After taking a 10th Vuelta a Espana stage win of his career and moving to within just one second of race leader Fabio Aru (Astana) on Sunday, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) insisted he was not at all dis-satisfied despite missing out on taking the outright lead in his home Grand Tour by the bare minimum.
Since taking his first ever stage win on a Pyrenean mountain-top finish in the Vuelta way back in 2003, Rodriguez's stunning uphill acceleration have often served him well in Spain’s top race, and Sunday’s path to victory proved to be no exception. Purito turned in a devastating double acceleration on the final ultra-steep slopes of Sotres that firstly distanced Aru and the rest of the field to around 30 metres behind, and then, with another blast on the pedals, gained the Spaniard the stage victory with a 15 second advantage on the Italian, who placed fifth.
Now second overall at one second, Rodriguez may not have taken the overall lead by the narrowest of margins. But the Katusha leader recognised nonetheless that such a dramatic stage win, closing the GC gap on Aru and gaining time on the rest of the field was not at all bad for a single day’s racing. (On top of that the 36-year-old has moved into the lead in the points competition, and he now heads the ‘combined jersey’ - awarded to the most consistent rider across all classificaitons - as well.)
“I'm in a perfect position, doing so well overall and getting the stage win is what matters the most, and hopefully tomorrow [Monday, with another summit finish], it’ll continue to go well,” Rodriguez said afterwards when discussing his first victory in the 2015 Vuelta.
“I came into this stage going for the win and hopefully getting a bit of time overall too, I knew the last two kilometres suited me, and I used them the best I could.”
Rodriguez singled out, as ever, Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) as one of his most important rivals overall, saying “he’s racing really intelligently, taking each climb at his own pace, and calculating his strength.” Having lost the 2010 Vuelta in a third week time trial and the 2012 Vuelta to a third week ambush by Alberto Contador, Rodriguez was understandably cautious, too, about playing up his chances of outright victory despite steadily rising local expectations.
Either way, Rodriguez - already the winner of two Tour stages and a Vuelta al Pais Vasco this year - says he is refusing to feel under too much pressure. “It’s going to be very complicated to do that [win outright], although a podium is certainly possible. I’m really living it on the day by day. Tomorrow [Monday] is probably the hardest stage of the race together with Andorra, so we’ll have to see what happens.
“Basically, Monday and the time trial will decide the race. I think, though, whoever, is leading once the race leaves Burgos [after the time trial on Wednesday] will be the outright winner, unless there are such small gaps it’s possible to overhaul them in the mountains on the last few days.” Long distance attacks on his part, he said, “are nearly impossible, Astana and Movistar are so strong they’d pull you back in.”
Although the media’s attention has centred increasingly on himself, Aru and Dumoulin as top contenders, Rodriguez widened the field of possible winners, name checking “Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), who are also going very well. It’s definitely not just about Dumoulin. I’m in in good shape, but the chrono in the third week of a Grand Tour is never the same as in the first week, and after a rest day” - as was the case in the 2010 Vuelta, when Rodriguez lost a lot of time in the final chrono - “it's never so good for non-specialists.”
Whilst Rodriguez's words underline just how unpredictable a Grand Tour the Vuelta can be, what is certain is that of all the top names who took part in the Tour de France and then took part in this year’s Vuelta, Rodriguez is currently the one running Aru the closest.
“I did the Tour, but in the overall I was never in the same league as [Chris] Froome or Quintana there,” Rodriguez, who won stages at the Mur de Huy and Plateau de Beille, said. “Racing against them for GC in July, it would have been different.”
However, one former Spanish Tour de France winner is convinced that Rodriguez has it in him to take the first Grand Tour of his career - 1959 Tour champion Federico Martin Bahamontes. “He was at the start [of the stage] and he told me that he was wearing the same race number in some Tour or Vuelta, as I am here and he’s a Barcelona fan, too,” Rodriguez - such a big Barca fan he used to have his post-stage massages wearing a Barcelona football shirt - said afterwards with a grin. “I just hope he’s right.”