By Alasdair Fotheringham
CUITU NEGRU, Spain (Reuters) - Spain's Joaquim Rodriguez edged closer to the Tour of Spain title after finishing third in the race's toughest mountain stage behind winner Italy's Dario Cataldo on Monday.
Rodriguez successfully fended off three major attacks by Spain's Alberto Contador on the daunting final climb of Cuitu Negru, 23 kilometers long and with slopes of up to 24 percent.
The Katusha rider finally darted ahead of Contador on the relentlessly steep final 500-metres ascent to claim third place and a four-second time bonus. It allowed him to stretch his overall lead by a further two seconds.
After three strong mountain-top finishes, Rodriguez opened a 28-second advantage over Contador, with Spain's Alejandro Valverde trailing more than two minutes behind in third.
Britain's Chris Froome, who suffered badly and lost two minutes and 20 seconds on the other favorites, is fourth overall.
Rodriguez identified the race's one tough mountain-top finish in the Bola del Mundo outside Madrid next Saturday as the biggest obstacle between himself and victory.
"This is a big step forward, above all because I've got good sensations and I felt good throughout the climb," Rodriguez, second in this year's Giro d'Italia, told reporters.
"I always said my big objective was to reach the end of these mountainous stages in northern Spain as leader and then take it from there.
"There's still a long way to go, six days racing, but the seconds I took today on my rivals are a little bit more of an advantage for me. I can be satisfied. The most difficult part of the Vuelta is behind us now."
Contador, who finished fourth in the stage, said he felt better than on Sunday's mountain top finish to the Lagos de Covadonga, and had ordered his Saxo Bank-Tinkoff team mates to up the pace on the lower slopes of the Cuitu Negru climb.
However, despite whittling down the lead group to just Rodriguez and himself in the final three kilometers of the steep climb, the double Tour winner could not shake off the race leader.
"I couldn't drop him, but there's still some tough climbs to go in the race, it's not over yet," Contador said.
"I just wish the weather would change, I do much better on the climbs when it's cold and rainy."
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp