Consider the first few days of this year's Amgen Tour of California an important audition for Team Exergy cyclist Fred Rodriguez.
A Berkeley resident who grew up in Los Angeles, Rodriguez has been on the radar in American cycling for his ability as a sprinter since the late 1990s. Earning the nickname "Fast Freddie," Rodriguez has served as both a lead-out man and featured sprinter, and won a stage at the Giro d'Italia in 2004.
But Rodriguez, 38, is also trying to lay a foundation for something much bigger. Next month, USA Cycling will select its five riders to represent the United States in this year's Olympics. Rodriguez is making a bid to be in that discussion.
After finishing in the top 10 on each of the first three stages of this year's Tour of California and sitting fourth overall as the race heads for the Central Valley, the veteran rider is hoping he has put his name firmly in the mix for making the team. "I really believe these last three days are going to help re-establish the confidence from the national team," Rodriguez said. "This is what I dedicated my whole career to."
Rodriguez believes he can play a very specific role if picked for the Olympics, and he isn't necessarily looking for the glory of a gold medal.
Instead, he thinks he can be an asset to some of the country's up and coming stars. He singled out Garmin-Barracuda sprint sensation Tyler Farrar, who is racing the Giro d'Italia, as a prime example of the
"I know Tyler is an amazing athlete and is right there and just needs that little bit of extra help," Rodriguez said. "I think I have that little extra to give him. I think he can medal. If he doesn't win, he's definitely going to get a podium (finish)."
Of course, Rodriguez still has plenty to accomplish this week as he makes his way south through his home state.
He was disappointed with the finish Tuesday, saying he "felt great" as riders made their way over Patterson Pass Road and dropped into Livermore for a sprint finish.
"I got caught way too far back and had to sprint on my own from about 1 (kilometer) to go to the corner," Rodriguez said. "I did a great job, but I think I blew too many bullets trying to get there. I got to fourth wheel around the last corner. Great position, but the legs were a little toasty, and all I could do was hold position."
Rodriguez did have a bit of a home-course advantage as riders scaled Mount Diablo for the first time in the race's seven-year history. Well versed on roads throughout Contra Costa County, Rodriguez's familiarity with the ascent allowed him to push forward and keep momentum as made his way over the day's biggest climb.
"I was climbing at the front on Mt. Diablo. It's a climb I ride in training," Rodriguez said. "I was enjoying every minute of it. I'm upset right now because I really wanted to try to go for a win, but with the circumstances I just didn't have enough help right there at the last minute to get to the front."
Rodriguez trails race leader Peter Sagan by just 26 seconds entering Wednesday's stage from Sonora to Clovis. Watsonville resident and Berkeley native Ben Jacques-Maynes also trails Sagan by the same 26 seconds.