For days now, a week maybe – it’s hard to tell during the heat of the Vuelta a España – race leader Sepp Kuss and the rest of his podium-hogging teammates have said the same thing: that the strongest of them would end up on the top step of the podium in Madrid and that was the natural order of things, how racing is meant to be.
But it was assumed this was just lip service. You don’t want to say out loud that the way the race will be decided isn’t through anything but sporting prowess. This is usually right, for most sports, but the idea that there are no gifts in cycling is utter nonsense. Aside from the actual gifts that Wout van Aert has doled out to the likes of Christophe Laporte, the whole structure of a cycling team is set up so that six or seven guys are actually gifting their legs and individual chance of victory for a designated leader. As an individual sport contested by teams, cycling is quite literally an endless series of gifts.
This is how Sepp Kuss generally lives his racing life: working his tiny little butt off so that someone else can win. This includes both Jonas Vingegaard and Primož Roglič, whose two Tours de France, one Giro d’Italia and three Vueltas all came with a healthy serving of Kuss-shaped servitude.
When Vingegaard attacked on the Tourmalet before the second rest day, followed soon by Roglič and Kuss to seal a 1-2-3 on the stage and on the podium, it made sense. It was yet another show of dominance to gain what would be a first-ever team Grand Tour podium lockout to go with a first-ever calendar Grand Tour clean sweep.
But when Vingegaard launched with four kilometres remaining on the summit finish climb of stage 16, taking Roglič’s second place overall and closing the gap to Kuss to within half a minute, it came with the sense that this was more than just about a stage win, but about winning the race.
There is little point in agonising over how this could affect the team dynamics in the future. It doesn’t really concern us and we’ll likely never know exactly how everything goes down inside their black and yellow bus. We know of Kuss’ good nature and, unless he’s putting the bravest of faces on, these post-finish line scenes where he seems truly happy for Vingegaard breathing down his neck from ever-closer proximity are genuine. Maybe Kuss really believes that the strongest rider should win the race, which is, of course, how anyone would want to win a sporting contest. He said again after stage 16: “I don’t want to win this Vuelta as a gift, that is not sport. They know what I’ve done for them, but they’re also winners.”
But that Jonas Vingegaard, two-time stage winner, seemingly can’t fathom the prospect of giving up one Vuelta a España to the best climbing domestique in the peloton, who could likely go on to serve him faithfully for years to come, is, and sorry there is no other way I can think to phrase this: totally batshit insane.
Jonas Vingegaard is 26, 27 in December. Even if he only holds his current world-beating form for another few years, there will likely be another opportunity for him to rock up to the Vuelta and take it with some consummate ease. If not, ah well, he’s still got two Tours de France. The team, or at least some riders in the team, clearly understand that sharing victories around a bit helps balance the talent within their squad (e.g. the aforementioned Van Aert/Laporte scenarios). Even as recently as last week, Van Aert put himself at the service of Olav Kooij to help the 21-year-old win four straight stages at the Tour of Britain. It is a bare fact that not all victories are born equal.
Maybe Vingegaard has an insatiable desire for victory and simply can’t help himself. There are some who would argue that sporting champions have to be ruthless, to be single-minded in pursuit of victory. I wouldn’t know. Clearly, I can’t relate. But even if Vingegaard is so blinkered that he has too much of the Ricky Bobby’s about him, there are real adults employed as sports directors by the team to, you guessed it, direct their riders. A knock on a hotel room door of an evening to say, ‘Hey, Jonas, maybe we wait until Sepp actually cracks before we start attacking him on multiple summit finishes, at the very least to avoid the bad optics and resulting shitstorm.’
Maybe Vingegaard wanted to simply get ahead of Roglič in the general classification, so that if something happens to Kuss then the Dane will become the team’s de facto leader. Maybe it’s a chance, with Roglič saying out loud he wants back in at the 2024 Tour de France, to quell that Slovenian uprising and further assert himself at the top of the GC tree. Add a Vuelta victory-clad Kuss to the mix, and Vingegaard’s position takes another knock, even if it’s a very slight one.
The thorniest sub-issue, and maybe the spiciest take, is regarding Vingegaard dedicating his stage victory to Jumbo-Visma teammate Nathan Van Hooydonck, who this morning had a car crash after suffering a medical episode behind the wheel.
This is noble, on its face. It was a horrible, stomach-churning day for anyone in the cycling world and it’s impossible to imagine how those close to him were feeling, let alone how they were able to ride a stage of the Vuelta given the circumstances. Vingegaard was clearly emotional at the finish. All of those kilometres on the bike with your mind racing faster than your legs as to the potential fate of your friend. Thankfully, the latest update is that Van Hooydonck is awake and no longer in a critical condition.
But there’s a difference between winning a stage, which nobody would begrudge Vingegaard, and taking a minute out of your teammate while not backing off a single pedal stroke until the final 25 metres before the line, which ignores the broader context of the race.
Through the always-reliable form of divination that is scoping Instagram likes, Roglič’s camp were similarly unimpressed with Vingegaard’s behaviour.
The bigger, more important question is what happens tomorrow if Vingegaard does the same and puts the hammer down to shove his teammates out of the red jersey?
Of course, Kuss could crack of his own accord tomorrow on the Angliru, and if it’s a spectacular, Remco Evenepoel-esque fall from the higher echelons of the GC, then there won’t be any need for inquest over the two previous VIngegaard attacks.
Professional cycling is, to some extent, a popularity contest. Fans don’t explicitly offer their adoration to simply who is the best at exercise, but at who moves them. Who reflects a portion of themselves (usually not their legs) back at them. Who displays humanity despite the inhuman physical condition they willingly put themselves in for the amorphous concept of victory. True champions are victors who are loved. Who win over the people as well as besting their competition. It’s dumb, that we demand athletes win in a certain way, but everything is kind of dumb. Especially cycling.
Hopefully, Jumbo-Visma will be all-in for Kuss from tomorrow until Madrid. To not do so would be a spectacular PR fluff, under the auspices of a dominant season that tests the belief of fans, a team that has an open doping investigation against one of their riders, and a squad without a title sponsor in 2025. We’ve seen before with the Fred Wright debacle of the 2022 Vuelta that Jumbo are sometimes not attached to the same reality as the rest of us. Let’s hope things have been learned from that episode. The fact that Wednesday the 13th, Angliru day, is also Kuss’ birthday is surely too big of a banana skin for Jumbo-Visma to slip on, right?
Right, that’s it. I’m done. Time for a lie down. On days like today, it feels especially dumb writing takes about sport that ultimately don’t really impact your life or mine. But sport belongs to the fans, and part of its purpose is to distract us from all of the ongoing and possible bad shit that is and could potentially happen.
If Sepp Kuss doesn’t win this Vuelta at the hands of his teammates it will be a travesty. It has nothing to do with national allegiance; he’s not a long lost, aerobically very different distant cousin. I wouldn’t even say he’s a rider I feel a particular affinity towards, to be honest. It’s just one of those things that, if you have a pulse and therefore a heart, feels like the right thing. See you in the comments …
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