Dotted as it is with stiff summit finishes, the 2012 Vuelta a España appears tailor-made for the talents of Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and the Catalan was duly installed as the outright favourite as soon as the route was officially unveiled in Pamplona last month.
The landscape of the cycling season has shifted rather dramatically in the intervening period, however, as Alberto Contador's suspension means that he will miss the Tour de France but return to action just in time for his home tour this August. The Spaniard was finally handed a ban for his positive test for clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour de France following the announcement of the CAS verdict on the matter last week.
Speaking to Cyclingnews in Muscat, Rodriguez insisted that he welcomes Contador's presence at the race, noting that that it will allow him to fly under the radar in the build-up to the Vuelta and that he and Contador may even be allies of circumstance in the early part of the race.
"It's always better that the strongest riders are at the biggest races," Rodriguez said. "If Contador is there, or even Evans, that's better than me being the only favourite. It's better because the racing is more controlled and also because when you win it's more deserved too."
While the Vuelta dominates Rodriguez's thinking in the latter part of the season, the opening half of his campaign sees him juggling one-day and stage-racing objectives. The arrival of Denis Menchov and Oscar Freire has done little to change Rodriguez's position in the team, and as was the case in 2011, he will go toe to toe with Philippe Gilbert at the Ardennes classics and then aim to carry that form through to May to mount an overall challenge at the Giro d'Italia.
Rodriguez put up stiffer resistance than most in the face of Gilbert's golden run of form last April, finishing second at both Flèche Wallonne and Amstel Gold Race, and he reckons the Belgian will be hard-pressed to repeat his heroics this time around.
"I was at 100 per cent, I was going really, really well," he recalled. "The only thing is that we came across a Gilbert who was really very impressive, but I think it will be very hard for the Gilbert we saw last year to be the same again this year and I'll certainly come back a little better again this year."
Jumping from the short, sharp climbs of the Ardennes to the high passes of the Dolomites in such a brief space of time is a delicate balancing act, but Rodriguez pointed out that weather conditions in Europe in the spring make it difficult to prepare diligently in the mountains ahead of the Giro.
"Clearly it would be better if I could prepare for it the same way I do for the Vuelta and only think about stage racing in that period instead of thinking about the classics too. But in the end, it's not easy to prepare the Giro well anyway in March and April, because it's still cold in the mountains," he said. "The only place you can go to train well in the mountains is Etna or Tenerife. In any case, I think that in the last couple of years, I've learned how to balance the preparation between the classics and the Giro."
Rodriguez is currently on the Arabian Peninsula for the Tour of Oman, his second race of the season. Like his suspended fellow countryman Contador, the man nicknamed "Purito" is loathe to use a race simply as training and is widely expected to be among the contenders for overall victory in Oman.
Sitting on the trunk of a team car in the shadow of Al Alam Palace in Muscat ahead of the race's opening stage, Rodriguez hinted that he would look to gauge his early-season form before the six days are out. After escaping the worst of the snow in a gentle opening to his season at last week's Challenge Mallorca, the year begins in earnest in Oman.
"I'll have to see how I'm going first because I've just done two quiet races in Mallorca," he said. "I did this race last year and I understood that it was quite a difficult race, but the guys who were in Argentina [at the Tour de San Luis – ed.] will be very strong, and Fuglsang is another guy who seems very strong. Still, my condition is good, so I'll certainly have a go and see how my work has gone this winter.
"Whoever wins on Green Mountain [Stage five to the summit of Jabal Al Akhdar – ed.] will win overall, provided he doesn't throw time away somewhere else."
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