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Rounding the final corner onto Bullard St, the fast men of the peloton at this year’s Tour of the Gila downtown crit began fighting for wheels and preparing to launch their final kick to the line.
As Rally Cycling and UnitedHealthcare launched to the front, on their wheel was young Mexican sprinter, Jose Alfredo Rodriguez. His Elevate-KHS Pro Cycling had led the race in the final laps, working to set up Rodriguez.
Former U.S. national criterium champion Eric Young (Rally) spread his arms out to celebrate yet another stage victory in Silver City, followed by Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare); on the opposite side was Rodriguez in third, earning his first podium at a UCI race at age 20.
It was almost certainly the first of many professional podiums for the rider his teammates call “the lion.”
“It’s something the team started,” Rodriguez said, laughing. “At the Pro-Am race in Oklahoma City, the day before I had crashed really hard. It was raining a lot and the road was slick. On the final lap, I arrived in the final turn with the bunch, but my tires slipped. I was forced out of the curve so I had to jump up on the sidewalk [later finishing third]. They told me, ‘you’re like a lion, you don’t get scared of anything.'”
Rodriguez may be a lion on the road, but he’s soft-spoken in person, greeting those around him with respect and humility.
Born and raised in La Paz, Baja California, Jose Alfredo Rodriguez Victoria is the only son of four children. It is fitting that “victory” is part of his name — heading into the final racing block of the 2017 season, the 20-year-old has 14 podium visits, four stage wins, and one points jersey, from North Star Grand Prix.
“The first race I did with KHS was in Oklahoma City last year,” Rodriguez said via telephone from a high-altitude training camp in Park City, Utah. “They were the first ones who I spoke with, they opened the doors for me to race as a professional.”
Elevate-KHS is racing the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah for the first time this week, the biggest race many of the riders on the team have been a part of in their young racing careers. For Rodriguez, it is another notch on the ladder that he has been climbing, steadily, since he began in cycling as a junior in Mexico.
“These races are new for me,” Rodriguez says. “But I know a lot of these teams and have raced against some of them. It’s a race at a higher level, and so I’m excited and motivated for this.”
Rodriguez finished 119th on the opening stage at Utah, more than 11 minutes behind the stage winner. He was dropped on the stage’s main climb up Logan Canyon. The team sent two teammates back to help pace him, but he couldn’t regain contact.
“We were 100% committed to the breakaway, not a field sprint with the climb as tough as it was,” explained Elevate-KHS team director Paul Abrahams, adding that teammate Eder Frayre finished the day sitting fifth overall on GC.
From singletrack to the velodrome to the road
Rodriguez discovered the world of cycling through a cousin, who raced for the Mexican national team. He and his father would join, just to watch.
His debut would come several years later, racing in the junior categories in mountain biking. Not long after, he was chosen to represent his state at the national races and other competitions, including the National Junior Olympics.
“When I started in cycling, there weren’t many competitions,” Rodriguez said, speaking of his childhood. “The level of the cyclists at home was not that advanced. There were very few people who trained, I was one of the first ones.
“I began in mountain biking, then later on the road and track. I like all three, but speaking of the professional level, there is more of a future in road racing, so I began focusing on the road.”
In 2016, a small U23 team from El Paso, Texas, EP Cyclists, traveled to Phoenix to compete at the Valley of the Sun. Their roster included Luis Villalobos, Jonathan Sandoval, and Rodriguez.
As many professional cyclists live and train in Tucson, the race is often used as an early season warm up. Rodriguez won the criterium, in his second race in the United States. Former U.S. national road and criterium champion Eric Marcotte finished fourth that day.
The team went on to the San Dimas Stage Race where Rodriguez won another two stages, earning them an invitation to the Redlands Classic.
“I was competing at the National Olympics in Guadalajara, when I met Omar Aguilar, who invited me to compete in Juarez. I was very excited and so I went to speak with my parents, and they said yes,” Rodriguez explained. “Aguilar told me we were going to race Tulsa Tough, that’s where I met Cesar ‘Guero’ Lopez.”
Lopez, having raced semi-professional in Mexico, now helps bring emerging Mexican talent over to the United States, including Villalobos —who now races for Aevolo — and others like Jose Alfredo Aguirre Infante of Canel’s-Specialized, who himself earned a podium spot at Gila this year.
“It was because of Guero Lopez and Aguilar that I began to race in the United States,” Rodriguez explains. “After we returned from Redlands, Lopez told us that we would be racing the Tour of the Gila. By then, I was already speaking with KHS.”
Joy McCulloch, media and sponsor liaison at Elevate-KHS, explained the team’s radar is “very active” on stand-out athletes.
“When Alfredo won Valley of the Sun, he was 18 years old. He then won two stages at San Dimas on junior gears,” she said. “You look at that and say ‘okay, this kid has something special that cannot be created.’
“That will in a sprinter — to tell yourself ‘I’m going to seal the deal’ — is innate, you can’t create that. They either have it or they don’t,” she said. “When Alfredo came on, he was so easy to work with, pleasant and very respectful. Yes, he’s a fantastic sprinter and racer, but he is a really good teammate and very easy to have along. He’s bringing so much to the team, both on and off the bike.”
Deciding to race in the United States did not come easy. Rodriguez had been enjoying success on the track, including winning several medals at the 2014 Pan-American Track Championships with the national team.
“In truth, a lot of people came to me asking why I needed to come race over here if my future was on the velodrome,” Rodriguez explains. “A lot of people told me I wouldn’t leave, that all I was going to do was come to the U.S. and lose time. I began to think otherwise, and then came the help from Aguilar and Guero. They began cheering me up, telling me my future was here.”
KHS had several Mexican riders on the roster, including Ulises Castillo and Frayre, and the team seemed like a good fit. Both spoke English well and helped Rodriguez with his move. However, he admits, the language barrier has proven to be the most difficult part.
“Ullises and Fabrizio Von Nacher were already competing here, they spoke Spanish so that helped a lot. I live with them when I’m in the United States — we help each other since we’re all Mexican.”
Both have since moved on to other teams, Castillo to Jelly Belly-Maxxis, and Von Nacher to Gallina Colosio Eurofeed. Frayre remained and has become a big support this season since Rodriguez signed with the team.
“Eder and I feel pretty comfortable with the team,” Rodriguez explains. “They respect us a lot, and encourage us, they support us all the time. I think that has a lot to do with the team already having had Mexicans on the squad like Fabrizio and Ulises, so they also gave us an opportunity to come race here.”
The support of a team and a rider’s environment often times is just as important for a rider’s success as their talent on the road. The list of Rodriguez’s results in such a short time is sure to be attracting attention from other squads, though there is no mention of it from him nor contract details from KHS.
For now, Rodriguez is taking the races as they come and remains focused on results without putting too much pressure on himself.
“Often times, those with bad results, they get discouraged and no longer want to continue competing,” Rodriguez said. “I have known a lot of talent, that had a bright future but with one bad result, their motivation is gone.
“I think it’s also due to the dedication one has, not in the sport, but the support I get from the team. They support me a lot and give me motivation so that drives more results, you want to get more results and so I give everything in the races and in my training.”