HERNING, Denmark (VN) – The cycling world has heard it all before. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) says he can win a grand tour, only to see his hopes dashed, often with a dramatic collapse in a time trial.
In the 2010 Vuelta a España, the Spanish climber was leading the Spanish tour with considerable panache, only to see his lead bleed away in a flat, 40km stretch of road. His losses were so bad in that final-week time trial that he sank from first to a humiliating sixth to eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali.
Once again, Rodríguez is hyping his own chances, but this time around, he might have what it takes to be a legitimate threat for the pink jersey.
“I believe I can do very well in the Giro this year,” Rodríguez said during the Ardennes classics. “The route is perfect for me. I think I can have a real chance to at least go for the podium.”
At 32, Rodríguez is enjoying one of the best early seasons of his career. He won a thrilling stage at Tirreno-Adriatico to Offida where his piercing attack with 400 meters to go surprised the front group. He then blitzed his way to victory up the Mur de Huy to finally win an Ardennes classic at Flèche Wallonne last month.
Bolstered by his fourth place overall in last year’s Giro, Rodríguez says if he can climb like he has been so far this season, the climb-heavy route of the 95th Giro could finally give him a chance to earn that elusive grand tour podium.
“I am feeling strong going into this part of the season, perhaps the best I have ever felt,” he said. “I have solid backing from the team. First, I would like to win a stage and if everything goes well, perhaps even more.”
While a rider like Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) can sometimes hold his own in a time trial on a good day, Rodríguez typically loses minutes rather than seconds against the clock, even when matched up against other non-specialists.
Like any natural-born climber, he knows he knows he won’t become a great time trial rider, but he has focused on honing his skills so he can at least cut the odds.
“I have worked on the time trial; I have spent more time on the TT bike than ever. At least now I am more comfortable in the position,” he said. “I know I will never win a time trial, but maybe I can get to where I do not lose too much time.”
Saturday’s 8.7km opening time trial to kick start the 95th Giro will go a long way toward revealing if Rodríguez’ work has paid off. The flat, technical course could produce some critical time gaps that will be a struggle to recoup.
Luckily for him, most of the Giro favorites have an equally tough time on the TT bike – the likes of Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD), Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) are not much better than he.
If Rodríguez can get through Saturday’s TT and next week’s team time trial within a minute of his top GC rivals, that will be a major victory in the long, three-week Giro war of attrition.
Rodríguez has the confidence knowing that he make up time on his rivals in the short, punchy climbs that fit him so well.
Many of his biggest wins have come on steep finales, such as the Mende climb when he won a stage at the 2010 Tour de France against Alberto Contador.
Though this year’s Giro doesn’t have as many summit finishes as it has the past few editions, there are still opportunities similar to that Mende climb where he can punch the accelerator, carve out 5-, 10- or 20-second gaps and pocket some finish line time bonuses.
And on the longer climbs, he can hold his own against the pure climbers, and finish off the task at the line with his surprising sprint, again picking up time bonuses that help counter the losses against the clock.
Another factor that could help his chances this year is that along with Rodríguez arriving in great shape, he also has the backing of a strong Katusha team.
He will be able to count on fellow countrymen Daniel Moreno, Angel Vicioso and Alberto Losada as well as Russian workhorses Mikhail Ignatyev and Pavel Brutt.
Despite failure to win a grand tour, Rodríguez has still managed to rack up a surprisingly steady grand tour GC record over the years. He’s been quite consistent in grand tours, finishing in the top-10 in five of the past seven grand tours he’s started. The most recent exception was last year’s Vuelta, when he fell ill and finished an uncharacteristic 19th.
But this is the year he thinks he’ll go from just consistent to top three. “I have reached a point of my career where I feel stronger and more confident. Maybe the Tour is too much to aspire for, [but] I think I can finish on the podium of a Giro or a Vuelta,” he said. “This could be the year.”
Everyone will have to wait and see of course – perhaps all the way till the very end. The last stage of the Giro is a 30km technical, urban course in the mean streets of Milano. Rodríguez hopes he has a large enough lead that he can keep the pink jersey even if he starts to bleed time once again.