Cyclist Rodriguez ready to put Valverde in the shade

Justin Davis
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Joaquim Rodriguez

Spanish Joaquim Rodriguez of Team Katusha celebrates after winning the 76th edition of the Fleche Wallonne one-day cycling classic from Charleroi to Huy on April 18. Rodriguez is hoping to make amends for a missed opportunity in 2006 by upstaging former teammate Alejandro Valverde to claim his maiden win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege

Spain's Joaquim Rodriguez is hoping to make amends for a missed opportunity in 2006 by upstaging former teammate Alejandro Valverde to claim his maiden win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

Cycling's oldest one-day classic will be held over 257.5 km on Sunday with a total of 11 short but punishing climbs set to play a key role in deciding who wins 'La Doyenne', first held in 1892.

And while all eyes will be on steadily improving Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert, Rodriguez's victory atop the steep Mur de Huy at the Fleche Wallonne semi-classic in midweek has signalled his ambitions.

Already a runner-up at Liege behind Luxembourg's Andy Schleck in 2009, it is the memory of the 2006 edition that Rodriguez wants to put in the shade.

Six years ago the Catalan's job was to work for Caisse d'Epargne teammate Valverde, a task he duly performed by accompanying Michael Boogerd in a late breakaway.

After refusing to take turns relaying the Dutchman, a tactic that would have helped to keep the chasing pack at bay, Valverde caught the pair and went on to dominate a small bunch sprint at the finish.

Valverde, who also won the race in 2008, remains a threat on Sunday despite only returning to the peloton in January following a ban for his implication in a Spanish doping affair.

Rodriguez, however, 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.

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 kind 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."

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 manoeuvre 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.

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

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."