Two years after he came within 16 seconds of capturing the Giro d'Italia, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) is once again targeting cycling’s first Grand Tour of the season. And in the countdown to the Giro's kick-off in Belfast on Friday afternoon the 34-year-old Spanish veteran says he is determined not to let the Italian race escape his clutches this time, particularly after missing the bullseye so narrowly in 2012.
It has been a roller-coaster spring for Rodriguez, who took a repeat victory in a very tough Volta a Catalunya - complete with blizzards, back-to-back Pyrenean mountain top finishes and a tiny margin over Alberto Contador right the way through to the finish in Montjuic. But he then had to contend with crashes both in Amstel Gold and again in Flèche Wallonne. Second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2013, this time he had to quit with around 60 kilometres to go.
Truth to tell, Rodriguez all but wrote off Liège-Bastogne-Liège before he started it - "I might well have to forget this race" he said - with the sole aim of getting over his injuries and building up for the Giro. Although no bones were broken in his Ardennes campaign, his upper body took a battering and he spent nearly two weeks in his adopted home of Andorra training and resting.
Yet if there is one thing never lacking when it comes to Rodriguez, it is motivation, and the Giro arguably is the Grand Tour which suits him the best. His memorable ding-dong battle with Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin) in 2012 saw the Spaniard come painfully close to success, while in 2011 he finished fourth overall.
And were he ever to get sentimental about his stage racing track record, he might recall that the Italian race was, in fact, his first ever Grand Tour as a pro, back in 2001, when he finished 80th overall. Finally, after a third place in the Tour de France last year behind Chris Froome (Sky) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar), having skipped the Giro in 2013, his twin objectives this year are - as they were in 2012 - Italy and Spain's Grand Tours.
"Accidents are never ideal, and the ones in Belgium weren't an exception," Rodriguez said on Thursday. "But I have managed to recover completely since then, and I think actually having had to rest a little more than expected could benefit me in this race."
Although the Giro gc is his main objective, Rodriguez has stages in his sights, too, and "The Zoncolan [stage 20] climb is the one which maybe I'd like to win the most. I know it well, it suits my riding style and I think it could well be the stage which will decide the Giro d'Italia."
After narrow defeats both in the Giro and in the Vuelta 2012 - which he was leading until Alberto Contador delivered an ambush knock-out blow at Fuente De - Rodriguez said, "I know I have to take this race on the day by day, but if there's one thing I've learned is that you don't give away a single second.
"You've got to remember that 16 seconds are enough to lose the race and you may not even know why. I lost it all in the Vuelta that year on a day when it was least expected."
Rodriguez believes there are plenty of options in terms of favourites, broadening the spectrum not just to the six high-profile GC riders who were present for a round table pre-race collective interview on Wednesday. "We have to remember there will be a lot of other potential winners.
"I wish it was just a fight between two riders" - Rodriguez and Quintana being the most named as favourites for overall success - "but in fact it's going to be a very open race.
"The big difference between this year and 2012, the last time I raced, is the time trialling. In 2012, the last time trial was completely flat. This time, both of the time trials are much harder. It's better for me, but it's better for the out-and-out climbers, too."
As for the three Irish stages, Rodriguez says "it's unknown territory for everybody. The team time trial is pretty straightforward and I should be ok – it's short, you're racing with all your team around you and the course is pretty straightforward."
Rodriguez has other reasons to be optimistic about Friday's team time trial. Although Katusha had some mechanical incidents in 2011 at the Giro's opening team time trial that year in Turin, in the 2012 Giro TTT, they had no such problems and finished second behind winners Garmin.
"However, the weekend's stages are much harder to predict, particularly Saturday and particularly if we get the rough weather everybody's been warning us about. I hope - not just me but all the favourites - that we all get through it ok and with no serious crashes."
Can he finally net the Grand Tour that has eluded him for the last 14 years? "I hope so, I hope so," Rodriguez told Cyclingnews. "It's about time. But you know that two and two never equal four in this sport, at one race you can have the best form in the world and the best route for you in the world and lose it, and another day you can think you're in really bad shape and that there's no way you can succeed and you win.
"Cycling is very unpredictable, but I've worked hard, and I hope I will be up there. The team is a very strong one, well-focused, and that's always important.
"Finally it's a route which suits me, too. It's got a lot of long, hard stages, several more than 200 kilometres long, lots of summit finishes, the Monte Grappa and Barolo time trials both suit me and I'm a rider who thrives when it's a real endurance race like that. This kind of route maybe suits me better than anybody. In fact, I'd say the route is even better for me than the Giro 2012."
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