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Giro d'Italia

A long-shot Giro podium is closer than ever for Rodriguez

The diminutive Spaniard took the maglia rosa Tuesday and made his boldest statement yet in a run at the podium in Milan

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ASSISI, Italy (VN) — Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha) took over the race lead today in the Giro d’Italia and moved closer to his objective, winning the overall classification. In Assisi, the town famous for religious pilgrimages, he zipped up the narrow streets and into the pink jersey.

Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) trailed behind, but only just. Rodríguez moved clear by six seconds and gained 20 seconds in bonuses. The time, any time, is helpful for the little Spaniard. He aims to win the overall in two weeks in Milan, a goal many discounted at the start of the three-week tour.

Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) stand in his way, cyclists who’ve won grand tours and have experience going the distance. Rodríguez has won week-long stage races, like the Volta a Catalunya, and one-day classics, like the Flèche Wallonne, but never a grand tour. His best finish is a fourth place in both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.

Rodríguez is not even sure if he can do it.

“Well, even if I lose the maglia rosa tomorrow,” said Rodríguez in a press conference, “at least I’ve had it.”

The Spaniard looked around the room, a barren space inside a convent. He scanned the journalists and the poster of the Giro d’Italia, which shows a rider in the pink jersey looking towards the distant mountains.

The Giro’s high mountains are not so distant, starting with the stage to Cervinia on Saturday. There, at 2001 meters, Rodríguez and his rivals will have an idea of whether he can survive in the lead to Milan, another eight days away. Besides a rest day, the following week includes climbs like Giau, Pampeago, Mortirolo and Stelvio.

“My goal is the podium, to fight for the race win,” Rodríguez added.

“I’ve been working on the long climbs. We have a strong team. Alberto Losada and Ángel Vicioso also trained with me on the longer climbs, with Daniel Moreno. I trust these guys will be with me, but we will have to play off of Liquigas, Lampre and Astana; they will make the difference and we have to stay with him.”

Rodríguez cut his teeth in Spanish teams ONCE, Saunier Duval and Caisse d’Epargne. He spent his time in service of the others, helping captains like Alejandro Valverde win the Vuelta. Though he won some races, it’s only been since joining the Russian Katusha squad that he’s been able to truly spread his wings.

In 2010, Rodríguez won Catalunya, placed eighth in the Tour de France and third in the Vuelta a España. As a result, he won the UCI’s WorldTour classification, making him the world no. 1 at the conclusion of the year.

“Everyone has his moment,” he said. “I’ve always felt like a good rider, always helping other riders. In my last year at Caisse, I saw that I could’ve had my moment, but I was working for my captain. When Katusha came with an offer that was the moment for me to become a leader. It was the best decision I ever took as a pro.”

Over the winter, he and the team set two goals: win a classic and the Giro d’Italia.

“We’ve met all of our objectives this year. We started wanting to win a classic, and we did it with Flèche Wallonne. The second one is to have a good GC in the Giro. It’s been going well; usually we start off with a problem in the time trials. This year, we’ve taken the jersey without much effort. For sure, I’m ready.”