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The Playmaker

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For some, bicycle racing is all about winning. Not so for Dani Moreno. The 34-year-old Spanish rider does know how to win, of course. He has done so some 30 times in his 12-year career. But he takes particular pleasure in simply being a player. And when it comes to being a consummate teammate, look no further than Moreno.

Words: James Startt
Images: James Startt & Yuzuru Sunada

Opening image: Criterium du Dauphine, 2016. Image: James Startt.

After honing his skills alongside Spanish stars Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim “Purito” Rodriguez on the Caisse d’Épargne team, he evolved into the role of a virtual co-leader with Rodriguez on the Katusha team, winning the Flèche Wallonne classic in 2013 and three stages of the Vuelta a España. But just when it appeared that Moreno might become a leader in his own right, he signed with the Movistar team last year as a key support rider for Tour de France challenger Nairo Quintana.

What is even more impressive about Moreno is that he does not just sacrifice himself for the sport’s superstars, he also freely supports up-and-coming riders. Take the recent Critérium du Dauphiné. On stage 2, on the first uphill finish, Frenchman Tony Gallopin got in a late-race break and appeared poised for victory. But in the final kilometer Moreno catapulted across to the group with up-and-coming rider Jesús Herrada, before sling-shotting his teammate to victory. It was a race Moreno could clearly have won—he has taken numerous stages in previous editions of the Dauphiné. But on this day he preferred to give the 25-year-old Herrada his first UCI WorldTour victory.

“I’m really happy to be able to work with or for others,” Moreno says about his job as one of the sport’s great playmakers. “I just love riding the great races and being in front with the best riders, with the public cheering you on. In those moments you are an actor on a big stage. That’s what motivates me!”

Vuelta Chihuahua, 2009 Stage 04: Guachochi – Parral Image: Yuzuru Sunada

When he moved to Movistar in 2015, Moreno made a clear decision. While he was only 33, he was putting personal ambition aside. Instead, he embraced the role of équipier deluxe, with the clear intent of carrying Quintana to victory in the world’s biggest bike race. For that, he constantly mines a wealth of experience from his years with Valverde and Rodriguez, but now offers it to a rider much more capable of winning the Tour.

“When I was with Purito, we really worked together and communicated so that we helped the strongest rider win on any day,” Moreno explains. “Now my principal role is to support Nairo, and my job is to take him as far as possible in the high mountains. Movistar hired me firstly to do that, to be with Nairo on the longest climbs, when there are only a few guys remaining and most other teammates have been dropped.”

It’s a role he revels in. “Dani is just so reliable,” says his old leader Rodriguez. “When the racing gets really hard, he will be there.”

And while Moreno sees parallels with his previous leaders, he also sees differences with Quintana. “Nairo always wants to race near the front,” Moreno explains. “Purito was more relaxed. That said, when you have a great leader like Nairo, it’s actually exciting to always be racing at the front. He is just so mentally strong, so focused. He really has the head of a winner.”

Moreno adds that Quintana also possesses an unrivaled ability to dig deep in a race. “He can really race on the limit for a long time without cracking.” But in this year’s Tour de France, Quintana knows he will not be the only one digging deep. He knows Dani Moreno will be doing the same in an effort to take him where no Colombian rider has gone before—to the top step of the Tour de France podium.

From issue 56. Buy it here.