Philadelphia has been good to Fred Rodriguez. The four-time US Professional Road Race champion took his first three jerseys on the former nationals course here when it was part of the Philadelphia International Championship that decided the US title from 1985 though 2005. Rodriguez won the jersey twice in Philadelphia as the first US rider to cross the line, and he won the race outright in 2001.
But when Rodriguez lines up Sunday for the inaugural Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic on a shorter 19.3km circuit that is focused around the Manayunk neighborhood and finishes on its infamous “wall”, he may find a few more obstacles in his path than he did when the former race ended on the flat, wide-open Ben Franklin Parkway near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Rodriguez is obviously no stranger to Manayunk, but he thrived on the fast finalès in the past, and a finish at the top of the 800 meter climb, which hits grades of 17 percent in its steepest sections, could lift this new race out of reach. Three days out from winning his latest US road race title in Chattanooga, Tennessee, however, and the 39-year-old who signed with Jelly belly just three weeks ago wasn't counting himself out.
“I would say it's still a course that I could do well at,” he said this week during a conference call with reporters. “It's definitely going to change the game as far as who is going to win the race. In the past it's been more of a pure sprinter, and now it's going to be somebody who is fast and can climb.”
Rodriguez, who initially retired from racing after the 2007 season but came back with Team Exergy in 2012, climbed well enough in Chattanooga to limit his losses during the fourth-and-final time up Lookout Mountain, organizing his remaining teammate and a handful of other riders to reel in the front group in time for the final run into town and eventually his record fourth US title. Rodriguez credited his resurgence to a recent focus on getting back to the basics.
“I was actually more of a climber as a junior,” he said. “I weighed about 140 pounds. I always thought I was going to be more of a climber, but I was fast, too.”
Rodriguez said he focused on losing weight over the off-season and spent a lot less time in the gym.
“This winter I finally got under 150 pounds, which is getting down to what I was at the peak of my career,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I wasn't 100 percent at US Pro. I was good enough, and I believed I had what it took to win, but I wasn't at 100 percent.”
Climbing well enough to win atop Manayunk, however, is an even higher bar than winning in Chattanooga. If the 193 kilometers and 10 trips up the wall do prove to be too much for Rodriguez, his teammate Alex Hagman could be another option for Jelly Belly. Hagman won the KOM title at the 2011 Philadelphia race and was instrumental in putting Rodriguez in position for his nationals win last week in Chattanooga.