Joaquin Rodríguez stated before the Tour de France that his goals were to win a stage and finish as high up on GC as he possibly could. Both were lofty objectives for a Tour debutant, even one as experienced as the 31-year-old Catalan, but his stage 12 victory at Mende achieved one of those goals and also set him well on the way towards the second as he moved up to eighth place overall and marked himself out as one of the riders to watch in the Pyrenees.
Always an effervescent character, Rodríguez was beaming even more broadly than usual after outsprinting Alberto Contador for the stage win in Mende. Although the pair was seen talking as they raced towards the finish, Rodríguez denied there was any collusion between them. In fact, he admitted he was confident he would beat his compatriot. "I knew it was a great opportunity for me because I was sure that I was faster than him in the sprint," he said.
"I knew the climb well because I did Paris-Nice and then I came back to do a reconnaissance later on, so that I knew it even better. Today I rode it perfectly. I knew that the best thing was to hold back before making an attack, and then I had to hold on when Contador came across and attacked me. That's what I managed to do and I was able to beat him."
Having spent his career up to this year working as a super domestique for ONCE's stars and then for the likes of Alejandro Valverde, Oscar Pereiro and Karpets at Caisse d'Epargne, Rodríguez has thrived in his new role as a leader at Katusha. "I've had a great year. The move to a new team has been marvelous for me. I feel really at home at Katusha. I worked really hard for the Tour, which was my main objective of the season, and the period leading up to his race has gone perfectly for me," he said.
His aim now is to keep that form going into the crucial final week of the race. "Initially the most important thing was to get that stage win. Now that I've done it I can think a bit more about the overall classification. Of course I knew that if I could win a stage it would benefit me in the overall standings and after that performance today I just hope that I can continue in that same vein of form."
Asked to name his favourite for the Tour title in Paris, he had no hesitation in picking his former ONCE team-mate Contador. "I think the final part of the Tour favours Alberto more. Andy [Schleck] has pushed himself harder than Alberto in this first part of the Tour. I believe that Alberto will come through and win the Tour, but I perhaps don't have enough experience to know about that because this is my first Tour," he said.
However, he added that nothing can be taken for granted in what is proving to be an attritional race. "The heat has been an important factor. It's been tough on all of the riders since the beginning of the race and we've already seen riders like Evans, Sastre and Wiggins drop out of contention, so I think if the weather continues like this it's going to have a huge impact on the stages still to come."
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