HUY, Belgium (VN) — Joaquim Rodríguez knew right where to attack if he wanted to erase his string of classics close calls and finally win a big one at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday.
The pint-sized Katusha rider rocketed clear with 350 meters to go, in exactly the same spot that Philippe Gilbert attacked last year to relegate Rodríguez to bridesmaid status.
This time, it was “Purito” turning the screws to power to his first major classics win after a seemingly endless string of podiums in major one-day races.
“This win was the most desired, the one I wanted most,” Rodríguez said. “Unlike most Spanish riders, I love the classics. I wouldn’t trade this week for anything. I was missing the big win and I finally got it today. This is the happiest day of my career.”
Katusha rode well despite the distraction that came Tuesday with the damaging news that Russian sprinter Denis Galimzyanov tested positive in an out-of-competition control for EPO.
Rodríguez said the news lose did not cause the team to lose focus on the race.
“What happened is that a rider who decided to cheat got caught. He’s apologized and now he’s going to pay the price,” he said. “That a rider gets caught at cheating is something we can all be happy about. That’s a victory for this sport.”
Rodríguez, 32, has been one of Spain’s most successful clásico-manos, scoring five podium finishes in major classics, but he was still missing the victory.
“I have been second at Amstel Gold, Flèche, Liège and third at Lombardia, but I was needing that victory,” he said. “Like I said before, I would change all of those placings for one victory and I pulled it off today. I am so content.”
Cold weather Sunday at Amstel Gold Race left Rodríguez’s legs feeling leaden, but “Purito” was on fire at Flèche. He avoided trouble throughout the crash-riddled race and stayed warm despite some rain and cold winds.
When Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) attacked with 45km to go, Katusha’s Yury Trofimov marked his wheel. When Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) and Lars-Petter Nordhaug (Sky) attacked late, Katusha led Rodríguez to the base of the Mur behind them. The Spaniard waited until 350m to go to make his move.
It was still quite far away on the steep ramps of the Mur de Huy, where attacking riders often fade late, but Rodríguez was sure he had the legs to win.
“That’s exactly where Gilbert attacked last year. I told me team I was feeling good and they worked hard for me. I wasn’t sure to go at that moment, I had doubts that I thought it was still too far, but I felt great,” he said. “This race was super-difficult today. Had it been any harder, we would have had to walk up the Mur.”
Rodríguez was so strong on Wednesday, he could have won that race, too.