What a week it’s been for Joaquim Rodríguez. With two stage victories and the overall at the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), it’s everything that his injury-plagued 2014 season was not.
The veteran Spaniard struggled through last year, marked by a heavy crash at the Giro d’Italia, and endured another season of close calls, nearly winning the climber’s jersey at the Tour de France, and finishing just off the podium with fourth at the Vuelta a España.
Illness kept him out of defending his title at the Volta a Catalunya in March, but he roared back with a vengeance at the Basque Country tour this week, considered by many to be the hardest one-week stage race in Europe.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would win,” said Rodriguez. “The other guys made it very difficult. This is a race I have great feelings for because I rode a lot as an amateur cyclist in the Basque Country.”
The 35-year-old out-kicked Sergio Henao (Sky) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in stage 3, and then rode to another victory in the “queen stage” in stage 4. He started Saturday’s final time trial tied on time with Henao, but a steep climber’s course tipped in his favor.
Rodríguez usually folds against the clock, but a hilly course, with the steep Aia finishing wall, allowed him to hold on. Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) won the stage, but Rodríguez was second, just four seconds slower.
Henao ceded too much time, and slotted into second overall, at 13 seconds adrift.
“We knew it would be difficult, Rodriguez was stronger and he won,” said the Sky rider. “I am very happy, in 2013 I was third, this time second, so I hope that one year I will win.”
Ion Izagirre (Movistar) rounded out the podium with third, at 29 seconds back. Quintana, who won Tirreno-Adriatico last month, could not repeat his 2013 victory, and ended up fourth overall, at 38 seconds back.
“This tour hasn’t been very good for me, I tried with all I had but sometimes when you aren’t at your best, you can’t do any more,” said Quintana. “It is not an excuse, but a pollen allergy was giving me a lot of problems.”
The victory is a boon ahead of the upcoming Ardennes classics. A winner of Fleche Wallonne in 2012, Rodríguez has always dreamed of victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
It also will bolster Rodríguez’s confidence heading into the summer racing season. With a mountain-heavy course in July, Rodríguez will be hoping to improve on his career-best third in 2013.
And it continues Katusha’s amazing run across April. The team has dominated the northern classics, winning Gent-Wevelgem with Luca Paolini, and Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Three Days of De Panne with Alexander Kristoff, who lines up as a favorite for Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix.