After 13 days in the lead of the Vuelta a Espana and with the final victory almost in sight, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) put a brave face on what must have been one of his most painful defeats. ‘Purito' had lost the Giro d'Italia on the last day earlier this year, but Ryder Hesjedal's time trialling skills were always a factor in his calculations that he could not avoid. Defeat today in the Vuelta, on the other hand, was something nobody could have predicted.
Rather than illness, or accident, Rodriguez said that he had lost the Vuelta simply because Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) had attacked on stage 17 "when it was least expected." Initially supported by his Katusha teammate Alberto Losada in the chasing group, finally the leader himself had to try to chase down Contador. It had proved to be an impossible task, particularly when Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) opted to move ahead, too.
Rodriguez remains in the lead in the points competition and in the ‘combined' competition, and is within two points of taking the King of the Mountains competition from Orica-GreenEdge's Simon Clarke. But none of that, surely, makes up for the pain of losing La Roja, and particularly on terrain where anticipating Contador's attack could hardly have been anticipated.
"Nobody expected this and nobody should claim now that they did," Rodriguez said afterwards.
"I had got millions of texts and emails telling me that this was sorted and there was only five days to go to Madrid. But I'd been saying this wasn't over until we got there.
"It had been very fast from the moment the race started, and was supposed to be a calm day. And I was looking at the Saxo Banks and thinking ‘wow, they're riding well today.
"I thought about risking it on the descent [of the third category Collado de la Hoz where Contador attacked] and that maybe Movistar would stop going for it with their riders. But at no point did I ever expect this sort of disaster to happen. I've lost the Vuelta. I'm sad but there's no point in going over this in my head. It's going to be very hard for me to get any sleep tonight."
In the last 50 kilometres of racing, he said, "all sorts of things go through your head. At one point you're with one group of riders, then with another, although it might not seem like that from the telly, in fact it all goes past really fast."
Now third at 2:28 but ever one to take a long-term perspective on things, Rodríguez said, "what Alberto has done today will fill up a lot of pages in the newspapers tomorrow, and that's a great thing for cycling. And I feel proud to be part of that."