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For the first time in his career Daniel Moreno (Katusha) dons the leader's jersey at a Grand Tour
Spaniard denies he's Katusha's long-term Vuelta leader
When Dani Moreno moved to Katusha in 2011 following a poor single season as a GC contender at Lotto, one of the reasons the Spaniard gave for his turn-around in results on the Russian team was pressure - or, rather, the lack of it.
Whereas at the Belgian squad he reacted badly to the attention requisite with being the stand-out Grand Tour leader of a major team, at Katusha he was overshadowed by his friend and teammate Joaquim Rodriguez. With lower expectations, paradoxically, the Madrileño climber produced better results.
However, at Flèche Wallonne this spring, Moreno proved that when Rodriguez is injured - as he was at Amstel, ceding the team's lead to Moreno for Flèche - he is now far more comfortable with a leader's role than he used to be. And at Valdepeñas de Jaén, where Rodriguez won in 2011, this time Moreno stuck his head above the parapet even further - to the point where he took his second stage win of the Vuelta and his first ever Grand Tour lead.
If he successfully defends it on Monday's stage, the questions about whether he is now poised to overshadow Rodriguez for good in the 2013 Vuelta at least will likely become even more frequent.
For now, as Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Rodriguez continue to mark each other closely, once again Moreno was able to take advantage of that to break away alone on the Valdepeñas Mur.
As a close friend of Rodriguez, too, with whom he rooms regularly during races, he knew exactly what kind of form Rodriguez really has. "We just need to look at each other during races, that's enough," he said yesterday. And to prove he has learned his lessons from Rodriguez well - just as he had at Flèche, where Rodriguez went over race strategy in detail with Moreno in the days between Amstel and the Belgian Classic - he even attacked where Rodriguez had in the Vuelta two years ago, 800 metres from the summit.
"I profited from their marking each other, for sure," Moreno said, "it was definitely a benefit. But we had talked things over, I attacked where Joaquim did and it worked out. The last 100 metres though" - the only part of the climb that was different - "felt like they were going on forever.
"There is no rivalry between us," Moreno insisted. "We get on well. I've never led a Grand Tour and if there was one day when I was going to get that lead, it was today.
"I had such a small gap on Nicolas [Roche] before the stage [seventeen seconds] and this maillot is something I deserve."
WIth Rodriguez sixth overall at 56 seconds, there is no doubt, Moreno said, that "I'm just the theoretical leader...that final week will likely be very hard for me, and it's guys like Purito, Nibali and Alejandro who've shown they can go the distance, they're real endurance riders when it comes to a three-week Tour.
"Purito is climbing back up the overall classification," although Moreno warned that "Ivan Basso [Cannondale] is someone else to watch out for. He's really strong."
Even if he had gone so deep it was all he could do to lift more than one arm when he crossed the line, Moreno's form is rapidly improving in the Vuelta. In the first stage he was in danger of getting dropped on the opening time team trial close to the finale, but he then won stage four to Fisterra and again in Valdepeñas de Jaén and - at least for now - is the dominating force in the Vuelta.
Tomorrow, the stage finishes in the foothills of Sierra Nevada, the same climb where Moreno won his first Grand Tour stage in 2011, a pivotal moment in his career. Should the 31-year-old hold onto the lead on Monday, his breakthrough into Grand Tour contendership will be complete, too.