GRANADA, Spain (VN) — It happens frequently. Teams show up backing one rider, when another one turns out to be stronger. And by the time they figure it out and change course, it’s often times too late. Just look at BMC Racing’s Tejay van Garderen and Cadel Evans at the 2012 Tour de France.
Another recent example of backing the wrong horse occurred at the 2011 Vuelta a España, when an untested Chris Froome was clearly a step above designated captain Bradley Wiggins. Once Sky put its weight behind Froome, it was too late. Juanjo Cobo, a rider who did not start this Vuelta, had the legs to take down the two eventual Tour de France winners.
Could a similar scenario be unfolding at Katusha? Daniel Moreno, at least right now, is flying, while designated team captain Joaquim Rodríguez has been slow out of the gate.
Yet Moreno, who turns 32 on Thursday, insists he knows how the cards are stacked up.
“I am just the theoretical leader,” Moreno said following his big win Sunday at Valdepeñas de Jaén. “Everyone knows their role, and I know that there is one leader, Purito, so I know what my job is, regardless if I have the leader’s jersey or the team jersey.”
Moreno has won two stages, finished second in two others, and looks to be in the best shape of his career.
Rodríguez, so far, has lacked his trademark punch, and finally showed some signs of life to finish third on Sunday, climbing to sixth overall at 56 seconds back of his teammate.
Moreno and Rodríguez both deny there is a mal rollo, or bad feeling, between them. They often room together during the races and have been close friends for years.
Katusha brass said giving Moreno a free card to play early in the Vuelta is simply good strategy. It’s payback to Moreno for his hard work at the Tour de France, where Rodríguez finished a career-best third, and it takes pressure off Rodríguez in the early part of the race.
“I am content to win this stage. I think I deserve it,” Moreno continued. “There is no jealousy between us. Far from it. But to have this leader’s jersey in a grand tour, which I’ve done for the first time, gives me a lot of emotion.”
Katusha’s rivals say that Moreno has been untouchable in the first half of the Vuelta. Reigning world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC), who crossed the line eighth to remain winless on the year, said Moreno was in a class by himself.
“When [Moreno] attacked, no one could follow him. I put in a lot of effort to follow [Alejandro] Valverde and Purito with 150 meters to go, but I forgot how steep the last part was, and I lost position,” Gilbert said. “Moreno was my teammate on Lotto, and he’s improved a lot. He’s now a leader. I believe he’s learned a lot over the years.”
One of Moreno’s best allies in the pack is none other than Rodríguez. The pair rode together during 2008-09 on Caisse d’Epargne. After one season with Lotto, Moreno rejoined Rodríguez at Katusha in 2011.
Moreno’s shown steady progression, and this year he looks even better, winning Flèche Wallonne in April and finishing third overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June.
After winning Flèche, Moreno admitted he does not like the pressure and expectations that come with being the outright leader. He prefers to ride on the second line and playing opportunist when the scenario plays out his way.
With the form he’s having now, Moreno looks well on track to top his career-best fifth at last year’s Vuelta.
Having two cards in the GC battle will give Katusha more options against an ever-shrinking field of potential winners. RadioShack-Leopard, with Chris Horner fifth at 28 seconds back, and Haimar Zubeldia, who is eighth at 1:10 back, is the only team with two riders still within reasonable striking distance of the podium.
Moreno and Rodríguez say they share the responsibility fairly between them, and insist they ride for the best interests of the team.
“We know each other well,” Moreno said. “We know which stages are more suitable to the other. Joaquim is the leader, and the team works for him, but today I got my chance and I want to take advantage of any opportunities I get.”
On Sunday, Rodríguez only congratulated his teammate.
“I am very happy for Dani. He’s in great form right now and we are in perfect position in the GC,” he said. “The hardest part of the Vuelta is still coming. We want to get past the time trial [Wednesday] and then we head into the Pyrénées and Asturias, where everything will be decided.”
Rodríguez has the experience to never panic. That served him well in the final week of the Tour, and he’s fully expecting the same thing to unfold at this Vuelta. And so does Moreno.