Vuelta a España: Rodríguez floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

Stage 5: Sierra Nevada to Valdepeñas de Jaén, 187km

It was the legendary heavyweight Muhammad Ali who coined the phrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” to describe his individualistic boxing style, but that description could equally be applied to Katusha’s Joaquim Rodríguez. Last year on this very finish he attacked too early and ran out of steam before the line, but this time around he showed he had learned his lesson by leaving his kick a fraction later and powering away from his rivals to take a comfortable win which moved him within 23 seconds of the race lead, which is still held by Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel.

A ‘flat’ stage with zero probability of a sprint finish

Obviously the race organisers had a sense of humour when they classified this as a ‘flat’ stage. For starters, there are two second category climbs – actually, it is the Alto de Valdepeñas twice over – with the second summit coming just 8km from the finish. And then there is the final uncategorised 1.3km climb to the finish at the top of the town, which gradually kicks up and features gradients of up to 27% in its final 500 metres. There was about much chance of the sprinters contesting the stage win as there is of me wearing the polka dot jersey at next year’s Tour de France – which is to say none at all.

Stage 5 profile

The same finish featured on stage four last year, with Igor Antón winning the first of his two stages ahead of Vincenzo Nibali, Peter Velits, Rodríguez and Philippe Gilbert – all punchy climbers to a man. The gaps between the top men were small, but with a bonus of 20 seconds on offer to the stage winner it represented an opportunity for one of the general classification contenders to steal a decent chunk of time on their rivals.

I love this type of stage, particularly when placed early in a three-week race like this. It offers the best chance for a puncheur or classics specialist to claim individual glory and possibly the overall lead, while simultaneously giving the serious contenders the opportunity to lay down a marker and gain a chunk of time without risking going too far into the red as they might do with an attack on a long hors catégorie climb.

This year’s Tour de France served up two such stages early in its first week, on Mont des Alouettes (stage one) and the Mûr-de-Bretagne (stage four), both of which produced exciting finishes won by Gilbert and eventual champion Cadel Evans and served to animate the early stages of the race as a whole. The Giro also specialises in sting-in-the-tail parcours of this nature – often steep, narrow and twisty finishes into hill-top towns – which always seem to throw new names on to the top step of the podium. It serves as a great reminder that many top riders exist in that extremely large grey area between the power of the fast-twitch sprinters and the lightweight chicken skeletons of the pure climbers.

Rodríguez flies, Antón sinks, Chavanel clings on

The day’s racing started at a furious pace despite the hot conditions, with several attacks occurring before an eight-man break finally settled. The group included Michael Albasini (HTC-Highroad), Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis), Angel Madrazo (Movistar) and Johannes Fröhlinger (Skil-Shimano). With the break struggling to stretch out a significant advantage, Albasini kicked on just after the halfway point of the stage, building a lead of over two minutes. He was later joined by Fröhlinger and Madrazo with around 40km left, but although the latter later launched a solo attack all three were comfortably reeled in before the second climb up the Alto de Valdepeñas as Liquigas-Cannondale drove the peloton on.

Halfway up the ascent, Astana’s Alexsandr Dyachenko attacked off the front and was soon followed and immediately passed by three-time reigning King of the Mountains David Moncoutié (Cofidis). The Frenchman streaked away over the summit and continued to build his lead on the rapid descent. With 4km to go he was leading by 34 seconds on the approach into the town of Valdepeñas de Jaén as the peloton, led by Liquigas and Katusha, set a furious pace to reel him in. Yet again it proved to be too much for Antón, who had been barely able to hold on to the bunch on the climb and whose only objective was to minimise his losses on the finish on which he had won last year.

Rodríguez powered clear of the entire field to win at Valdepeñas de Jaén

Entering the final kilometre, Moncoutié’s lead had been reduced to 16 seconds – nowhere near enough to hold off the chasing pack. As the road started to kick up beyond 20% in the final 600 metres or so, he was quickly swamped and spat out the back, eventually finishing a distant 35th, 31 seconds down. It was left to the previous day’s winner, Daniel Moreno, to set a punishing tempo for his team leader Rodríguez which dropped everyone except Vacansoleil’s Wouter Poels. That left Rodríguez with the job of timing his acceleration to fly clear of everyone else, which he accomplished with some ease to lead Poels across the line by four seconds, with Moreno trailing in just after him.

The rest of the peloton followed behind in dribs and drabs, having exploded in the final half-kilometre. Michele Scarponi, Jakob Fuglsang and Jurgen Van Den Broeck were in a group of seven which finished just seven seconds down.Vincenzo Nibali and Denis Menchov conceded eleven seconds, Janez Brajkovič and Bradley Wiggins 20 each, Chavanel 31 and Antón 57.

Overall, the top 17 riders on general classification are separated by less than a minute, with Chavanel’s advantage over Moreno reduced to a wafer-thin nine seconds. The former knows his days in the lead are numbered, but paid handsome tribute to his team for all their support in defending the red jersey.

Stage winner Rodríguez reiterated his desire to win the overall in Madrid and was delighted with both the crowd support on the final climb and the gains he had made on his rivals:

I’ve clearly achieved more than I expected with the gap I created over my adversaries on such a short distance. The last kilometre was extremely spectacular. It was like a big Belgian classic with a huge crowd. Everyone was yelling ‘Purito!’ [his nickname]. It was very enjoyable.

Rodríguez was always a short-odds favourite to win this stage after Antón’s struggles on Sierra Nevada. Already in 2011, he has finished fifth at the Giro, won two stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and finished second to Gilbert at Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne, both hilly classics not vastly dissimilar to this stage. If he can minimise his losses in the individual time trial, he is clearly the man to beat on the steepest finishes and confirmed his status as a genuine potential GC winner.

The next two days are likely to see the balance tip back in favour of the sprinters, before two days in the mountains and the individual time trial bring an end to what has already proven to be a punishing opening section of the race. In particular, watch out for the end of Saturday’s stage in San Lorenzo, which features ramps of 27% and 28% on a climb which rises 200 metres in the final 2.4km. Rodríguez will be heavily favoured again there.

Stage 5 result:

1. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 4:42:54

2. Wouter Pouls (Vacansoleil-DCM) +0:04

3. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:05

4. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +0:07

5. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +0:08

General classification:

1. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 18:02:34

2. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:09

3. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) +0:23

4. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:26

5. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:33

6. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) +0:36

7. Maxime Monfort (Leopard-Trek) +0:38

8. Sergio Pardilla (Movistar) +0:43

9. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:44

10. Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) +0:52

Points classification:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 41 pts

2. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 39

3. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 28

4. Wouter Pouls (Vacansoleil-DCM) 28

5. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 26

Mountains classification:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 20 pts

2. Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) 15

3. Koen De Kort (Skil-Shimano) 13

4. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 10

5. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 6

Link: Vuelta a España official website

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Stage 2 recap & analysing the sprints

Chavanel leads as heat picks up in GC competition

About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

5 Responses to Vuelta a España: Rodríguez floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

  1. Sheree says:

    It’s still anyone’s Vuelta to win or lose but the number of likely contenders is slowly being whittled down, Sadly, it looks as if Igor Anton isn’t going to be one of them. He’ll be hunting for stage wins, if and when he finds his legs. However, maybe team mate Mikel Nieve will pick up the slack for the orange-clad lads.

    • Tim says:

      Anton’s race is done, for sure – at least as far as GC is concerned. He’s too dangerous to be allowed into a break, so I agree he will now target stage wins if he can ride himself into some form. Perhaps Angliru?

      It would be good to see Nieve have a real go now, and there a quite a few riders in the team who could profit in a long break.

      I remain unconvinced about Rodriguez’s chances. He won’t lose 6 minutes in the ITT again, but could certainly lose 3. I’m just not sure he can sustain a big attack on a long climb to eke out the kind of advantage he will need. I’m struggling to look beyond Nibbles right now, and I wouldn’t put it past Menchov to put in a big challenge too.

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