Four-time US Professional Road Race champion Freddie Rodriguez (Jelly Belly Cycling Team) said Thursday that being "put in the same boat" with a generation of riders tainted by performance enhancing drugs was hurtful and disrespectful of the hard work he has put into earning results throughout his 15-year pro career.
Rodriguez, 39, addressed his critics during a wide-ranging conference call with half a dozen reporters Thursday afternoon, three days after winning his fourth US pro title in Tennessee and three days before he will compete in his new jersey at the inaugural Philly Cycling Classic.
"Of course I'm upset," he said in response to a reporter's question about the volume of negative reactions to his latest US title. "It's hurtful, because they don't know how hard I've had to fight for everything I've done. So yeah, it's very hurtful. They don't know my life, so it hurts when they put me in the same boat."
Rodriguez started his pro career with Saturn before venturing to Europe for turns at Mapei, Domo-Farm Frites, Vini Caldirola, Acqua & Sapone and Lotto. He came up through the amateur ranks on the US national team with Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie, Bobby Julich and Kevin Livingston. Most of his cohorts have either admitted PED use, been caught or otherwise implicated.
The Colombian-born rider is a four-time Tour de Georgia stage winner. He has raced in all three Grand Tours and won a stage of the Giro d'Italia in 2004. He also finished second at Milan-San Remo and Gent Wevelgem and was the long-time lead-out man for Robbie McEwen, winner of 24 Grand Tour stages.
"My wins have always been really hard-fought," Rodriguez said Thursday. "It's not easy for me to win. I knew that the odds were against me a lot of the time, but if I focused and did everything I could, I could pull off an amazing thing. And those are beautiful to me. And so with all that has happened it's sad. It's hurtful what's gone on in our sport, and it's made me doubt everything that I've done, because I've wondered what would have happened if everything was real, and what is real?
"It's something that I'm always going to have in the back of my mind, because it's not fair," Rodriguez added. "But at the same time, how some of these people got into some of these situations is also not fair. What made them make these decisions? I made my decisions because of who I was and how I lived my life and what I believe in. And I feel lucky that I was able to still participate at a high level."
Rodriguez called on riders to form a union so that they could stand together against competitors who are willing to "take it to the next level" to achieve success.
"Because I believe that the majority of us, when we start off, we want to be the best but we don't want to be bad people," he said. "We talk about bullying or peer pressure, but if the peer pressure is more about standing together and saying, 'That guy is not playing fair.' We're all going to stand together and say, 'No that's not right.' That's where we lack. We need a union to help have a stronger voice for the athletes, because the majority of us don't want that."
The current US pro champion said cycling needs to focus on the bigger picture rather than singling out individual riders for persecution. Rodriguez said riders who are remorseful have a role to play in the sports' rehabilitation.
"I have a hard time with all the people that say we need to go from you to you to you," Rodriguez said. "We need to look at this as a whole and figure out how do we make this better, and then take these individuals who have done things that have been incorrect and figure out are they really remorseful and do they really want to help. How can we use them to help the change? And how can we use the other side to teach the young people?"
Rodriguez used his own foundation as an example of one of the pathways in which athletes can participate on the road to clean sport.
"Our goal as athletes is to teach people there is a better way of doing things," he said. "I have a foundation called the Fast Freddie Foundation, and one of the things I do is to use what I've learned from cycling to try and inspire young people to do better. And part of the message that I talk about is that it's not just about winning. It's about how you win."