Anton suffers again but Rodriguez becomes Spain's top contender
For exactly a year, Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) has had his eyes on the uphill finish of Vuelta a Espana stage five in Valdepeñas de Jaén where the Spaniard took his first Grand Tour stage win of the 2011 season and Spain's third in a row in their home race.
The winner of a very similar agonising steep finish at Mende in the Tour de France last year and a regular contender on the punchy climbs of the Ardennes Classics, last year Rodriguez finished fourth in Valdepeñas de Jaén, just one second down on winner Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
This time, though, it was a very different story, as Rodriguez calculated his energy and timed his attack perfectly for a victory on the closest equivalent to Fleche Wallone's Mur de Huy - where he finished second in 2010 - that you could find in Spain.
"It was a very tough, fast day because the break of the day didn't form until 80 kilometres into the stage and even then, with some dangerous guys in it like Michael Albasini (HTC-Highroad) and Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), we weren't going to let them get too far up the road," Rodriguez said.
"But Katusha worked hard to pull them back and I got really motivated by all the people shouting my name on the final climb, there were so many fans it felt like a Belgian Classic."
"Today the real key was timing - getting your move exactly right, making sure you crossed the finish line completely empty."
"It was quite a big effort today on such a steep climb, but that's the same for everybody."
Rodriguez' victory propels him into third overall and confirms he has the form to go for the overall - curiously enough, exactly at the point when the man who beat him in Valdepeñas de Jaen last year, Anton, is looking dangerously close to sliding out of the running.
So Rodriguez is now Spain's top favourite. And even if his time trialling is still his weak point, Rodriguez has taken some very impressive results since finishing fourth in the Vuelta last September, including fifth overall in the one of the hardest Giros of recent years behind Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank) and a brace of stages in the Criterium du Dauphine.
Then after resting up during the Tour, victory in Spain's biggest warm-up race for the Vuelta, the Tour of Burgos in early August, followed by today's win has confirmed that the 32-year-old rider nicknamed ‘Purito' [Little Cigar Man] is back on form.
"I've always said I've wanted to win the Vuelta overall, but in terms of motivation this is exactly what the team needed: after Dani [Moreno] won yesterday [Sierra Nevada] and then I did today, mentally we're in a very good place," Rodriguez confirmed.
"But it's too early to make predictions who will win. The favourites are all really close together on time, we're only five stages into the race, and we all know how difficult it is to say what will happen in the Vuelta."
"Just take my case last year: it looked like I had the race sewn up coming out of the mountains and then I blew to bits in the final time trial. So there's no telling what will happen."
a Espana 2011: Cycling Weekly's coverage index