Team Exergy's Freddie Rodriguez, a three-time winner of the US Pro Road Racing Championship, has high hopes for a good result heading into this year's 185km race in Greenville, South Carolina, on Monday.
The 38-year-old, who retired from racing in 2009 after 12 years of competing in the US and in Europe, signed with Team Exergy in 2011 and has had his best season in years so far. He was the top American in the bunch sprint ending stage 1 of the Tour of California with a third-place finish, and he followed it with a respectable 29th-place result on the difficult Mt. Baldy stage as the first pure sprinter to make it up the climb.
“I'm going into (nationals) with a very positive attitude coming out of the Tour of California, which was very good for me because the harder the racing is the better,” Rodriguez told Cyclingnews Saturday evening. “The competition is going to be hard. There are a lot of guys who want the jersey, but I'm not nervous about it. I've won three of them already, so I have a good feeling.”
Although all of his US Pro wins came on the former course in Philadelphia, Rodriguez said he has raced the Greenville course “three or four” times and knows how the tactics in South Carolina generally evolve.
“It's a course that I know well, and I think I understand it,” he said. “Looking back at it, I've always liked Philly better, but I think I understand how this race plays out and what needs to be done to be up there. The Greenville course, basically it's all about getting over that last climb with the front group, and then it's a little bit up in the air because there are so many attacks and it's a little bit undulating up and down. Moves go away that sometimes don't look threatening because the contenders aren't up there.”
Exergy team manager Remi McManus said the squad is fully behind Rodriguez's nationals bid, and he predicts the elder statesman of his team will have the best chance of any rider in Greenville to walk away with another stars-and-stripes jersey.
“His form coming in is just stupendous,” McManus said. “A couple of months ago he broke his ribs, and I thought, this is going to be hard to get ready for Tour of California. But maybe it was a blessing in disguise. He had the chance to go to altitude, prepare and train for California. He got a good test in the Tour of the Gila and then came to California ready to rock and roll.”
If Rodriguez keeps his current form going and indeed manages to “rock and roll” a top result at nationals, he and his team hope it will springboard him onto the US Olympic road race team heading for London at the end of July.
“I think it's apparent that Freddie is one of the best, if not the best lead out men for a guy like Tyler (Farrar) in the United States,” McManus said. “He also has the ability to finish himself. So whether or not the United States decides they're going to take the superstars or they're going to take a team that wants to win the Olympics, that's up to them. But as far as we're concerned, Freddie's the best lead out guy for the US.”
Rodriguez went to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and made it into what became the winning breakaway, but he flatted out of the group and finished 34th.
“That was kind of a hard moment for me, but it was also a great experience to be a part of the Olympics in Sydney,” he said. “This time around it's a different experience with what I know I could bring to the team. I'm probably one of the only guys that can give Tyler Farrar the support that he needs in the final kilometers. Most likely the team that will be picked will have a lot of great athletes, to where everybody can share their knowledge and what needs to be done.”
The former lead out man for multiple Grand Tour stage winner Robbie McEwen said his experience on the Aussie sprinter's Davitamon-Lotto team will play perfectly into the Olympic race, where the US will field a smaller five-rider team.
“I think the main thing that I could bring to those guys is the lead out and knowing how to battle for that last one or two kilometers of the race, that point where it really is on and a lot of guys just don't know how to do that last little bit,” he said. “That's basically what I had to do during the years I spent with Robbie. We never had a big lead out team, so we always had to be very precise on our energy, knowing when to give that last little bit to drop him off in the right position at the right time. And that's basically what happens in the Olympics.”
But this weekend Rodriguez is focused like a laser on the Memorial Day championship race in South Carolina, where his team will be both supporting him and counting on him to make their efforts pay off with a high-profile result for the second-year UCI Continental team. The experienced pro seems to take the expectations and pressure to perform all in stride.
“If anything, this year will be fun,” he said. “It will be the first year I've had a really strong team supporting me. I trust the guys, and they believe in me. So I don't feel any pressure except to do my best. Everything is going well, and I'm feeling good going in.”