, and Silver City’s Tour of the Gila, where he’d scored a few top-10 finishes.
Three weeks out from nationals, Rodriguez finally came to an agreement with Danny Van Haute, the director of Jelly Belly, who had been courting him since March. “That’s when I really focused,” said Rodriguez, who told me he’d also been participating in grand fondos and charity rides to maintain his fitness. “I went back to what’s always worked for me, doing four- to five-hour zone 2 rides, holding upwards of 300 watts at the end of the ride.”
Rodriguez said he’d adopted a vegan diet, which had helped him lower his weight previously in his career, and brought a conservative strategy to racing nationals. “I knew I would be lacking race intensity, so I made sure to limit the number of accelerations I had to make during the race,” he said.
“I was not at 100 percent of my fitness,” Rodriguez told me.
When I asked Van Haute about Rodriguez’s victory, he initially berated me for bringing up the fact that, you know, Freddie had successfully competed against this previous generation of dirty racers. “I did my research before signing him, there’s not one mention!” Van Haute said. “That era’s over, and so is this conversation.” Then, after he’d cooled down and apologized, Van Haute explained that it was fresh legs and smart team riding that snared Jelly Belly the victory.
“Freddie didn’t make it over the mountain with the strongest climbers,” Van Haute explained. As the leaders raced away, Rodriguez implored his teammates to stay with him. With no cohesion in the front group, Jelly Belly chased them down.
Finally, on a media conference call hosted by USA Cycling Thursday afternoon, I asked Rodriguez himself about, what I felt, was the elephant in the room. “As you know, many pro cycling fans are jaded and cynical,” I started.
“After your win at pro nationals, rightfully or wrongfully, there was some suspicion, and I’m wondering how you respond to that?” I continued, anxiously.
“You know, there’s always going to be,” Rodriguez said. Then he stopped. Then he started again. “I look at this as a social problem, and I hate that just our sport has been thrown under the bus,” Rodriguez said. “You look at life, you look at politics, you look at business, you look at anywhere there’s been success, and there’s always going to be people willing to take it to the next level.”
“Our goal as people, as athletes, as the majority,” Rodriguez said. “Is to show there’s better ways of doing it.” (I later found Rodriguez gave a very similar response on Competitor Radio, only more eloquently, and less taken by surprise.)
Rodriguez went on to explain how his European victories had been hard fought, and described his work with the Fast Freddie Foundation to instill kids with life lessons through cycling. “It’s hurtful what’s happened in our sport, and it’s made me doubt what’s real,” Rodriguez said. Then he asked, “What is real?”
“I feel lucky I was able to compete at a high level,” Rodriguez said.
“Are you upset that people might view you as being part of this generation of dirty racers, even though you, as you say, weren’t?” I asked.
“Yeah! Of course,” Rodriguez said. “It’s hurtful. They don’t know how hard I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve done. They don’t know my life.”
Karen from Pedal Dancer piped in to ask Freddie a question, and I was left to contemplate what I’d learned, if I’d learned anything. So I went back and watched the finish of the national road race that Pedal Dancer had posted on its website.
I saw Phil Gaimon’s (Bissell) cadence slowing after a long solo breakaway, and Matthew Busche (RadioShack-Leopard) implausibly sacrificing himself to bring Gaimon back. Ben Jacques-Maynes (Jamis-Hagens Berman) surging early. Rodriguez accelerating for his wheel. A long, downhill sprint. Freddie’s arms in the air. Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare) banging his handlebars.
The course was only 100 miles long, and it wasn’t out of the question for a racer without WorldTour miles in his legs to hang at the end. Rodriguez’s performance didn’t make me feel uneasy, only his perhaps unfair implication by association with a now-tainted time in American cycling. A time for which we’ll always be reminded, as much as we want to usher in the sport’s new heroes.
As the conference call with Rodriguez wound to a close, someone asked him if he’d change anything about the Chattanooga course. “Yes,” he said, make it longer.
Ian Dille is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. A former professional cyclist and graduate of the University of Texas School of Journalism, his areas of interest and expertise include health and fitness, travel, environmental and social issues … plus, of course, beer. However, he’ll report on just about anything, given the opportunity (bring on the muckraking). He is a contributing writer for VeloNews and Bicycling Magazine, and currently races on the road as an elite-level amateur.