Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) could not fulfil widespread expectations that he would take a stage win on the short, ultra steep Cumbre del Sol stage, but barring disaster on Monday, the veteran Catalan rider nonetheless will end the Vuelta a Espana’s first segment as the best placed pre-race favourite.
Twice a stage winner this summer in the Tour de France, on Sunday Rodriguez seemed caught in the crossfire as Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome engaged in their thrilling duel for the victory. The much-expected attack by the 36-year-old Spaniard never materialised, although Rodriguez nonetheless gapped all his rivals except for Froome and Dumoulin, which is no mean achievement.
Third on the stage, Rodriguez has gained nine seconds on Fabio Aru (Astana), and 15 seconds on Movistar duo Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde. These are minor gains in the bigger picture, perhaps, but it’s also enough for Rodriguez to move up from fifth to second overall, 57 seconds back on Dumoulin.
“Froome gave us a good going over,” Rodriguez recognised after pointing out that the climb was actually less suited to riders with ‘explosive’ accelerations like himself and more for riders able to keep up a sustained high pace like Dumoulin. “I was racing more with my heart than my head, though, and I actually hoped that they would feel a bit intimidated by seeing me shadowing them and sit up. But as you saw, that didn’t happen.”
Rodriguez recognised that Froome had, after a setback on Friday, been the surprise performer of the day. “I thought it was more a day for a rider like Alejandro or even Chaves, but Alejandro had a crash, I hope he’s ok. Esteban and Dumoulin, though, have been the biggest surprises of this first week.”
Rodriguez success at the Cumbre del Sol could hardly have come at a more appropriate moment for the Catalan veteran. Purito is pole position amongst the climbers as the race hits his adopted home country of Andorra and tackles the Vuelta’s mammoth mountain stage over six major classified climbs. Clearly in form, if the Katusha leader loses time on Wednesday it won’t be because of a lack of local knowledge - and he will have the memory of his recent Tour de France victory in the nearby Plateau de Beille to spur him on, too.