Lombardia caps huge season for ‘Purito’

Where does Joaquim Rodriguez's win at Lombardia rank him among Spain's classics men?

Photo: watson

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LEON, Spain (VN) — Joaquim Rodríguez made history with his dramatic victory in Saturday’s Giro di Lombardia, becoming the first Spanish rider to win the Italian monument in the race’s century-long history.

For “Purito,” it concluded a spectacular season that included podiums in both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. He not only won quality races all season long, including Flèche Wallonne in April, he once again won the WorldTour ranking thanks to his Saturday success, bouncing ahead of Bradley Wiggins to essentially put a lock on the classification.

Rodríguez’s Lombardia victory in the rain also caps a decade-long rise among Spanish “clasico-manos,” classics specialists that have finally put Spain on the map when it comes to the calendar’s important one-day classics.

It took 106 editions before a Spanish rider won the “Race of the Falling Leaves” and Rodríguez said it was worth the wait.

“This victory is the most important in my career, both for what it means to me and to be the first Spanish rider to win,” he said. “This makes all my (close calls) worth it, to win this important race.”

Rodríguez is the ideal Spanish classics rider. With his compact build and deadly finish-line punch, his DNA seems wired for races such as Lombardia and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

It wasn’t that long ago, however, that Spanish riders and classics were far from synonymous. Spain’s spindly climbers typically spun to success in stage races, with a big focus in the mountains, and it was only in the past decade or so that Spanish riders have become a force in the one-day classics.

Since Oscar Freire won his first of three editions of Milan-San Remo in 2004, however, Spanish riders have claimed six “monuments,” with Alejandro Valverde winning two editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège along with Rodríguez’s first Lombardia win. There have been another 15 Spanish podiums across the monuments in the same period of time.

That’s an impressive haul, better than any singular nation besides Belgium, but why did it take so long? Juan Antonio Flecha, the lone Spanish rider who consistently has performed on the cobblestones, said it was partly due to Spain’s culture of cycling.

“Before, the Spanish riders did not race so much in Belgium and beyond the grand tours,” Flecha said in an earlier interview. “Today the teams are more international and we race all over the world. That is a big change from not so long ago.”

Flecha is correct in that the Belgian classics were often chock-full of smaller, regional teams. There were literally dozens of Belgian, Dutch and French teams throwing elbows to get into the April classics. Spanish teams typically were content to race south of the Pyrénées, where Spain used to have a full racing calendar from February through May.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the recent spike of Spanish success in the classics is the rescheduling of the Vuelta a España from April to September. Spanish riders would naturally target the Vuelta as their top spring goal, leaving little attention for the far-away Belgian classics. With the Vuelta in September since 1995, coupled with the gradual formation of larger, more established international teams, Spanish riders have been targeting the classics as a central goal on par with the grand tours and the world championships.

For Valverde, a winner of two Liège crowns, the classics have been firmly a part of his season calendar since he turned pro.

“The classics are just as important as the Tour or the world championships,” Valverde told VeloNews earlier this season. “I like the races that play to my strengths, such as Amstel Gold and Liège. Of course, I would like to win more (monuments). The races have a special history and prestige. They are also very hard.”

Before the latest Spanish streak, Milan-San Remo was the only monument to fall into the hands of a Spaniard, with Miguel Poblet winning in 1957 and 1959, and taking second in 1958. Poblet was Spain’s first true “clasico-mano,” earning podiums in the 1958 Paris-Roubaix, with second, and second and third, respectively, in the 1958 and 1959 editions of Lombardia.

It was a long 40 years before Spain lifted its head again in the one-day classics and that was largely thanks to Freire.

After winning his first of three world titles in 1999, Freire soon focused on trying to win one of the five monuments (San Remo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Roubaix, Liège and Lombardia).

A natural sprinter, Freire came close in San Remo, finishing third in 2000. He broke through in 2004, pipping Erik Zabel at the line with a perfectly timed bike stab as a hapless Zabel looked on in dismay with his hands held high too early. Freire won again in 2007, beating Alan Davis and Tom Boonen. His third “Classicissima” came in 2010 during an otherwise subpar year for “El Gato.”

While Freire set the modern standard, it is Flecha, the bruising Catalan that relishes the cobbles of Belgium and northern France, who is truly a pioneer.

With the exception of the all-rounder Poblet, most of Spain’s fragile climbers have gravitated toward the Ardennes, where the short, steep hills are similar to what they’re accustomed to racing in Spain’s Basque Country. The brawny Flecha, however, is the exception to that rule.

Known for his distinctive finish-line celebration, when he shoots imaginary arrows out of his quiver (“flecha” means arrow in Spain), Flecha has come close to victory on the cobbles.

He is the only Spanish rider to finish on the podium at Flanders, with third in 2008, and three times finished on the Roubaix podium, third in 2005 and 2010 and second in 2007. Flecha always seems to rise to the occasion when it gets bumpy, but Flanders and Roubaix are the only remaining monuments to evade Spanish conquest.

Flecha has penned a deal to join Vacansoleil-DCM for 2013 and will surely be back in the mix across the pavé.

“I still believe I can win a Roubaix,” Flecha said. “I know each year it is becoming more difficult. That’s what I will keep racing for each spring. It is the race I most love.”

But of course, Spain has enjoyed its best success in the Ardennes. David Etxebarria came close to winning Liège a decade ago, with second in 2000 and third in 2001. Iban Mayo was second behind Tyler Hamilton in 2003 while Rodríguez was runner-up to Andy Schleck in 2009.

Today’s latest crop of riders, including Valverde, Rodríguez and 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez, has performed consistently across the hillier classics. Sánchez has come close to adding a monument to his Olympic road race title, three times runner-up at Lombardia and one time third.

And at Flèche Wallonne, where Rodríguez won in April, Spanish riders have come out on top three times, with Igor Astarloza winning in 2003 and Valverde in 2006.

For Rodríguez, the Lombardia win puts an exclamation point on his 2012 season, which included second at the Giro and third at the Vuelta.

He said he would hit the repeat button for 2013, with the classics remaining a central focus before deciding which grand tours he will race. With a Giro course unveiled this week that is heavy on time trials, Rodríguez hinted he may race the Tour de France and Vuelta.

“I would like to have a Tour podium to go along with the ones I have from the Giro and Vuelta. It would be nice to complete the pack with podiums in all three grand tours,” Rodríguez said. “We will wait to see how the Tour course looks. I still believe I can win a grand tour. I have come close before.”

Rodríguez’s aggressive, tactical style of racing makes him a natural for the hilly classics. Where exactly Purito ranks within Spain’s classics hierarchy remains to be seen. He promises a lot more, with Liège as one of his main targets for 2013.

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