Needless to say, Joaquim Rodriguez still has Florence on his mind. Time heals all wounds, they say, but it will take far more than three weeks and another Tour of Lombardy victory for the Spaniard to forget how close he came to becoming world champion.
Caught within sight of the line and then out-sprinted by Rui Costa, Rodriguez’s defeat was all the more harrowing because it was accompanied by the nagging suspicion that teammate Alejandro Valverde had neglected his duties to police the chase behind.
“It will stay with me forever,” Rodriguez told Cyclingnews on Thursday, with a wry laugh. “The Worlds are the Worlds. I lost a beautiful race, and the terrible weather and the fact that it was in Italy only made it even more beautiful again…”
Rodriguez had been there before, of course, having ceded the maglia rosa on the final day of last year’s Giro d’Italia and then contrived to let slip a Vuelta a España that seemed already won three months later. Such traumas ought to acclimatise a man to the rawness of defeat, but in reality, they serve only to heighten his despair.
“I’ve lost other races before, but not all of those are as hard to take as losing the world championships,” Rodriguez said, recalling his tears on the Florence podium. “But if you dwell on it too much, it just gets harder and harder to get over it. So it’s better just to keep thinking ahead, thinking ahead and just keep working.”
While he may want to move on, the internecine strife in the Spanish team will be dissected and debated for decades to come, much like Eddy Merckx and Freddy Maertens’ costly discord in Rodriguez’s home city of Barcelona forty years ago. The Worlds are the Worlds, indeed.
“In the end, everybody has his own thoughts on the race. I have mine and he has his. We have to respect each other’s opinions, even if I don’t share his and he doesn’t share mine,” Rodriguez said of Valverde’s actions during those frantic final two kilometres, when he opted not to check his trade teammate Rui Costa’s late pursuit.
If Valverde is not the man who sold the Worlds, then, at the very least, is he the man who gambled them away? “I think he lost his opportunity to win it too,” Rodriguez said. “When he says he didn’t have the strength to follow other riders, you just have to think that’s how it was. I respect what he’s said, but I don’t agree with it.”
The unease between Rodriguez and Valverde was palpable from their body language during the post-race press conference in Florence and again on the podium at the Tour of Lombardy a week later. It seems difficult to envisage the former Caisse d’Epargne teammates pulling in the same direction in the future.
“You never know, you never know,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know if we’ll be back in a similar situation like that to fight and win the Worlds. It’ll be hard for Spain to be in a position as promising as the one we were in this year, and we didn’t win the race.”
Rodriguez was speaking to Cyclingnews from the Sidi factory in Maser, near Treviso, where he was feted for his third WorldTour win in four years by his shoe supplier before travelling on to Brescia for his Katusha team’s first gathering of the 2014 campaign on Friday.
Their build-up promises to be quieter than last year, when Katusha was initially denied a WorldTour licence, but – as ever, it seems – there is a change to the team’s management structure. Following Valerio Piva’s departure to BMC, Jose Azevedo arrives from RadioShack as the new head directeur sportif.
“The year hasn’t started yet, so we have to see how the new group works, but I only have kind words for Valerio. I really enjoyed working with him, because he’s so thorough as a directeur sportif,” Rodriguez said.
As for Azevedo, Rodriguez knows him from his previous life as a rider, having spent the first three years of his career racing alongside him at ONCE, before the Portuguese moved on to ride for Lance Armstrong at US Postal. “When we rode together, he was a good guy, very easygoing. I haven’t worked with him as a DS, so I’ll have to see, but I’ve certainly never heard a bad word about his work from anyone.”
Rodriguez will wait until after the presentation of the Tour de France route before deciding on his 2014 racing programme, although he again expects to line up in two grand tours and envisages few alterations to the preparation that has carried him to three WorldTour titles in the past four years.
“I was at a very high level this year, and I believe that if I keep working along the same lines as I’ve done the past couple of years, sooner or later, luck will smile on me,” he said. “I think it would be a bit risky to think I could improve significantly by changing things around. The fruits of the work I’ve done are clear to see, it’s just a question of continuing with that it.”
Although the Katusha roster appears to be full for the coming season, Rodriguez is hopeful that reinforcements might yet be added from the slew of riders still without a contract for 2014. The defunct Euskaltel-Euskadi, in particular, offers some attractive propositions to that end, and Rodriguez had no hesitation in naming the rider he would most like to sign.
“Egoi Martinez is one who stands out. He’s a rider who would be very useful, because the young riders on the team would learn so much from him,” Rodriguez said of the 35-year-old. “Everybody looks up to the guys who win, sure, but it’s important to appreciate how difficult it is to be a rider who works from the first kilometre to the last.”
While Euskaltel bids farewell to the peloton, Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso is set to enter the scene in 2015 with a new squad, promising an innovative approach to the sport. “Not just me, but lots of riders would be happy to ride for his team,” Rodriguez admitted, albeit not before pointing out that he is contracted to Katusha for the next two years.
The day after his Worlds disappointment, Rodriguez and Peter Sagan joined Alonso for a tour of the Ferrari factory and a few laps of the track at Maranello in an F12 Berlinetto, though he laughed off the idea that their white knuckle ride amounted to the first round of transfer negotiations.
“I was just looking to make sure we stayed on the track,” Rodriguez joked. “Seriously, we just had a rest day there and we spoke about cars, but we didn’t really talk much about cycling at all.”