Spain?s Joaquim Rodriguez (Caisse d?Epargne) surprised the climbers and conquered the near vertical wall up to the finish to win the third stage of the Tirreno-Adriatico on Friday.

The current Spanish national road race champion attacked alone near the end of the climb, finishing 12 seconds ahead of Danilo Di Luca (LPR) and Sweden?s Niklas Axelsson (Diquigiovanni), who took the race lead.

The climb up to the finish in the village of Montelupone has been described as the Italian answer to the Mur de Huy from Fleche-Wallonne. It is probably even steeper and definitely longer and left a lot riders pushing their bikes to the finish and cursing the race organiser for making them look foolish.

Italian idol Riccardo Ricco (Saunier Duval) crashed heavily just before the first time up the climb and so was unable to try and win the stage had he had promised. Mark Cavendish and Roger Hammond (High Road) also suffered on the hilly stage, finishing more than ten minutes behind Rodriguez.

The little Spaniard is a close friend of Alejandro Valverde and confirmed he loves the hilly classics like his Caisse d?Epargne team mate.

?Spanish riders don?t usually like the one-day classics but I do because my father was a professional rider and so I grew up watching riders like the best Italian classics rider Michele Bartoli and Paolo Bettini on television,? he said.?

?The climb to the finish was incredibly steep but I attacked at the right time and got a gap. It?s a lot like the Mur de Huy climb up to the finish of the Fleche-Wallonne race in Belgium but it?s even steeper and longer.?

Thanks to his third place on the stage Axelsson now leads the weeklong Tirreno-Adriatico stage race. Italy?s Enrico Gasparotto is second at 10 seconds, with Rodriguez third at 18 seconds.

Axelsson will wear the race leader?s blue jersey during Saturday?s 166km fourth stage from Porto Recanati to Civitanova Marche but is not optimistic about his chance for overall victory.

Those with a good doping memory might remember that the lanky Swede was banned in 2001 after failing a test for EPO at the world championships. He made a quiet return to racing in 2004 and overcame testicular cancer last year.

?I rode well on the climb but I know I?d have to do a great time trial on Sunday to have any chance of winning,? he admitted.

?There are a lot of great time trialist in this race, including world champion Fabian Cancellara. He?s only 54 seconds behind me in the standings and so is the real favourite.?

?I?ve made mistakes in the past and it was hard last year when I was undergoing chemotherapy but I?m glad I came back both times because I cycling is my life. I had a job in a paint factory for a while but I?m happy to be back.?

Saturday?s 166km fourth stage is from Porto Recanati to Civitanova Marche. The stages includes dozens of short climbs but Mark Cavendish could have a chance in the sprint if the breakaways are kept under control.

TIRRENO-ADRIATICO STAGE THREE

1 Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne 192km in 4hrs 44mins 59secs
2 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) LPR Brakes at 12secs
3 Niklas Axelsson (Swe) Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni
4 Thomas Lövkvist (Swe) Team High Road
5 Leonardo Piepoli (Ita) Saunier Duval – Scott at 17secs
6 Enrico Gasparotto (Ita) Barloworld at 22secs
7 Markus Fothen (Ger) Gerolsteiner at 23secs
8 Tadej Valjavec (Slo) AG2r – La Mondiale at 26secs
9 Emanuele Sella (Ita) CSF Group Navigare
10 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Team CSC all same time

TIRRENO-ADRIATICO: OVERALL

1 Niklas Axelsson (Swe) Serramenti PVC 13.56.14
2 Enrico Gasparotto (Ita) Barloworld at 10secs
3 Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 18secs
4 Linus Gerdemann (Ger) Team High Road at 24secs
5 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) LPR Brakes at 32secs
6 Thomas Lövkvist (Swe) Team High Road at 40secs
7 Markus Fothen (Ger) Gerolsteiner at 50secs
8 Emanuele Sella (Ita) CSF Group Navigare at 54secs
9 Tadej Valjavec (Slo) AG2r – La Mondiale
10 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Team CSC all same time.