Freddie Rodriguez wins U.S. cycling title at 39 (with slideshow)

Freddie Rodriguez wins U.S. cycling title at 39 (with slideshow)

May 28th, 2013 by Jim Tanner in Sports - Professional

Freddie Rodriguez with the Jelly Belly Cycling team, left, reacts as he crosses the finish line ahead of Kiel Reijnen to win the the Men's USA Cycling Professional Road National Championships Monday in Chattanooga, Tenn. Reijnen placed 3rd.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Don't count the old man out just yet.

Jelly Belly Cycling rider Freddie Rodriguez won his fourth career USA Cycling Professional Men's Road Race championship Monday in Chattanooga at 39 years old, almost certainly the oldest rider in the field.

The veteran cyclist won his fourth national title -- but his first since 2004 -- in a bunch spring to the line, narrowly edging BMC Racing's Brent Bookwalter, who also was runner-up in the time trial race Saturday at the the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant.

"The beauty of cycling is that it keeps you young in a way," Rodriguez said after collecting his fourth Stars and Stripes jersey. "You're always on a bike and always watching your diet. It's an endurance sport, so it's something you can do for a long time.

"If I wanted to, I could still be racing at the Tour de France level, but I have three kids and a different reality of life now."

The riders left from downtown for a 100-mile route that brought them through downtown 11 times and had them climb and descend Lookout Mountain a grueling four times on a warm day.

This was the first national pro cycling championships in Chattanooga after the event spent the last seven years in Greenville, S.C.

"We had a similar climb in Greenville, but Lookout Mountain was fantastic," said King of the Mountains winner Tyler Wren. "It was lined with fans ... and it was a chance for the fans to relate with the riders because the speeds were lower.

"It really created an electric environment there on the climb."

For Rodriguez, known throughout his career more as a sprinter than a climber, Lookout Mountain concerned him coming into the race -- his first of the season after signing with Jelly Belly just a month ago.

"I was a little nervous that it was going to be too hard, just because of the climbing," he said. "I was expecting a seven-minute climb, and it being a 14-minute climb was right at the limit for me. But there was a such a long time to recover from the climb that it allowed for a rider like myself to make it."

Much of the early part of the race was controlled by a breakaway group of four or five riders that included Saturday's time trial winner Tom Zirbel, but the main group caught them toward the end of the climbing to set up the surge for the national title.

Freddie Rodriguez, center, first, Brent Bookwalter, left, second, and Kiel Reijnen, right, third, spray beer after the USA Cycling National Championships.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Heading into the final circuit through downtown, Bissell Cycling's Phillip Gaimon led a select group by more than 30 seconds and looked like he might take the win, but the group began reeling him back on the last trip across Veterans Bridge and caught him on McCallie Avenue, about a mile from the finish line.

That set up a bunch sprint for the finish, a situation tailor-made for the rider known as "Fast Freddie." He won in 4:06:56.

"That headwind was no fun," Gaimon said of the ride across the Tennessee River. "I was just staring at that speedometer trying to get those numbers back up. It was still 50-50 in my head at that point."

Third-place finisher Keil Reignen of the UnitedHealthcare team said he felt he was set up to win before a minor mechanical problem slowed him right before the turn from Seventh Street onto the finishing stretch down Market Street.

"The road was really bumpy there, so it was tough if you were shifting with the chain bouncing around," he said. "A lot of guys were suffering chains coming off on previous laps. It's just a really fast section with a lot of bumps."

Reignen said he was disappointed by the way his race ended after he and his team had such a good day.

"I had a lot of nerves before this weekend, which generally happens in races where I think I have a shot at winning," he said. "The goal coming here was to win, and the team rode for me to win. So that makes coming in third tough, but I'm definitely glad to be on the podium again."

Bookwalter had a great weekend in Chattanooga, where he lived for just over a year while his wife was finishing her degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, finishing second in both major competitions.

"I was the only BMC rider here this weekend but really proud to be here representing BMC and very appreciative for the team giving me the opportunity to show up here at nationals," Bookwalter said. "I'm always really motivated for this event, and I came here with the goal of being on the top step of the podium. So it's a little frustrating to miss it twice.

"The course here in Chattanooga was awesome. The people here were great in the city, and I'm excited that we have two more years here."

Contact Jim Tanner at jtanner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JFTanner.