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Vuelta a Espana

Joaquim Rodriguez is proving a complex, exasperating rival to Alberto Contador

Rodriguez took everything Contador threw at him, and gave as good — actually, better — than he got

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TORREBARRIO, Spain (VN) – Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) upstaged Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) on Saturday and proved that he may well have the legs to win his first grand tour.

Not only did he withstand the best Contador had to offer in the final climb of Saturday’s explosive 150km stage ending up the first-category Ancares, but he countered with his own trademark sprint finish to snag an ever-important time bonus.

In the first of three consecutive summit finishes, when just about everyone expected Contador to blow apart the race, it was the gritty Rodríguez who ended up stealing the spotlight yet again.

“Purito” won his third stage and widened his slender lead to 23 seconds to archrival Contador.

“I did the climb at my pace and went steady because Contador, when he attacks, can really go hard,” Rodríguez said. “In the final kilometer, I knew where Contador was and I knew that he wasn’t far. With one attack, I reached him and once I got on his wheel, I knew I could win.”

Rodríguez’s confidence is growing by the day, perhaps at a faster pace than his lead, but he knows he has the chance of a lifetime to win a grand tour.

After defending his leader’s jersey in Wednesday’s time trial, with just one second of advantage to Contador, Rodríguez has won two stages in the past three days and carved out a slender, but promising lead.

“Purito is more confident every day,” said Katusha sport director Valerio Piva. “We know Contador will attack, but Purito has been able to stay with him. If he can continue to do so, well, maybe it’s possible (to win). It’s going to be a big fight.”

Contador wants to win this Vuelta, yet a very stubborn Rodríguez — so far, at least — has had his number.

Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank looked to have the race under control and Contador unleashed a searing attack with just under 2km to go that seemed to put everyone on the defensive.

But just as this Vuelta has unfolded since day one, nothing has quite gone to script.

Contador’s aggression was checked, first by the surprising Chris Froome (Sky), who seemed dead in the water, and then by Rodríguez, who counterattacked after Froome ran out of steam, causing Contador to look back in disbelief as the red jersey chased him down.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) also proved he’s right there, crossing the line third to equal Froome for third place, with both of them tied at 1:41 back.

With an electrifying final climb full of attacks, counterattacks, aggression, setbacks and delusion, this Vuelta just keeps getting finer. And it’s far from over.

Thrilling finale

This Vuelta is proving to be one of the most exciting grand tours in years and the final climb up the narrow, unrelenting Ancares climb didn’t fail to deliver. There were more attacks in the final 5km of the climb than in the entire Tour de France.

Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank set a brutal pace over the penultimate climb. An untimely puncture by Contador eased the rhythm to give everyone a breather before a long, sinuous descent to the base of the 9km climb.

The remnants of an early breakaway were reeled in and the “fantastic four” were ready to rumble, with all eyes on Contador.

Saxo-Tinkoff kept up the pressure, with Rafal Majka and Dani Navarro taking huge pulls that quickly saw the lead group dwindle to a baker’s dozen midway up the climb. Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) proved his tenacity once more as he hung onto to finish sixth on the stage.

With 3.5km to go, Contador put down his first acceleration and quickly put Froome on the ropes. Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Urán stayed with him to limit the bleeding, but the wound was open.

Valverde, also interested in gapping Froome, counterpunched, with Contador happily taking the wheel. Rodríguez could afford to ride more defensively and Katusha teammate Dani Moreno helped pace him with 2km to go to tow Purito back to Contador’s wheel.

Sky didn’t go down without fighting. Talansky bridged across, but with 2km to go, Froome was almost back on the wheel.

With 1.9km to go, Contador threw down again and this time, no one could stay close. It looked like the Contador of old was back. He sliced through the throng of fans, his teeth gritting as he spun his pedals and it appeared that he was gone.

It wasn’t over yet. Urán helped tow Froome up to the chasing Valverde and Rodríguez. And then with 1.1km to go, Froome sprang to life and quickly reduced the gap to Contador to 10 seconds with 1km to go.

“The tactic was to stay as close as possible to Rodríguez and Contador,” Froome said. “I made an attack, but they (Rodríguez and Valverde) had more. They were able to come past me and then Rodríguez attacked again to win the stage. That was impressive.”

Rodríguez raced with calm confidence, riding at a steady pace behind Contador’s attack. He latched onto Froome and then chased after Contador to defend his leader’s jersey on ramps as steep as 14 percent.

Contador was stunned to see the red blur of the leader’s jersey in his wake with 500 meters to go, so much so he weaved into the fans and nearly fell off his bike.

Incredibly, Rodríguez caught Contador and surged past him in the final 250 meters, taking a few precious seconds (five) and a 12-second time bonus for the win. With Contador trailing dejectedly in second, the wily Rodríguez had yet again expanded his lead.

Valverde crossed the line 13 seconds adrift to take a four-second bonus. With Froome finishing 38 seconds back, Valverde pulled even with the Sky rider, now tied for third.

“It was an extremely hard day,” Valverde said. “I believe that Alberto, Purito and me are the strongest in the GC right now and we’re showing it. Now, with two stage wins and three second places, I am good for the podium in Madrid. I hope it stays this way to the end.”

Talansky maintained eighth, now at 6:13 back. If he keeps up like this, the 23-year-old could catch Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale), seventh at 5:51, and sixth-place Robert Gesink (Rabobank) at 5:07.

Covadonga on tap

The fun continues Sunday with the 186.5km 15th stage from La Robla to Lagos de Covadonga. The route should be less demanding than Saturday and a breakaway will likely have chances to win the stage.

The final 12km climb to Lagos de Covadonga, set in the heart of the stunning Picos de Europa, is one of the steepest in northern Spain. One section features ramps as steep as 18 percent and averages 10 percent during its duration.

“I do not know Covadonga, but I expect it to be an easier stage than today,” Valverde said. “(Monday’s) stage will decide a lot. Right now the legs are responding. I hope it continues like this.”

Contador was in no mood to talk to journalists at the finish line. He’s yet to win a stage and Rodríguez is proving a complicated rival.

The man who always prefers to let his legs do the talking is hoping they will have something to say up Covadonga.