Joaquim Rodriguez proved the class of the star-studded Volta Ciclista a Catalunya peloton as the Katusha captain both won the first mountain finish of the Spanish WorldTour and took over the race lead in today's third stage. Today's stage win is Rodriguez's first victory of the 2014 season and is the team's second win at the WorldTour level in recent days following Alexander Kristoff's win on Sunday at Milan-San Remo.
The 34-year-old Spaniard, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya champion in 2010 and runner-up last year, used his trademark uphill acceleration to deadly effect inside the final kilometre as he first neutralised an attack from 2013 Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky) and then powered away from the likes of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC) to win at La Molina.
With the steepest pitch of the 5.3km finishing ascent in the last 500 meters, Rodriguez put five seconds into runner-up Contador, nine seconds into Quintana, 11 seconds into van Garderen and 13 seconds into Froome on the stage. As no time bonuses are awarded for mountain finishes Rodriguez leads his four closest rivals on general classification by the same margins with the peloton facing an even tougher mountain finish tomorrow on the hors catégorie ascent to Vallter 2000, a 12km climb rising to 2,200 meters at the finish.
"Tomorrow will be the queen stage and harder than today, but also a good day for me and I can ride in defensive mode," said Rodriguez. "I took five seconds today. That is not so much, but when the favorites stay together, I will keep my advantage. Before today I never thought I'd be able to take even one second. I was thinking more of Betancur or Moreno for today, but then I suddenly felt so good."
The mountainous 163km stage to La Molina was marked by frigid temperatures, and in a race where several GC contenders have already succumbed to sickness Rodriguez was pleased to endure the race thus far without incident.
"It was not so easy," said Rodriguez after stage 3. "On the descent to La Molina I thought I was at the North Pole, it was so cold. Fortunately I could take some clothes at the top [of La Creueta] and I was well protected. And it's good there was no rain."
After the show of strength today displayed by not only Rodriguez but the whole team throughout the stage, Katusha directeur sportif Dmitry Konyshev is optimistic that Rodriguez will successfully defend the jersey on tomorrow's second straight mountain finish.
"Now we can control tomorrow, but it would also be good to take extra time," said Konyshev. "I think tomorrow's stage suits Purito even better than today. With some extra seconds we can be a bit more relaxed the last two days when there are bonification seconds at the finish line."
Rodriguez has special memories of the Catalunya region of Spain as he won his first stage race here, and he hopes that a possible second Volta victory would show he's once again a force to be reckoned in the pro peloton.
"Ten years ago I won the Semana Catalana," said Rodriguez. "It would be nice to win the Volta this year, but let's be careful in our thinking. Don't forget that the level of this race is so high. It's nice to see all the big names here and when you see that [Cadel] Evans was already top in Down Under, [Nairo] Quintana in Argentina, [Alberto] Contador and [Alejandro] Valverde also, I could not stay behind."
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