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Even the consolation prize of the green points...

Oh-so-close Rodriguez faces another heartbreaking Vuelta

Joaquim Rodríguez has a hard fight to keep his podium spot in the Vuelta a España, as another grand tour win slips through his grasp.

A day after losing the red jersey, the eternal smile of Joaquim Rodríguez was once again on display at the finish podium in Thursday’s stage at the Vuelta a España. Rodríguez still owns the green points jersey, but even that little bit of joy could be taken away. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is looming just two points behind — he won the GC bunch sprint Thursday to remind Rodríguez once again that there are no gifts in cycling.

The veteran Spaniard is still holding out hope for a Vuelta miracle, but after losing 3:06 to Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), and falling to third at 1:15 back in Wednesday’s decisive time trial, Rodríguez must be wondering if he will ever win a grand tour.

“For one reason or another, I’ve never managed to win one,” Rodríguez said. “The Vuelta is not over, it’s not impossible, but it’s complicated, and you’ve got to be realistic.”

During Thursday’s frenetic stage 18, the GC riders were indeed racing like the Vuelta was still very much open. Fabio Aru (Astana) tried in vain to rattle Dumoulin and his three-second lead, but everyone else was attacking as well. Why? Because they see Rodríguez’s grip on third place to be tenuous at best.

Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) is only 1:07 off third, and the Movistar duo of Nairo Quintana and Valverde are within two minutes of the Rodríguez podium spot, sitting fifth and sixth, respectively.

“The podium is still possible,” said Quintana, who was attacking along with Valverde in the wild finale Thursday. “We are both feeling better, and we are both going to attack to try to reach the podium.”

Majka also vows to try to snatch away Rodríguez’s place on the podium. The Pole was also bitterly disappointed in Wednesday’s time trial, when he was hoping to defend his podium spot.

“I was feeling very down after the time trial, but today I was really motivated, and I said to myself that I had to try,” Majka said. “Mentally, I am much better than I was 24 hours ago, and I hope to have the same legs Saturday. The stage will be really crazy with attacks, and my goal remains the podium in Madrid.”

Of all the top GC riders Thursday, Rodríguez looked the most exasperated and fatigued when the attacks came on the day’s main challenge up a grinding category 1 climb late in the stage. “Let’s see if I can just keep my podium spot,” Rodríguez said. “Everyone is looking to take something out of this Vuelta.”

On the eve of Wednesday’s time trial, Rodríguez was hoping he could limit his losses to Dumoulin to around two minutes and stay in the hunt for red. Rodríguez’s hopes of a miracle soon unraveled when he bled more than one minute in the opening 13km. It was Aru, not Rodríguez, who nearly pulled off the upset. The Italian is just three seconds behind Dumoulin, a realistic difference.

“I was hoping to ride as Aru did, but I had a terrible time trial. I was more comfortable on the flats than on the climbs,” he said. “I was hoping to have a great day like Aru did, losing about two minutes, but in the end, I lost one [minute] more.”

Rodríguez might be smiling in public, but he must be shaking his head in exasperation at his bad luck in the quest to win a grand tour.

Consistently close to victory

Now 36, Rodríguez has been incredibly consistent in grand tours, racing 23 during his career since his debut in the 2001 Giro d’Italia. He won 13 stages in nine of those grand tours, and has finished on the podium in all three grand tours, but he’s never managed to win one.

After finding his feet, since the 2008 Vuelta through the 2015 Tour de France, he finished in the top seven in 10 of the 15 grand tours he started. He was third in the 2010 Vuelta behind Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Peter Velits (BMC), and third again in the 2012 Vuelta behind Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Valverde. In the 2012 Giro, he was second to Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) by just 16 seconds, and third behind Chris Froome and Quintana in the 2013 Tour.

In the 2010 Vuelta, he lost more than six minutes in a long time trial at Peñafiel, prompting him to work more on the time trial position. In the 2013 Tour, he never was challenging for the overall, but instead fought back in the brutal final week to knock Contador out of the final podium spot. He admitted he underestimated Hesjedal in the 2012 Giro, and he could never close the gap in the final stages.

His worse collapse came in the 2012 Vuelta, during the transition stage to Fuente Dé after the second rest day. On paper, the stage didn’t appear that challenging, but Rodríguez struggled early, and Contador smelled blood, opening up a vicious attack to snatch away the leader’s jersey.

Ahead of Wednesday’s time trial, when Dumoulin was still within striking range at 1:51 back, Rodríguez knew the odds were stacked against him. “For either my rivals or the course, I’ve never managed to win a grand tour,” Rodríguez said. “This was perhaps my last chance. I am more upset about this one than I was in 2012.”

Add Rodríguez’s heartbreaking loss to Rui Costa in the 2013 world championships, and the smiling Spaniard is just a few key moments away from having one of the best palmares in Spanish cycling.

Instead, Rodríguez faces a nasty fight just to keep his third place in this Vuelta with three stages left to go. He’d be happy to hang on.