Giro d'Italia: "Fast Freddie" Rodriguez, Victorious in Carivogno
Family. My dad raced in Columbia and raced in the Tour of Columbia. When he immigrated to the US, he always rode his bike and biking was always part of our family. When I was old enough, he gave me a bike. I took to it. It was something I could do and I really enjoyed.
What was your first race?
A little race down in San Diego - a criterium - I remember because I towed around about 20 kids and I realized I had the wrong gears. I didn't know. We had junior restrictions so I got disqualified and was all bummed out. So that was my first race. I still have the jersey.
Where did you go from there?
Well, at that time I was 12 years old and between 12 and 15 and I was just having fun with it. I was also into surfing, running cross-country, swimming. I remember my dad asked me one day if I was going to train and told him I was headed to the beach to surf - he was bummed.
It didn't happen for me until I joined the Montrose Cycling Club, one of the biggest cycling clubs in LA. They saw my talent and asked me if I wanted to come along to Nationals. So I spent a month with the team which was the first time I ever trained. I was 15. I came out of that month with a lot of fitness and was good enough to get picked to be on the national team, just from that month. That's when I realized that if I focused, this is something I could actually be good at.
When did you start racing in Europe?
When I was 16. I was on the national team, racing in France, Belgium and all over Europe - it was a good experience. We definitely got our butts kicked when we first went over. Finally by the end of the year we were competitive to the point where by the end of the second year I got second at World Championships at the junior level which was huge for the US. It was the perfect storm of athletes coming out of that era, you know. George Hincapie, Vaughters...a lot of really talented riders were coming out of our generation. You do better when there is more talent - you all progress together.
Your first professional team?
I took a different path. I was following my coach at the time, Rene Wenzel, when he was made director at Saturn so I stayed in the US and raced for three years. I got European offers but I just didn't feel like I was ready to go over. It was great - I got an opportunity to be mentored by professionals that were just good people.
After three years on the Saturn team, I went from racing domestic to racing for the number one team in the world in Mapei in Europe. I went over still not knowing if I wanted to be there. I was 50/50.
Describe for me that point where you really believed that you could achieve success on the world's biggest stage?
It was basically when I went over there. I had achieved everything I wanted domestically and in 1995, I was ranked second behind Lance. After the second year on Saturn, I knew I had to get to Europe. At that time, I was a climber but I soon realized that if I gained some weight, I could sprint too. I could do well, occasionally but I had to be very calculated in my efforts. You have to believe in yourself without a shadow of a doubt. I was able to accomplish some very big goals, just by believing that I could.
Talk to me a little bit about your Giro stage win.
That's the perfect example of believing. I knew I could beat him (the Italian, Alessandro Petacchi) the year before but he was just unstoppable that year. No one could touch him - he had won all the sprint stages. And, my team just didn't have their heart in it, which I get. I mean, you're not winning and their team is so much stronger. So I was like "why are we even here"? I stood up and said that, today, I was going to be on my own and that if you guys don't believe in what we're here for, then it doesn't make sense for you guys to be helping me. If you can't believe that we can do it together, then that is not support for me.
I told them, do not bring a bottle to me, do not talk to me, I'm on my own. I was frustrated - I get it that he's unbeatable but I still had to try.
Everything played out perfect - I stayed back, I didn't go to the front until late. One of the other sprinters missed the front so his team brought him up and they basically dropped my off right on to Petacchi's wheel. I banked left with about 2km left and was just right on his wheel. Of course, the guy next to me was Robbie - we were always bumping heads - wasting energy and neither of us winning. I said to myself that as soon as he bumps me one time I'm just going to let him have it. As soon as he bumped I told him to take the wheel which is when the speed ramped up. Then Petacchi slowed the pack down which he always did. Then it was a gamble who was going to get the wheel. I said that as soon as feel the speed lull, that is when I'm going to go. I knew that if I waited, I would miss my chance because other guys would come up from behind me and I would have to fight them off for the wheel and by the time we were done with that fight it was going to be too late. So, I anticipated his jump - I jumped before he did. We were parallel - it was a long sprint for me but I knew once I was up to speed, I could hold speed and at that point there wasn't enough real estate for him to catch me.
The moral of the story was that I believed I could do it - even though the odds were against me. The amazing thing was the effort I got from my team the two weeks after that.
View the final minutes of Freddie's big day in Carivogno.
Out of all of the wins you've had, was this win the one you're most proud of?
Yes. Petacchi was so unstoppable at this time and I believed in myself. And, to see my team respond after the win, that was amazing. We got seconds and thirds the whole week that followed.