Despite having a rich palmarès that includes 11 top-10 Grand Tour finishes, four of which are podiums, 11 Grand Tour stage wins, and three seasons as the number one ranked rider, Joaquim Rodríguez is not one of the major favourites at this year’s Tour de France. That’s not to say he won't be up there - with a palmarès like that you can never count the Katusha rider out - but up against the likes of Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana, Rodríguez finds himself as an underdog.
“I’m not a serious favourite but there are few riders who have taken podiums at the Giro, the Tour and the Vuelta and cannot say that they are one of the favourites but that’s the way it is,” Rodríguez said in an interview with Cyclingnews and Het Nieuwsblad. “I will give my maximum to fight for the victory. At this moment I am very motivated. I think that Katusha are having one of the best years in their history.
“We are only missing a Grand Tour and at this year’s Tour de France we go with a great team.”
It will be Rodríguez’s fourth appearance at the Tour de France and his record at the race has been a predominantly good one. He finished seventh and won a stage in his debut in 2010 and made it to the podium at his second attempt in 2013 – completing his trio of Grand Tour podiums. Last year, when he finished 54th, was the only blip on his record, although he was largely using the race as training after he crashed out of the Giro d’Italia earlier in the season.
With this year’s parcours heavily favouring the climbers, Rodríguez should be able to get his good record back on track. “If you look at the Tour de France, this year the route is very good for me. If I win or not, for me, the route is the best route that I could have had,” said Rodríguez.
“It is a great opportunity. There is very little time trialling so it is really good for us climbers. For us we can take advantage of this situation and we will give everything to achieve the goal to win.”
While there might not be much time trialling to contend with overall, there is still the matter of the 28-kilometre team time trial. As a whole, Katusha’s recent record in team time trials has been poor. They lost 38 seconds in last year’s 12.6-kilometre test at the Vuelta a España, while they gave away a whopping 1:33 in the longer 21.7-kilometre Giro d’Italia team time trial. Neither is as long as the chrono that they find at the Tour and a minute or more will be difficult to make up against the likes of Contador, Quintana and Froome in the mountains.
Despite their record, Rodríguez is not worried. “As a team, normally we suffer a lot in team time trials,” he said. “It’s something that has always been missing. We’ve always had a good team but we have suffered in the team time trial on the flat stages. In the 2012 Giro d’Italia we did a great time trial and we had great riders then. We are calm about it.”
If Rodríguez hopes to repeat or better his best finish at the Tour de France he must take on the might of the so-called ‘big-four’ of Contador, Quintana, Froome and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali. When asked who his favourites were, all the big four cropped up but there was one rider that stood above the rest for Rodríguez. “If you look at the palmarès then it is Alberto Contador. He’s a rider who has won Grand Tours and has a great palmarès. He will definitely start as the favourite.”
There was little surprise in Rodríguez’s pick as race favourite but there was when the Katusha rider said that he was more concerned about Quintana’s more experienced teammate Alejandro Valverde than he was about the Colombian. Valverde is set to play a support role for Quintana at the Tour for the first time in his career.
“I am more worried about Valverde than I am about Quintana. Valverde is a rider with a lot of form. He is really tough,” said Rodríguez. “Quintana is also a great rider. He is young, he won the Giro but he didn’t go face to face with Froome and Contador in this situation. In the Vuelta he fought against them but that was a different situation.”
It was Valverde that pipped Rodríguez to the podium at last year’s Vuelta a España when Quintana crashed out in the second week. After a disastrous Giro d’Italia in 2014, Rodríguez is well aware that anything can happen over the three weeks of a Grand Tour. “It is hard, because with a bit of bad luck you can go from first or second to third or fourth. You could have a bad night in your hotel, a puncture at the wrong time or a crash.”
At this year’s Giro, Team Sky tried to eliminate some of these variables by putting their team leader Richie Porte in a motorhome. Such accommodation arrangements have since been banned by the UCI but Rodríguez says he was not a fan of the idea.
“I’ve only been once in a campervan when I was on holiday and it was a disaster. I prefer a hotel.”
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A countdown on a career
At 36, Rodríguez is nearing the end of a career that began back in 2001. He is currently eyeing up the end of the 2016 season as a potential point to hang up his wheels but he’s not making any decisions yet.
“Next year, I really like the Olympics. I don’t know if I will do the Giro, Tour and the Vuelta but I would really like to go to the Olympics. I would like to see the Worlds course for 2017, because next year in Qatar it will be difficult for me,” said Rodríguez. “I don’t know if it will be a really difficult Tour de France or maybe the Giro d’Italia will interest me, and that’s why I don’t know if I will return to racing in 2017.”
Where Rodríguez will end his career is also another question that hangs over the diminutive climber. His current contract with Katusha is up at the end of this season and he is yet to put pen to paper on a new one. Katusha have already offered him a new deal and while there are other offers on the table, he would like to stay put.
“It is my intention to continue with Katusha but it’s not in my hands it is in the team’s,” he said. “The solution is with Katusha.”