Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) used his pure climber’s power to conquer the steep and narrow finish in Valdepeñas de Jaén.
The tiny Spaniard followed teammate Daniel Moreno as solo attacker David Moncoutié (Cofidis) was swept up, and then gapped his overall rivals, with only Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil) able to match the Katusha duo.
Rodriguez kept his hands on the brake levers and danced to the finish line. Poels closed the gap with a brave effort but finished four seconds down, with Moreno at five seconds.
Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) brought home the leading chasers, with team soigneur forced to grab their riders as they gasped for breath after an intense finishing effort. Most of the overall contenders were all at eight seconds but the likes of Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) finished 20 seconds down on Rodriguez. Dan Martin (Garmin-Cervelo) was further back at 29 seconds while his fellow Irishman Nicolas Roche (Ag2r) was better placed in eighth place, at eight seconds.
The stage started atop the Sierra Nevada after the peloton slept at altitude in the Spanish ski resort. Before the start a minute’s silence was observed to remember Xavier Tondo who was tragically killed in a domestic accident while training on Sierra Nevada.
After the dive down to the spectacular city of Granada, the racing started fast with a series of attacks in the hills north of the city. An 18-rider attack formed. However the peloton and especially Rodriguez’s Katusha team never let the race slip from their grasp.
The Alto de Valdepeñas climbed was covered for a first tine after 87km and sparked the first significant break of the day. Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) was first over the top and was joined forces with Michael Albasini (HTC-Highroad) and Tom Slagter (Rabobank). They were joined by Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), Angel Madrazo (Movistar), Johannes Fröhlinger (Skil-Shimano), Davide Malacarne (Quick Step) and Adrian Palomares (Andalucia Caja Granada).
Despite the 32C temperatures, the peloton again refused to let them go and the gap was pegged constantly at no more than 90 seconds.
Perhaps born out of frustration, Albasini decided to go for it alone. It was a desperate move but he managed to gain tow minutes, perhaps with the peloton realising a lone rider had little chance of staying away. The Swiss rider plugged on as the rest of the break was gradually picked up.
Katusha in control
The second climb of the Alto de Valdepeñas was always going to be a key part of the race and Katusha did everything to control the action for Rodriguez. Vladimir Karpets worked a lot at high speed before the climb began to hurt. His effort quickly caused some casualties, including Andreas Klöden (RadioShack). Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was also struggling again but managed to stay with the lead group of 50 riders.
Alexsandr Dyachenko (Astana) jumps clear of the peloton with four kilometres to go the summit of the climb but he was quickly caught and passed by David Moncoutié (Cofidis) who powered on in a solo move. The veteran Frenchman is not a great descender and lost vital seconds as 2010 Vuelta winner Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) briefly tested his rivals’ nerves.
Moncoutié started the final climb –Southern Spain’s equivalent of the Mur du Huy, with 25 seconds but faded quickly as the peloton saw up him the road. Moreno had promised to work for Rodriguez today after being given the freedom to ride for himself on Sierra Nevada, and he dragged the peloton up to and around Moncoutié. The finish was still almost a kilometre away but Rodriguez knew it was the right moment to take advantage of the confusion and so opened the turbo chargers in his climber’s legs.
He gapped Moreno, who eased to mark Poels, and then made a long 100% effort towards the line. He crossed the line with his arms in the air, celebrating Katusha’s second consecutive stage victory and confirming he is a sure fire overall contender, as behind him, everyone else fought to limit their losses.
The Vuelta is still in its first week and these are the opening salvoes, but it already looks like it is going to be a close and aggressive battle for overall victory.
Thursday’s 185.7km sixth stage is from Úbeda to Córdoba and also includes another late climb and fast descent to the finish. Both details are likely to produce another thrilling finale.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.