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Joaquim Rodriguez' Big Chance

[Joaquim? Joaquin? I'll go with his homepage, Or, just J-Rod.]

Second week of March and we're already tearing up the season script. First Alberto Contador wheezes home two minutes in arrears, blowing his Paris-Nice hopes. Half an hour later we have another developing story: Caisse d'Epargne's Ardennes team might have a new look. J-Rod's second win (in two tries) on Montelupone suggests that he has one outstanding skill: really, really hard finishes in classics races. Notwithstanding the attention he received today as last year's winner, Rodriguez waited for the road to turn way, way up and sauntered off the front end of a fairly elite pack for the decisive win.

Obviously today's effort will translate well in the Ardennes: that's the whole point of the stage. Even more significant is the fact that Rodriguez should finally get to spread his wings in Holland and Belgium this year, for the first time since his Saunier Duval days. J-Rod joined Unzue's Caisse outfit in 2006 and has been shepherding mega-star Alejandro Valverde over the low country cotes the past few seasons. They've been a winning team: two wins and a second at Liege, plus a win in La Fleche. But Rodriguez himself has been creeping slowly up, finishing eighth in all three Ardennes races last year.

It hardly bears repeating that Valverde's season is on thin ice, and even before CONI started pressing his old Operacion Puerto case, Valverde began talking down his interest in the classics. I suspect Rodriguez will finally get the full green light, and even if Valverde is in attendance he may not be the (sole) captain.

Rodriguez' performance today does not make him the favorite for any race in particular, and I would not care for his chances in Liege, where he would probably lose a sprint to Cunego, DiLuca, Kirchen and a few others. But if he makes it to the bottom of the Cauberg (Amstel) or the Mur de Huy (La Fleche) with the bunch, there is every chance the ending will look much like today. La Fleche in particular plays into J-Rod's talent for short efforts over truly absurd grades (as opposed to the Cauberg, where he won't be the only rider to find the finale to his liking). He's already shown he can handle the races generally, and today he showed convincingly he can handle a really hard finale. Just shy of his 30th birthday, his career seems to be unfolding nicely for him now.