The obvious problem with a 17-second lead in the general classification is that it’s not very much at all. The bigger problem is that when the rider chasing your yellow jersey is Tadej Pogačar, he could pounce to try and take it at any moment.
For Jumbo-Visma, the defending champions with current yellow jersey Jonas Vingegaard, they will likely be on a sliding scale of edge until either the end of stage 20, or they are well beaten by UAE Team Emirates and Pogačar. That just seems to be how the team operates. More tightly wound than their rivals, existing more on the extremities of sporting stress. Team staff often wander around hurriedly, aware that they don’t want to be the part of the well-oiled machine that is even slightly malfunctioning. When the riders return to the bus after stage 12, they are lined up on the rollers, and facing outwards towards the press, who begin peppering them with questions.
There is one man on the team, however, whose laidback approach inspires a sense of calm. Sepp Kuss metaphorically and literally crushes a bottle of water before hopping back on his bike, whereby the English-speaking press have gravitated toward a pleasant man who talks in their own language to shed some light on a day that wasn’t exactly stress-free for the squad of the yellow jersey.
A split early on because of a crash saw Kuss and others held back in a second group on the road, momentarily isolating Vingegaard. Luckily, some GC riders also found themselves caught out, who rode a bit before Nathan Van Hooydonck rode Kuss and Dylan van Baarle back over to the front of the race and the side of their leader.
“From your perspective I am sure this is a great Tour de France,” said Kuss after the stage, speaking directly to the fans and media. “But today was another really tough stage. Every day has been full-on so far and today was certainly no exception. We will see in the final week what the consequences of this tough Tour will be. Everything indicates that this is an extremely tough Tour.”
For Kuss, and presumably his teammates, the spectre of Pogačar looms large.
“You never know, every stage is an opportunity, especially stages like this,” the American said of the disruption early on that left their leader isolated. “The times there aren’t as many of us with Jonas are not ideal. When the other teams see that, they can take advantage of it. Especially on stages like this that are a bit more out of control, but luckily we could regroup at the end there.”
In those situations, Kuss continued, the most important thing is Vingegaard’s own experience and trust in the guys on the team and the myriad races he’s already done with the rest of his eight-man squad.
In between the precariousness of a 17-second yellow being chased by Pogačar comes the demands of a squad able to defend against the ravenous Slovenian. Usually, this factor is dominated by the Wout van Aert question, how a rider of his talents is able to balance personal glory and his vital work in helping deliver Jumbo-Visma yellow.
But stage 12 saw Tiesj Benoot up in the breakaway instead, a sign, according to Kuss, that showed Jumbo-Visma felt everything was under control.
“It was good, we could even put Tiesj in the break. He could go for the win or drop back if needed,” Kuss explained. “Wout and Christophe [Laporte] were still with Jonas and riding super well so the rest of us could come back.”
How much of this is managing the various superstar talents within the eight-man squad? Convincing them to dedicate the majority of their time to domestique duties by offering up a smattering of chances to ride for their own personal sucess?
“It’s part of it,” Kuss admitted. “First of all, it’s a strategic move to have guys ahead. A guy of Tiesj’s quality can very well fight for the win on these stages; anyone on this team, if they’re in a breakaway they always have a good chance of winning. It’s both. Of course you want to win stages when you can.”
As Kuss put it, when you have a team of potential stage winners, sometimes you need to let them fight for those stage wins, even with the yellow jersey on the line. Maybe we didn’t see it from the Team Sky juggernaut back in the day. But these days are different. It’s a separate discussion whether Sky were ever as stacked as Jumbo-Visma.
Another interviewer takes over, to ask Kuss of the GC fight to come. Will it be attack or defence to claim a second-straight yellow jersey?
“We’ll see, if Jonas feels good then he can go for it. We have to see how the race goes,” Kuss offered up.
Do you think the race will be decided over this coming weekend?
“No, no, I think it will be until the very end.”
What are your thoughts on tomorrow?
“Tomorrow should definitely be a first tester … yeah,” Kuss exhaled, already being forced to think about tomorrow before today had even truly finished. “Should be tough.”
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