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Fast Freddie Rodriguez is that blur on two wheels

on December 3, 2008


Here’s how to follow Fred Rodriguez, who happens to be a professional cyclist and three-time U.S. Pro champion, from his new house in the Oakland hills to his local coffee house in Berkeley.

Let Rodriguez lead the way on his bike, while you follow in your car. Watch him flit down the narrow road. Lose sight of him as you slow for a car passing the other direction. Feel enormous, rigid and boxy. Glimpse a blue and white streak—he’s taking a corner wide, glancing back to see if you’re keeping up. Become delusional; this must be how drivers feel in the races, following the riders. Be mindful of the parked cars, oncoming traffic and your lack of skill. Fight the urge to rev up to full speed. Snap back to the reality that says don’t try this at home.

Watch him become something mythical, ephemeral—a blur as he screams and skirts past motorists. Call to mind that wondrous Knight Bus scene in Harry Potter, with the huge triple-decker English bus that reaches fantastical speeds and can skinny itself to pass through traffic without ever being seen by non-magic folk. Admire the peaks of the white Claremont, briefly, behind Rodriguez’ figure in blue; fix your eyes on the truck about to wipe him from view. Struggle to watch him and the brakes lights lining up in front of you. Curse the trees lining the street. Gawk as he and bike leap upward over the lip of the curb and traverse onto the sidewalk. See him vanish around the corner; wait, wait in the line of cars; lurch at the green light; round the corner. Gape when you see him 100 feet up the road, facing you, standing on the opposite side of the street.

He’s all grin.

Freddie Rodriguez, Fast Freddie as he’s known, is back on his training schedule in preparation for the upcoming racing season. Gone are the second helpings at meal times and the indulgences like “more wine,” says Rodriguez. He’s back on the bike daily, riding a playground of roads throughout the Oakland and Berkeley Hills. Rodriquez is one of a handful of professional riders decked out in team logos and spandex , who live and train in the hilly, temperate Bay Area. And among those, there is no one else of his caliber around here. “He’s tops, the head honcho—he’s it,” says local rider Leif Fleming.

As Freddie Rodriguez sits down to coffee, mid-afternoon, he says he’s three hours into his ride, “so far.”

Rodriguez and his new team—the American squad Rock Racing, sponsored by fashion mogul Michael Ball—have set their sights on the upcoming Tour of California, which starts in two months and will bring some of the world’s top professionals to the state to compete. The event is an 800-mile stage race, run over eight days in February. Stage three, Sausalito to Santa Cruz, will bring the riders over the Golden Gate Bridge. Riders compete daily for the stage win, and their cumulative time over the entire eight days determines the overall winner.

In the cycling world, Rodriguez is a sprinter. The approach to the finish line is where he works particularly hard; it’s also where the most can go wrong. A number of mishaps, including crashes took their toll on Rodriguez last year and he finished the Tour of California without a stage win.

“This is my back yard,” he says. “And I want to win.”

Sitting at a bistro table, coffee in hand, he’s clad in the team’s cobalt blue, black and white jersey and shorts. His white helmet stays on and his bike leans against a wall nearby.

As he sips his coffee, sweetened with a hit of sugar, Rodriguez is essentially taking a coffee break at work. His employer is a professional cycling team, his office is the road, his chair is the saddle of his bike and his desk is the plane of his handlebars, which balance a miniature yellow computer monitor that spells out the facts and figures of his bodily efforts on the pedals. His garage stores only one bike, the prototype he’s riding today, which doesn’t seem to thrill him. The rest are on display at Wrench Science, a custom bike shop in Berkeley.

When told that his flinging himself over the curb nearly caused a driving spectator to rear-end another car, he is genuinely surprised. “You saw that?” he asks. He explains that he goes into every situation anticipating the worst.

“I wouldn’t have died out there,” Rodriguez says matter-of-factly. “The worst that would have happened is that I would have been scraped up. If I’d have fallen,” he says, mimicking the tipping of his body with his hands, “I’d have fallen away from traffic. I wouldn’t have done it if I could have fallen the other way,” he says.

Rodriguez is a mainstay in bicycle racing, having turned pro in 1996. He’s spent most of his competitive life with European teams, but he and his wife currently live in Emeryville, with their two young children, while awaiting completion of their new house in the Berkeley Hills. The plans have been in the works for three years, says Rodriguez, so the “six months left to go are nothing.” The new house will sit on a site left vacant after the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. The hurdles of fire and earthquake building codes are minor for Rodriquez, who says he’s always wanted to live in that area. “I can ride from my back door and I can walk to places like this,” he says as he takes in the courtyard of the coffee house.

As the father of two pre-school children, Rodriguez says he “thinks about things more.” And he’s now had the chance to feel the anxiety of a spectator—in a fatherly sort of way.

The curb jumping, for example? “My three year old is doing stuff like that,” Rodriguez says. He put his son on something called a “like-a-bike,” he says, which looks like a bike but has no brakes or pedals. The idea is that kids will learn to balance without ever needing training wheels. Rodriguez laughs as he recalls a time when he and his wife were out teaching their son to ride. “I was running in front so I couldn’t see him, but my wife was running behind,” he says. “She later told me he really got out of control.”

For a guy whose sport is under the microscope for doping and who’s riding for a team pushing an edgy and often criticized image, Rodriguez is charming, attentive and open. “Oh, don’t get me started on politics,” he says as the conversation turns to cycling’s anti-doping efforts. “There’s cheating wherever you go. In every sport you are going to find cheats.”

But, he says, “People are missing the picture–the real problems are structural. Right now, the sport is fragmented—management here, sponsors there. And cyclists are just here picking up a paycheck, trying to win races. There are real problems, but it’s like our new government…By reaching out, you can empower people. A guy has to feel like he’s part of the system and when he says, I don’t want cheating, let’s clean it up, then it will happen.”

Rodriguez has a number of endeavors underway, including the Fast Freddie Foundation, which supports and encourages young cyclists to pursue their athletic goals while remaining committed to their education. In addition to mentoring kids, Rodriguez finds himself in a position to mentor and encourage his up-and-coming teammates. Rock Racing spokesperson Sean Weide says this past September, during the Tour of Britain, Rodriguez took time each day to advise a young sprinter and provided encouragement and insight into what he could expect. Team owner Michael Ball says he sees Rodriguez as an “extremely unselfish, team-oriented rider.”

“If I’m having a bad day,” explains Rodriguez, “I have to tell my team, I’m not feeling great and if someone else isn’t up to taking the leadership for the day, I’ll do it, but it’s going to take real support from the whole team if we want to win. But I won’t quit—I’ll try until I’m dead.”

When asked what he tells the younger guys, especially when they aren’t motivated or when they complain a bit more than usual, he’s a bit confounded. He glances away, his brow furrowing under his helmet. “That’s the difference between a guy who’s going to stay in the sport and make it and a guy who’s going to drop out,” he says. “If you can’t roll over and get up, then you find something else.”

Rodriguez’s coffee break is just about up. He will soon join the legions of riders buzzing up and down Tunnel Road, overtaking in spots like herds of cattle. But he has one more thing on his mind. He took to cycling as a youth, Rodriguez says; he was born in Bogota, Colombia, but grew up in Whittier, California—“suburbia,” Rodriguez calls it—where his immigrant father owned a bike shop. On his own website, Rodriguez tells how much time he spent climbing, because his dad thought Colombian riders could only be climbers. Now that he’s a sprinter, Rodriguez says, he still shares cycling with his dad.

“He’s 75,” Rodriguez says. “I rode with him yesterday.” He’s smiling. Excitement comes through his voice.

“He’s 75,” Rodriguez says again. Fidgeting in his seat, he appears to be checking the time on his phone or something. “We were going up a climb and someone passed him, and he just went harder.” Rodriguez chuckles. “Take it easy, I said to him, you’re 75, it’s okay. But he said, ‘No, I don’t like that, I got to try.’” With a slight shake of his head, Rodriguez says, “Now I see where I get it.” From somewhere under his jersey, Rodriguez reveals his phone. On it is a picture of his dad from the day before. The elder Rodriguez stands proudly behind his bike, in full Fast Freddie regalia—the jersey in red, with unmistakably large FF splashed across the entire torso.

Rodriguez is that guy climbing the hills in weather that makes you wear multiple layers of clothing and turn your heater all the way up in the car. Professional cycling is a grueling sport and lifestyle. And as any competitive business goes, Rodriguez, like other professional athletes, knows that he’s a billboard for his sponsor and his livelihood not only depends on his riding and reputation, but also on the stability of the sponsor.

Rodriguez says he still trains and rides to win, but he’s a realist. ”Win some, lose a lot,” he says. “If I win 10 races out of the 100 I enter, that’s a good year.”

Tossing his coffee cup into the trash, and zipping up his tight windbreaker, he prepares for the commute home.

He reaches for his bike. Shoppers and coffee drinkers fold around him. The sun is peeking through the fog just enough to illuminate the graphics on his tights and the darker hues of his bike. He moves with cars onto the street, toward an intersection, around a corner. Then, like blue vapor, he vanishes.

1 Comment

  1. Pete Verral on December 15, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Terrific article. You captured the nuances and “raison de’etre” of the training life of a top pro bicycle racer. I’ve been following “Fast Freddy’s” career from the get-go.

    All best wishes to Fred during the upcoming Amgen Tour of California.

    Pete Verral
    Former USCF amateur bike racer
    San Francisco

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