Joaquim Rodríguez changes his mind from one day to the next. One morning he wakes up and thinks 'I'm going to come back and go again, giving it 100 per cent'. The next, he contents himself with the thought that it is all behind him.
In one of the strangest developments off this off-season, the Spaniard has just signed a contract for next year, but does not yet know whether he will actually race.
It might have been unthinkable a couple of months ago, when he seemingly retired after the Olympics, but Rodríguez finds himself in Croatia for the first introductory camp of the nascent Bahrain-Merida team, which he has joined on a three-year deal – the first, supposedly, as a rider, and the following two in a mentoring and advisory capacity.
The cynical eye would see him as a pawn in a scrappy and tactical game of chess, his 211 WorldTour points elevating Bahrain to the top of the pile of the three teams fighting over the two remaining top-tier licences for next year. There is a suspicion that he was never signed to compete, and the question now on everyone's lips has been whether we'll see him pinning on a dossard ever again.
"At the moment, the head is a bit divided," Rodríguez tells Cyclingnews in Croatia.
"There are moments where I say to myself 'let's get back into it, full gas, super focused, at the highest level'. But on the other hand there are moments when I say to myself, 'steady on, you're leaving cycling'.
Along with the confusion came mixed messages, as Rodríguez insisted that, "if I do return to racing again, it will be with 100 per cent commitment, and fighting for victories - a bit like how I left it all at the Olympics."
On the other hand, team manager Brent Copeland, who has proposed to him a rough calendar, told Cyclingnews that "he'll be racing, but he's not coming on board for results – that's not our goal with him. Our goal is to have him as a role mode, to give his experience to the youngsters and the rest of the team."
'It wasn't how I'd pictured it ending'
Rodríguez rejects the suggestion that his decision to extend his 16-year career was all about WorldTour points. Instead, he highlights the messiness of his retirement as the motivation for coming back and leaving on his own terms.
"My farewell in cycling was meant to be at a sweet moment, and the sweetest moment was after the Tour de France and the Olympics – when I was still at the top. For me, it was really important to retire then," says the 37-year-old.
That is, initially at least, exactly what he did, finishing 7th overall at the Tour de France, and 5th in the road race in Rio. However, he was abruptly called out of retirement by his Katusha team, who sent him to three Italian one-day races – Milan-Turin, the Giro del Piemonte, and Il Lombardia.
"I wasn't happy with having to return and do some races where I wasn't in top form," said Rodríguez, who didn't finish any of them. "Lombardia is a race that has given me so much – I've won it twice and I've won the ProTour twice on the back of it. But it had been a month and a half without full-on training, and in a race as demanding as that, I knew it wasn't going to go well.
"It wasn't how I'd pictured it all ending and it was just a bad way to leave things."
There is more than a hint of animosity between Rodríguez and Katusha, which is a sad end to what had become a strong relationship. The Spaniard had envisaged himself staying with the team in some sort of capacity after hanging up his wheels, but says he was offered nothing of the sort.
Inventing a new model in cycling
Everything changed when he received a call from the Bahrain-Merida general manager Brent Copeland soon after Lombardia.
"It was at that moment that Bahrain came to me with the proposition, giving me the possibility to choose myself the moment to retire. I say if I race, where I race, and I can continue in the world of cycling.
"I was watching the Vuelta on TV, and it pained me not being able to compete. After so many years as a pro, stopping completely is very, very difficult. Now I have the possibility… although I don't race, in know I can race, and for me that's important."
It should become clear in the coming weeks whether Rodríguez will be racing or not next season, but he seems genuinely excited about the prospect of using his experience to help his fellow riders.
"What I want to do is invent a new model in the world of cycling," he says. "In cycling it's common to become a directeur sportif, but to be embedded in a team and be able to convey your ideas and advice, without the obligation of being someone who gives orders... it's a role that in cycling still doesn't exist.
"That's what they're asking of me, and it's something, sincerely, I've always thought about. I don't see myself in a car barking orders, but I do see myself at training camps, speaking with riders, training with them, giving them advice.
"This is a new team but with people with a lot of experience, and a great leader in Nbali. As a cycling project it's a really interesting one."
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