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Vuelta leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) finished third on stage 16, dropping his main rival Alberto Contador just prior to the finish.
Katusha leader says "hardest part of Vuelta is behind us now"
With his lead now up to 28 seconds on Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) and the hardest part of the Vuelta a España behind him, Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha) sounded more confident than ever about his chances of netting his first ever Grand Tour.
Second in the 2012 Giro and fourth in the 2010 Vuelta, Rodríguez made crucial progress towards securing the final overall on Monday. In each of the two previous mountain stages Contador has failed to shake Rodriguez, and today it was the same old story.
After sticking to Contador's back wheel like a limpet for most of the final five kilometres, Purito then darted ahead to claim third on stage 16, a four second time bonus and to strike a huge psychological blow in his battle with the Madrileño. Contador had repeatedly claimed that the mountains were "his terrain" - but in the 2012 Vuelta, the double Tour winner has had no option but to share them with Rodriguez.
"It's a very big step forward," the 33-year-old from Barcelona, - also leader of the points competition, the ‘combined' jersey as well as running Orica-GreenEdge's Simon Clarke a very close second in the King of the Mountains - said.
"It's true there are some very hard finishes left like Fuente Dé and the Bola del Mundo, and the stages to Valladolid and Segovia [La Lastrilla] are not easy either but the toughest ones are behind us now.
"I didn't get much of an advantage today on Contador, but I got a few seconds and that gives me a little bit more margin, too."
Asked why he had dropped back on the Alto de la Cobertoria, Rodríguez explained that it had not been because he'd had a bad moment, but "because I wanted to be as far back as possible so I wouldn't suffer in the wind, which was blowing hard there.
"I'm not the tallest of guys, so I was looking for a space to hide in and use up as little energy as possible."
He was pleased, unsurprisingly that he had had so few difficulties following Contador "but I decided to take over because I had my own race to do. I knew that the break would stay away, but there was still one time bonus on offer."
Although he repeated that Fuente Dé and the Bola del Mundo, the two remaining summit finishes "are not as difficult as what we've been through," he preached caution about taking La Roja all the way to Madrid.
"Look at what happened to Chris Froome (Sky) [3:30 down on Contador and Rodriguez on the stage], just one bad day and you can have a lot of problems.
"The Bola del Mundo and the sierras of Madrid always make for tough racing, and Alberto will be racing on home terrain, so that's an advantage for him. It's not over yet."
His opinion that the race was still not completely decided was echoed by Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) who admitted simply that he could "couldn't drop Joaquim."
"Even so, I'm very proud of how my team raced today, and we gave it everything, regardless of the final result."
He too had dropped back on La Cobertoria, like Rodríguez, but in his case, it was "out of curiosity" and not because he was being battered by the wind.
"I saw that [Dani] Moreno and [Denis] Menchov [Katusha] were in difficulties, and I wanted to see what was going on. The more information you've got, the better."
So is it all over? Not in Contador's book. "There's still the Bola del Mundo to go and I had much better legs than on the Lagos de Covadonga, but the weather's not in my favour. A cold, rainy day would be good for me."