It's unlikely that anyone will be ignoring Fred Rodriguez when he comes to the starting line this afternoon as the defending men's road race champion at the 2014 USA Cycling Professional Road Race Championships.
In 2013, then 39-year-old "Fast Freddie" was a bit of a wild card in the men's road race. He was veteran cyclist well known for his sprinting ability and a three-time winner at nationals. But he hadn't won the race since 2004 and was unsigned by a pro team until shortly before nationals, when the Jelly Belly cycling team picked him up.
With lots of young riders in the field and four tough climbs up Lookout Mountain he was easy to overlook as a contender, but Rodriguez managed to catch the lead group in the final lap through town and outsprint everyone to the line for his fourth national championship.
Now 40 years old, Rodriguez is back to defend his title and he says he's ready.
"I feel good," he said Friday afternoon at a media event in Miller Plaza. "I was feeling really good in the spring until I got sick, so I focused everything to getting ready for California and nationals. I had some bad crashes in [the Tour of] Gila and broke a rib. I got a little sick in California, but nothing where I felt like I had to drop out of the race.
"So I was able to basically use California as training. Then I went home, spent some time with the family, trained yesterday and I feel like the body is finally coming back into its norm."
The men's road race will begin at 1:30 p.m. today at the start-finish line on Market Street at M.L. King Boulevard, following the women's road race at 9 a.m. The course includes multiple loops through downtown, the North Shore and through the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as well as multiple climbs up Lookout Mountain. The women will climb Lookout twice, and the men will make the ascent four times.
Race organizers have added a short but very steep climb up Kent Street in North Chattanooga that could have an impact on the race, but Rodriguez said he still is more concerned about the long climbs up Lookout Mountain.
"I'm not even worried about that [Kent Street] kicker, because the other kicker [Lookout Mountain] is such a big kick that [Kent Street] seems like nothing," he said.
"For me, as a non-climber, my big concern is making it over that big climb. The little climbs are more my style of racing, and I do well at those kinds of things."
Women ready, too
On the women's side, Jade Wilcoxson of Team Optum powered by Kelly Benefit Strategies is back to defend her championship from last season. Wilcoxson had a successful 2013, not only winning at nationals in Chattanooga, but adding a second national title by winning the three-kilometer individual pursuit at the USA Cycling Track Championships in Carson, Calif.
However, 2014 hasn't been as kind to Wilcoxson. She suffered a concussion this spring while racing in Europe, but she said that she's ready to defend her title this morning.
"I'm generally a pretty good one-day racer," she said. "So I'm looking forward to giving it my all on Monday and seeing what happens. I could feel awesome or not so much.
"Thankfully, I have a really strong team here, so as long as we keep the jersey in the family I'm happy."
This will be the second year that elite women riders are competing for the national title at the same venue as the men's championship, with equal prize money for both the men's and women's winner. Wilcoxson said that she thinks that efforts by USA Cycling are beginning to have a positive impact on women's pro cycling.
"I think women's cycling is making huge improvements in the sport, and it's really growing as a sport," she said. "USA Cycling is playing a huge part in that.
"Every year, I think we're going to start seeing bigger fields and higher-caliber racing and better sponsorship. Once the women are getting more of the media attention, then the sponsors get on board and everything will just fall into place."
As America's best cyclists take to the streets of Chattanooga today before thousands of expected spectators, Rodriguez believes that he may have a shot at claiming a fifth Stars and Stripes championship jersey.
"For me, one-day racing is my specialty. It's what I live for, especially the nationals. I've won it four times and been on the podium I don't know how many times. It's something I have a calling for. It's just what I love -- I understand the tactics of it.
"If everything works out and I stick to my plan and go out there and do the best that I can, it's a race just like last year that I can win."
Contact Jim Tanner at email@example.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JFTanner.