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Purito dishes it out at Cuitu Negru

Rodríguez distances Contador, but the Vuelta GC race is still too close for comfort with two uphill finishes remaining

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CUITU NEGRU, Spain (VN) – The steepest climb in Spain wasn’t steep enough for Alberto Contador to shake Joaquim Rodríguez on Monday.

For the third day in a row, “Purito” withstood violent attacks from Contador, this time up a narrow strip of asphalt laid down this summer on a ski run with punishing ramps as steep as 24 percent. For the third day in a row, Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) threw down everything he had. And just like he’s done in the treble of painful climbing stages across the Asturian mountains of northern Spain, Rodríguez (Katusha) defied expectations and hung on.

“Today I made a big step toward winning this Vuelta,” Rodríguez said. “Today was a decisive stage. I knew that if I could withstand the attacks today I would come closer to the victory. It’s not won yet, far from it, because one lapse and you can lose everything.”

The battle came to a head on a brutally steep — more than a few were grumbling too steep — final three kilometers, with ramps as steep as 24 percent, when Contador tried again and again to rattle Rodríguez.

Nursing his slender lead, “Purito” played rope-a-dope, taking the body blows, but refusing to fall. In the final 200m, with a finishing ramp twisting the knife one more time at 22 percent, Rodríguez rallied to pip Contador for a four-second third-place time bonus and gap him by two seconds.

On a day when Contador needed to wrestle away the red jersey, Rodríguez actually expanded his lead, if ever slightly by six seconds, to 28 ticks.

“Joaquim was once again very strong today,” Contador said. “Win or lose, I am enjoying this Vuelta. Our team rode perfect today and we gave everything. Purito is proving very strong. We’re still in the race. There are still five days to go. Anything can happen.”

With just five days of racing to go, Rodríguez looks to have Contador’s number.

“We cannot say this Vuelta is won,” Rodríguez said. “I know Contador will be fighting to the final meter up Bola del Mundo. I have to keep concentrated and not slack up even for a moment. The race has been very difficult since the time trial, but we’re getting through it.”

Contador certainly isn’t going down without a fight and looked to have Rodríguez on the ropes early.

Rodríguez and his Katusha teammates Denis Menchov and Dani Moreno were oddly riding near the back of the peloton as the group churned up the day’s third of four climbs, the Cat. 1 Cobertoria climb.

Contador was puzzled and eased back to see what was going on.

“Sometimes you can tell a lot by looking at the face of a rider. Menchov and Moreno were suffering, so I wanted to see,” Contador said. “At the end of the day, it was Rodríguez who was strongest.”

Rodríguez shrugged off suggestions that he was trying to bluff Contador, saying that he didn’t want to put his team under too much pressure ahead of the most important climb of the Vuelta.

“There was a lot of wind up on the top of that climb. This has been a Vuelta of measuring your forces,” Rodríguez said. “We wanted to save our legs and put pressure on the others to work. I wasn’t playing poker. You cannot play poker in the Vuelta, because you can lose everything.”

Despite Saxo Bank setting a blistering pace up the 19km Pajares climb, Rodríguez hung tough. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) had the help of Nairo Quintana, the promising young Colombian, with the end result of all-but securing third place on the final podium.

Chris Froome (Sky) tumbled out of contention by losing contact with about 6km to go, clawing to 14th on the stage and settling into fourth, at 4:52 back, nearly three minutes behind Valverde.

Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) had another rock-solid ride, crossing the line eighth on the stage, at 4:15 back, and solidifying his grip on seventh, now 8:28 behind Rodríguez.

Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) won the stage out of a breakaway with Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM). The Italian, who won his first grand tour stage of his career, said he wasn’t surprised that Rodríguez was holding on to the Vuelta lead.

“When I saw the Vuelta route back in January, the top favorite was Purito,” Cataldo said. “This course is almost made for him. These kinds of climbs are ideal for his style of riding. After what he did at the Giro, you could see how strong he is. If he manages to win, he will be a very worth winner of this Vuelta.”

If Contador is growing frustrated with Rodríguez’s consistency, he’s not letting it show in public comments. Once again at the finish line, Contador lauded Rodríguez, but vowed to fight to the end.

“Rodríguez is very strong, he’s proving a worthy leader of the Vuelta, but anything can happen. Everyone is getting tired. There are still five days left,” Contador said. “I kind of wish there would be some bad weather. It’s great for the public that the Vuelta is enjoying such fine weather, but I like the rain and I know some of the other rivals don’t.”

That was a clear reference to Rodríguez, known for his dislike of foul weather. Unfortunately for Contador, forecasters are calling for continued mild weather all the way to Madrid. Whether Rodríguez hangs on remains to be seen.

“I know I won’t be able to breathe easy until crossing the line at Bola del Mundo,” he said. “Alberto knows the mountains of Madrid very well. He will be racing in front of his home crowd. He will be very motivated. I know he will skin himself alive to try to win this Vuelta.”

Tomorrow’s rest day offers the weary Vuelta peloton a quick respite, and then it’s right back on the suffer express. Wedneday’s uphill finale to Fuente Dé pushes the Vuelta into the heart of the Picos de Europa, then it’s two flat stages until Saturday’s climax at Bola del Mundo.

Nothing’s decided in this Vuelta. Contador is still within striking distance at 28 seconds and that’s certainly too close for comfort for Rodríguez.