Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A love for the sport. Fred Rodriguez reflects on his career as well as the need for a riders' union, profit sharing, and some fundemental flaws within professional cycling.


Photo: Manual For Speed

At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, an estimated 300,000 people gathered along the route of the Olympic road race, where they saw Alexi Grewal narrowly beat Steve Bauer to the line. In victory, Grewal gave the United States one of the eight cycling medals that the country earned at that Olympiad. To this day, Grewal’s win is seen as a turning point for American cycling, and with good reason: the 7-Eleven team turned professional the subsequent year and Greg Lemond would go on to win his first Tour de France two years later in 1986. 

But Grewal’s victory had other effects on American cycling, ones that would impact the sport in years to come. Simply put, that win made many in the United States notice this slightly unusual, and largely European sport. That was the case for Colombian-born Fred Rodriguez, whose family lived in Los Angeles at the time. In watching Grewal race and win, Rodriguez became enamored with the sport, and was overcome with a passion that has stayed with him to this day.

At 39 years old, the three-time US road champion now looks back at an impressive career that has included wins at races like the Giro, along with near misses at Milan San Remo and Gent Wevelgem. During his time as a professional, Rodriguez has developed strong opinions about the sport, including some fundamental failings in how it's organized and managed. And he has ideas about how things could and should change.

(An unabridged version of this article was first published in Road magazine. Thanks to Manual For Speed for allowing me to use their photography, and for putting me in touch with Fred. Incidentally, their work with Exergy was just featured in the CNN photo blog.)

Photo: Manual For Speed

Beginnings
Fred Rodriguez didn't need much encouragement when it came to racing a bike. His father Ismael Rodriguez raced in Colombia through the 1960s, and also owned a bike shop for much of Fred's childhood. Additionally, Alexi Grewal's victory at the '84 Olympics seemed inspire every kid in greater Los Angeles to start racing, Fred included.

“Getting to see Alexi win had a huge impact on all of us. Everyone was on a bike after that. You could go to a race for kids under 12, and you’d have twenty to fifty kids show up. Races for older kids, 16 or 17 year olds, would always be full. Cycling culture in L.A. was huge, and that made me want to race.”

In retrospect, Freddie admits that cycling was something he took lightly at first. “I just did it for fun,” he remembers, “it was my dad who was definitely more ‘aggro’ about it.” But that changed quickly. At only 15, the team he was racing with in Los Angeles took a trip to Colorado for the National Championships. Suddenly, a very young Fred Rodriguez realized that cycling was something he was not only good at, but also something he could dedicate his life to. Soon enough, the possibility of becoming a professional became real, and decisions had to be made. “I gave up my college education at that point”, Rodriguez tells me in a matter-of-fact tone that seems more proud than dejected. That decision would go on to shape the rest of his life, and it's one that he thinks about to this day, particularly in terms of how it could affect other cyclist's lifes.

Photo: Manual For Speed

A Professional in Europe

By 1995, Rodriguez was training in earnest for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He had chosen to remain an amateur to maintain eligibility for the Olympic road race, which was not open to professionals then. But, by the middle of 1995, the UCI made the decision to allow professional cyclists to race the Olympics. “I had no idea that the UCI was actually working on making the Olympics open to professionals. I found out by the middle of that year, and as soon as I did, I signed my first pro contract.”

In 1996 Rodriguez was racing with Saturn, a team he stayed with for three years racing mostly within the United States. In 1999, at 26 years old, he signed with Mapei-Quickstep, and moved to Europe. He would go on to race with Domo-Farm Frites, Vini Caldirola, Acqua & Sapone, and Davitamon-Lotto as well. During that time, he managed impressive stage wins at the Tour de Suisse, and the Giro d’Italia, as well as three US road championships. There were also close seconds at Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem (both behind Mario Cipollini), which only managed to cement his reputation within the sport.

But as his daughter Isabella was born in 2007, and his family grew, so too did his desire to return to the United States. “I didn’t like the idea of going back and forth with my kid, it was just too much, and I realized I wanted a change.” It was then that Michael Ball, who had just signed Victor Hugo Peña to his new team, approached Rodriguez.

Fred takes stage 10 at the 2004 Giro



Rock Racing

When I ask Freddie about his time with Rock Racing, he’s quick to point out that he’d like to focus on the positive aspects of both the team, and the lessons he learned from his experiences. The negative, he feels, is well documented, and continues to be discussed by fans during training rides and on internet forums to this day. What interests Rodriguez about that experience is the very thing that attracted him to sign with the team in the first place. “When I joined Rock Racing, the plan was that when I retired from cycling, I would get involved in the manufacturing and business side of the company.”


Photo: Cycling Archives

Additionally, he saw the team’s take on the sport as being radically different. “The team brought a different way of thinking to the sport, it brought new people in and also brought different fans in. Suddenly, there were new eyes looking at cycling. To me, that’s what it was about. It wasn’t about being ‘bad boys,’ because if you look at the team’s roster there were some really nice guys in there. But the team was not your average cycling team, and in that sense it worked.” Rodriguez adds, “Despite what some felt, the team sold huge amounts of clothing at races like the Tour of California. It was obvious that people wanted something different. I even saw other pros going to our booth and buying our clothing. I had never heard of a professional buying any cycling clothing, much less another team’s, but I saw it happen!”

And that, Rodriguez says, presented a powerful lesson: that design and image matter. But like his time with the team, Rock Racing itself was short lived.

Photo: uschampkits

In the end, Michael Ball was willing to take risks, but as Rodriguez sees things now, “He got caught up in the worst economy you could think of, and lost his company. He went bankrupt.” With that, the team ended in 2009 and by 2010 Rock & Republic (the fashion company that owned the team) went bankrupt and sold its trademark and intellectual property to VF Corporation, owners of brands like Wrangler and Jansport.

Photo: Manual For Speed

A Fundamental Flaw 

Looking back to his time with Rock Racing, Rodriguez admits that team management and Michael Ball never let on to how dire the company’s financial situation was. This lack of transparency rattled many of the team’s riders, Freddie included. “It left a bad taste in my mouth, and I decided to take a step back from professional cycling.” He took a year and a half off, during which he contemplated the possibilities of what could be done within the scope of cycling. He reflected on the existing system, including the transient nature of sponsors and lack of stability in the sport. “When you make your way into professional cycling, you end up buying into an existing system, both as a rider and as a sponsor. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a better way to do things.” And it’s in that respect, Rodriguez believes, that cycling has much to learn from others sports.

Photo: Manual For Speed

“My major in college was economics. I had to quit school after a semester, but decided to basically study sports. I chose to study how sponsorships work, how and why franchises work, and why leagues like the NFL are stable.” While undertaking this informal coursework, Rodriguez came upon one of the most celebrated sports agents in the United States, and possibly the world. Often credited with being the inspiration behind the movie Jerry Maguire, Leigh Steinberg’s roster of athletes has included Lennox Lewis, Oscar de la Hoya, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Ben Roethlisberger, and Howie Long. Freddie went on to become Steinberg’s client, but more importantly a pupil of sorts. Steinberg wanted to understand cycling and its inner workings as much as Rodriguez wanted to know what made other sports more successful and stable. It was a fruitful relationship.

The lessons that Rodriguez learned from Steinberg came quickly and mostly centered around one point, which Steinberg saw as a fundamental flaw with how cycling is structured. “He pointed out and showed me that what makes a sport strong is not the league, or a player’s union, but the contract between those two. That’s what makes a sport strong and viable.” And therein, Rodriguez realized, lay the problem. Cycling has never had a true rider’s union, let alone a strong contract between riders and a federation.

A young Leigh Steinberg

“So Leigh [Steinberg] said, ‘I don’t understand how you guys can monitor the labor. It’s out of control, so without that it can’t work.’ And I still believe he’s right. You have big players, like the ASO and the UCI, but they’re not willing to sit and meet with us in order to really become one. We’re not equals. Additionally, becoming one would mean sharing in the profits made by the sport.”

When Fred began to see this as an issue, he came to realize just how voiceless riders were in Europe. “They know it. They feel like they have no voice at all, because they don’t. So even something as basic as safety, or bad roads in a race become difficult to address.” So what about bigger matters that may concern riders, I ask. “I brought these things up, and riders would tell me ‘Freddie, why bother, we just don’t have a voice!’ they would just tell me ‘don’t get angry about it, just ride your bike, because what else can you do?’”

But that, Rodriguez came to realize, was a problem within cycling, not just compared to other sports, but compared to any business. “The riders not having a say in how the sport is run is not how things would work in any successful business. In a company, ideally you speak with labor to create an environment that is good for them, and supports the overall goal of a company. But professional cyclists just don’t have a voice, and they know it.”

And that attitude, Rodriguez says, continues to permeate the sport. Cycling remains stagnant in how it’s structured and how it treats its athletes. He argues that this contributes to the instability with sponsors, something that began to bother him as he became a father, and sought greater job security.

Photo: Manual For Speed

Fred acknowledges that creating a real, strong riders union would be a difficult undertaking, but he feels that it would strengthen the sport in the long run. “It’s a very international sport, so how do you unify athletes from all these different countries? It’s hard. When you look at sports leagues like the NBA or the NFL, they are mostly contained within one country. So it would be difficult, but I don’t think it’s impossible.”

As Rodriguez says this, I can’t help but think about Marvin Miller, an economist who was tasked with organizing a players union for Major League Baseball in the 1960s. Having worked as a lead negotiator for the United Steelworkers, Miller united baseball players and give them a voice. Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that he negotiated a revenue sharing program that allowed teams to benefit from the profits made by the sale TV rights. In the case of cycling, this would mean that teams could finally see some income from participating in a race like the Tour de France, which in turn would see their value rise, making them more stable and appealing to potential sponsors.

Photo: uschampkits

Dictators and citizens

Thinking back to conversations on the matter that he’s had with fellow riders and management, Freddie exhales deeply, “Cycling, to me, is run like an unstable third-world country right now. There’s dictators, with all these other people fighting for power at the top. The riders are the citizens at the bottom, just trying to survive.” Rodriguez’s point of view may seem unusual to some, but if you take a close look at how the sport is structured, it’s hard to disagree. There are cases where sponsors have dropped teams mid-season, and teams with unbelievable winning records have been unable to secure sponsors at all. Then there's the numerous ongoing battles between the UCI and seemingly every other entity in the world of sport. It doesn’t take much to realize that the sport is in disarray. And lost in all this, are the riders. And much of the problem, Rodriguez believes, goes back to fact that professional riders have no voice, and more importantly, no real contract with the sport’s governing bodies.

As Fred thinks about his experiences in the sport, from the highs to the lows, as well as the realizations that have come with his time racing, he admits that it’s easy to become frustrated. He certainly felt that way after Rock Racing ended, when he took time away from cycling in order to gain some perspective. But today, at 39 years old, he finds himself reenergized. He still loves racing his bike, and he wants to apply the lessons—big and small—that he’s picked up along the way.

Photo: Manual For Speed


Lessons Learned

After years of racing professionally, Fred finds himself trying to apply the lessons he's learned in several business ventures. To that end, he's started his own cycling clothing company, called ProoFF, which is based in the Bay Area, and will focus on producing kit made from high-end materials and expert construction techniques. Additionally, Rodriguez has a partnership that allows him to develop custom cycling clothing with another company under the name Fast Freddie Custom by Zaavy. Like with ProoFF, Rodriguez hopes to grow this business over the coming years.

Photo: Manual For Speed

Clothing aside, Rodriguez continues to do work with his Fast Freddie Foundation in order to support high school-aged cyclists involved in NICA (the National Interscholastic Cycling Association). As Freddie sees it, NICA is an important basis for what could become a feeder system for young cyclists, one that would allow for a clear pathway from high school, to college, and for the most talented, all the way to the professional ranks. This model is based on how other professional sports work in the United States.

In that spirit, his foundation has offered scholarships to high schoolers that raced within the NICA system, in order to encourage them go to college, where they can race at a collegiate level. This is something he feels strongly about, “We need to start funneling our top cycling talent from high school, through the collegiate level and into the professionals. As collegiate cycling stands now, it’s competitive, but in a fun way that doesn’t necessarily lead to becoming a professional if that’s what you’re looking for. It just kind of ends there.” And Rodriguez knows this well. For him, the choice between cycling and college was one he had to make. But young riders today, he believes, could more easily have the best of both worlds. They could continue their education, while becoming better cyclists. They don’t have to quit school just to race at a high level. “I made that choice,” he says,  “but thousands of others didn’t. They had to pick school over cycling, and we ended up missing out on their talent.”

Photo: Wikipedia

But more importantly, he believes that this would alleviate another problem that he sees in domestic cycling. “Many of the kids who chose to race over going to school…how long did it take them to realize that they weren’t going to make it? Until they were 25? Maybe even later in life? Maybe they land a spot in a domestic team, realized they would never make enough money to survive…and then what? In reality, most aspiring cyclists in the United States come from relatively well-off families, especially when you compare them to kids in other countries.” And as he sees it, there is a larger issue: “The kids’ parents are also in a tough spot. It’s hard to tell an 18 year old kid that they either race or go to school, because the kid will want to go get their shot at the big time. But you should be able to do both, and everyone would benefit.”

Photo: Manual For Speed

Tomorrow

Freddie Rodriguez knows that cycling isn’t perfect. Far from it. There’s work to be done and he’s the first to acknowledge that. But it can be done. After all, without a passion for hard work and a healthy dose of youthful exuberance, an 11-year old Freddie Rodriguez would have never wanted to race in the first place.

Future possibilities aside, a couple of questions remain: is cycling as it stands today something he feels comfortable with? In other words, if one of his kids wanted to pursue a career in bike racing right now, would he allow them to?

“Yes,” he says emphatically. As he answers, I hear the stern and measured voice of a 39-year-old professional cyclist and father. But I also hear the enthusiastic voice of an 11 year-old that just saw Alexi Grewal win the Olympic road race. ◼


Since this article was written, Team Exergy (who Fred raced with last two seasons) disbanded rather unceremoniously. Another example of how unstable and unpredictable the sport is for those who race professionally.

The first Fast Freddie Gran Fondo was recently announced, which will take place in Berkeley California, on August 17 and 18. Registration is open, and the first 500 Lungo riders will get a jersey made by Fast Freddie Cycling Apparel. All funds raised will go to the programs that the Fast Freddie Foundations supports.

You can follow Freddie's ongoing training on Strava here, see his palmares here, and follow him on Twitter here.


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Notes:

Freddie aside, here's a great account of another non-Colombian spending time in Colombia, riding, and taking on the 52 mile climb that is Letras.

Also, I'll be taking next week off, and expect to return to my blogging duties on March 4th.


4 comments:

  1. Lucho, once again you've knocked it the hell out of the park. Thanks so much for shining the spotlight on a local hero.

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  2. Your work really is amazing. CI consistently puts out some of the best sport's journalism around right now. The fact that your could partner with MFS a little is even better. Cuz those dudes are right on the next level with you.

    Thank you so much for devoting so much time to sharing these amazing stories with us!

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