Froome, Contador still favored to win Vuelta

Vuelta España - Stage 6
Joaquim Rodríguez wins stage 6. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com
Vuelta España - Stage 6
Joaquim Rodríguez and Alberto Contador in the breakaway on stage 6. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com
Vuelta España - Stage 6
Joaquim Rodríguez is still not the main favorite, but shouldn’t be counted out for the Vuelta win. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

JACA, Spain (VN) — Will the 2012 Vuelta a España be another case of close but no cigar for Katusha’s Joaquim Rodríguez?

Rodríguez delivered on his promise Thursday to win the short but explosive uphill finale in the 175km sixth stage at the Vuelta a España, dusting Chris Froome (Sky) and a cramping Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) to win the stage and expand his overall lead from one second to 10 seconds over Froome.

Just six days into the race, this Vuelta is following the script of so many of the recent grand tours for Rodriquez, who is always right in the heat of the GC battle only to bow to superior riders in the time trials.

With the Vuelta’s lone individual time trial waiting next week in Galicia, will the story repeat itself for this Vuelta? Or can Rodríguez rise to the occasion and deliver an elusive grand-tour win?

Rodríguez admits that he even doesn’t know the answer to that question.

“I am feeling great so far in this Vuelta,” Rodríguez said after winning his fourth career Vuelta stage. “Perhaps I will come up against a stronger rider, be it Froome, Contador or maybe (Alejandro) Valverde. But right now, I have the same sensations as I did at the Giro.”

It’s this year’s Giro, where Rodríguez lost in a final-day showdown against Ryder Hesjedal, that hangs over him like a curse and a blessing.

His 16-second loss to Hesjedal both motivates and haunts Rodríguez. He was closer than ever to winning a major three-week tour, yet once again was foiled by the time trial.

Though he’s made tremendous gains against the clock and will likely never flop like he did in 2010, when he lost six minutes on a 40km power course along the windy flats in the Ribera del Duero wine country, Rodríguez knows he still needs to take time on Contador and Froome if he harbors any real hope of winning the Vuelta when it concludes September 9 in Madrid.

“I worked hard after the Giro. I have a very strong team around me and that motivates me even more, but I realize this Vuelta has very strong riders,” he said. “Froome is looking very good. Arguably he was the strongest rider in this year’s Tour and it’s obvious that he’s here to ride to win.”

Nicknamed “Purito,” the pint-sized Rodríguez is the undisputed king of punchy finishes like the 3.5km Rapitán climb perched above Jaca.

Thursday’s stage played perfectly into his hands. Team Sky drove a searing pace over the third-category Alto de Oroel to chase down a breakaway. The British team then positioned Froome and Rigoberto Urán (now fourth at 41 seconds back) at the nose of the peloton heading up the twisting climb.

Rodríguez rode the vapors of Sky’s train and only pounced with 200 meters to go to beat Froome by five seconds and snatch a 12-second winner’s time bonus.

Contador trailed across the line at 18 seconds back in fourth, missing out again on the bonuses, telling reporters at the line he was suffering from cramps and dehydration, adding he was “happy to save the day.”

“It was almost like a sprint as he drove toward the base of the climb. We were hitting 60kph in Jaca,” Rodríguez said. “I would have liked to have taken more time, but sometimes when you do not have the legs, you have to ride with your head. I waited until the last minute to attack Froome.”

Rodríguez needs to keep chipping away at Froome and Contador if he hopes to have a chance to win.

Time bonuses will be a boon for Rodríguez, who has the finish-line punch to win stages and take the valuable seconds. Though reduced at the Vuelta to 12, 8 and 4 seconds for the top-3 finishers (from 20, 12 and 8), at least they are in play in every stage.

At the Giro, organizers removed the bonuses from the five decisive mountain stages while the Tour de France has eliminated them entirely.

Indeed, without the bonuses, Froome would be in the lead, something that must be a bitter pill for the Kenya-born Sky rider who lost last year’s Vuelta to Juanjo Cobo (Movistar) on time bonuses.

Many still see this Vuelta as a showdown between Contador and Froome, but Garmin-Sharp sport director Allan Peiper believes that Rodríguez could be the surprise of this Vuelta.

“I wouldn’t count out Rodríguez. It took the best (Ryder) Hesjedal to beat him. Purito did a fantastic last time trial in Milano,” Peiper said. “If he’s got enough gains in the mountaintop finishes and with the time bonuses, who knows? He still might be in there with a chance.”

Katusha knows it will have to play it just right for Rodríguez to have a chance to finally claim a grand tour. But how? Sport director Valerio Piva answers that question with a shrug of his shoulders.

“He comes with a big motivation to the Vuelta, but there are strong riders,” Piva said. “Contador is still Contador. He has no race in the legs, but he’s a big champion. Maybe he’s not in top shape, but we can expect him to be there. And Froome, if he’s the same as the Tour, he’s a big favorite. ‘Purito’ is situated in a position with a chance for a top-three, but to win is very difficult.”

The next major battle is Saturday’s climbing stage in Andorra, which ends atop Rodríguez favorite training climb. He lives in the Pyrenean principality and knows the climb like the back of his hand.

If he can gap Froome and Contador, grab a time bonus and keep chipping away, then Purito’s chances might improve dramatically.