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Joaquim Rodríguez wins kickoff to three tough mountain stages in the 2012 Vuelta a España

The big loser on the day: Chris Froome, who couldn't follow the attacks

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PUERO DE ANCARES, Spain (VN) — Race leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) chased down and beat an attacking Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) on Saturday to prevail in the first of three tough mountain stages in the Vuelta a España.

Contador hung on to finish second in the 149.2km stage from Palas de Rei to the mountaintop finish at Puerto de Ancares, five seconds down on the red jersey, with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) third at 13 seconds.

Chris Froome (Sky) lost more time on the day as the big showdown took place on the final climb, finishing fifth at 38 seconds.

The break of the day — and it was a big one — went clear 19km in. On board were Rudy Molard and David Moncoutie (Cofidis); Serge Pauwels and Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-Quick Step); Ben Gastauer and Blel Kadri (Ag2R); Laurent Didier and Jan Bakelants (Radioshack-Nissan); Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi); Alberto Losada Alguacil (Katusha); Alessandro Ballan (BMC); Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank); Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge); Javier Moreno Bazan (Movistar); Maciej Paterski (Liquigas-Cannondale); and Adrian Palomares Villaplana (Andalucia).

As the peloton closed in, Losada decided to go it alone, but couldn’t make it stick, and after his Saxo Bank mates tore the peloton to shreds in the pursuit Contador tried to seal the deal with an attack 3.5km from the line. But the red jersey chased him down and powered past for his third victory in this year’s Vuelta.

Rodriguez praised his teammates for their work during the stage.

“It was really important that one of my teammates, Losada, was in the front while another one, Dani Moreno, stayed on my side,” he said, adding that Moreno’s drive toward the final kilometer “allowed me to win.”

Contador pronounced himself “satisfied,” having piled time on the other favorites, save Rodriguez.

“I’m going well. But Purito is very strong for now and it’s difficult to resist to him at the top of such a climb,” he said.

Rodriguez now leads Contador on GC by 22 seconds, with Froome third at 1:41, tied on time with Valverde.

American Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) had a strong ride, finishing sixth on the day at 44 seconds and sitting eighth overall at 6:13.

Froome says he’s giving it all he’s got in a race better suited to an explosive, punchy rider.

“I’m disappointed with the time I lost, but never forget that at the end of the day, I’m only here to try and win the Vuelta,” he said. “It’s definitely not through a lack of trying that we’ve lost time.”

Meanwhile, Valverde thinks the race is now a three-man battle.

“Contador seems to have good legs, Purito is unstoppable, the three of us are just inside the same 13 seconds, I have to be happy with that,” he said. “I think that Alberto, Purito and I are the three strongest riders for the overall classification and I hope to keep this level until the end of the Vuelta.”

Sunday brings another tough day in the saddle — the 186.5km stage from La Robla to Lagos de Covadonga, with the final 13.5km climb averaging 7 percent.

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more from the 2012 Vuelta a España.