Rodriguez ready to put ghosts of Liège past behind him

Spain's Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) – fresh off his decisive win at La Flèche Wallone – hopes to claim his maiden win at Liège

LIEGE, Belgium (AFP) – Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) – fresh off his decisive win at La Flèche Wallone – hopes to claim his maiden win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège Sunday, after his missed opportunities there in 2009 and 2006.

While all eyes may be on steadily improving Belgian defending champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) at “La Doyenne” – cycling’s oldest one-day classic – Rodriguez hopes the 257.5 km on Sunday with a total of 11 short but punishing climbs will suit him better on the day. And the Spaniard’s victory atop the steep Mur de Huy Wednesday suggests he’s on great form.

If successful on Sunday, Rodriguez would become only the eighth rider to achieve the Flèche-Liège double.

He came in second in the 2009 edition behind Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck (Radio Shack-Nissan), and wants to put that memory to rest.

But it’s the 2006 edition that really fires up the Catalan’s motivation. That year it was his job was to work for Caisse d’Epargne teammate Alejandro Valverde, a task he duly performed by accompanying Michael Boogerd in a late breakaway.

Rodriguez refused to take turns with the Dutchman, allowing the chasing group, including his teammate, to catch up. Valverde was then able to dominate the small bunch sprint at the finish for the win.

Recalling his 2006 Liege experience, Rodriguez told “If I helped him (Boogerd) in the escape, I think I could have won because I was faster in these kinds of sprints. Instead, my orders were to help Alejandro Valverde, so I didn’t help the Dutch rider. Valverde reached us, and in the end he won. Anyway, now I’m the leader and I can do my best to try and win.”

Rodriguez hopes to use his status as undisputed team leader at Katusha, with whom he signed a contract extension on Friday, to edge his fellow Spaniard this year.

In a race where climbing skills will count as much as tactical cunning and sheer stamina, Rodriguez and Gilbert could become marked men. It may then fall to the Spaniard to produce the kind of audacious maneuver which earned him his “Purito” (little cigar) nickname.

During his first year as a professional with ONCE-Eroski in 2001, Rodriguez rode away from his teammates on a climb during a training camp, making a hand gesture akin to smoking a cigar. The cheeky stunt left his teammates fuming, but the roles were reversed later that evening when they made him smoke a real cigar as an initiation ritual – and the name stuck.

On a personal note, it would be the climax to a career which has seen him win stages at the Tour de France, Tour of Spain and numerous, smaller stage races.

“It’s definitely my favorite race, even more than World Championships or big stage races,” added Rodriguez. “Before winning Fleche Wallonne I was a little nervous, because I’ve never won a great classic race; but now I feel more calm and comfortable.

“We’re preparing in the best possible way. On Sunday we’ll be doing everything to do the double.”