Sepp Kuss smiles, tongue out, holding a birthday cake.

Can we at least give the man a decent cake

Behold, the Sad Strawberry Sponge of Betrayal.

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 14.09.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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In the pressure cooker of professional cycling, not all cakes are created equal. At Escape Collective – the sport’s leading cake-based analyst – we’ve catalogued everything from sad sponges to cling-wrapped scrolls, and observed the way that certain races pull out all the stops for certain riders. 

What, then, are we to make of the twin birthday cakes of Sepp Kuss? Do they reveal a team in good spirits, and a rider treated like he deserves on His Special Day as a freshly 29-year-old Birthday Boi? What tenuous narrative threads can we weave from his desserts?

The Eagle of Durango, current occupant of the Vuelta’s red jersey despite the best efforts of not one but two teammates, currently has a fragile eight-second gap over Jonas Vingegaard with four stages remaining, two of them very climby. But at the stage start in Ribadesella/Ribeseya yesterday, his thoughts were far from the Angliru and the broiling turmoil that was about to be unleashed on it. That is because Sepp Kuss’s thoughts were immediately dominated by a birthday cake presented to him at sign-on.

Observe him there, leaning back with surprise, sniffing it (“strawberry”, he confirms to Attila Valter), and then singing along to his own birthday song, conducting the crowd:

Chalk this moment up as another demonstration of Kuss’s nice guy demeanour, because the cake itself isn’t up to much, and yet he smiled at it. It is presented on a paper plate that pretends to be something fancier, silver foil-coated, but noone with eyes is fooled because it sags under the weight of its burden. At the centre of the cake lies a crimson pool; the colour of Kuss’s jersey, and coincidentally also the colour of the blood soon to be running down his back. The piping on the side is a goddamn disaster. Dotted around the cake are ornamental features, although that’s a bit strong because it suggests intent to their placement. There are two (2) rounded squirts of pinkish cream, with a pair of candied almonds or something as nipples in the areola. There are four more of those brown pellets, again scattered at random. Two sugar flowers – one pink, one white, because why the hell have any internal consistency. And then the pièce de résistance – a single, unlit, budget blue candle, which has fallen over, a hand on a broken clock pointing at 2pm. Fucking tragic. 

Close-up shot of Sepp Kuss's hands holding the cake. It is not very appealing, with a toppled candle lying in the middle.

Where did the cake come from? Great question and thank you. In broad terms, I suspect it’s from the Vuelta’s organisers rather than Jumbo-Visma, because I doubt the team has the inclination to hand out birthday cakes on the morning of a mountain stage and if they did, it would probably be some fizzing, putrid combination of bicarb and tart cherry flavours. In more specific terms, I’ve scoured Google for the cake shops of Ribadesella (or, Ribeseya in the local Asturian), a small town of some 5,000 inhabitants which punches above its weight on the patisserie front. Most of the local cake shops look quite nice, leaning more toward chocolate than fruit sensations, and have more evident pride in their work than I detect in Kuss’s hands. Crucially, none of them appear to have anything that looks like the Kuss birthday cake in their windows.

This, my friends, has all the hallmarks of a joylessly-assembled supermarket cake. I would put its street value at €15, tops. 

A smiling Kuss stands on stage with Jonas Vingegaard to his right and Attila Valter to his left.
Cakemakers of the world: if your piping looks like the cake is ringed with shrimp, I would argue that it is not as appetising as you think it might be.

Did that realisation haunt Kuss in the hours to come? That is possible. In the dying moments of the stage – where the Jumbo triumvirate rode off on the rest of the peloton and then two-thirds of it rode off on Kuss – the young American winched his way upwards, trying desperately to hold onto the red jersey on His Special Day. 

Upon crossing the line, his team tried to rein in a growing PR disaster, claiming on Twitter that Sepp had said “go guys” over the team radio, despite A) Grischa Niermann immediately contradicting it by saying that they couldn’t hear anything through the radio, B) Vingegaard offering that Sepp had said that he couldn’t follow, C) Roglič suggesting that he was just riding his own tempo, and D) Kuss saying “I also want my shot” at the win.

Against that backdrop of everyone having a remarkably different interpretation of the day’s racing and the team’s leadership dilemma, Jumbo-Visma had little else to do but return to good vibes where they could find them: Sepp Kuss’s birthday. Luckily for them, there wasn’t just the day-opening sad strawberry sponge of betrayal. There was … another cake.

The team’s social media admin hovered behind Kuss, recording hungrily as he greeted his wife Noemi Ferré after the finish. “I love you so much,” he said sincerely, before being surprised by another cake – again not from Jumbo-Visma, but from what (after some finely-calibrated Instagram sleuthing) I have deduced are his in-laws, with dad wearing a borrowed Jumbo-Visma windbreaker in the frosty mountain air.

This cake was smaller, less ostentatious than the garish red offering of earlier in the day, but the candle was upright, and the candle was lit, and it was sincerely given. On a day like stage 17, I reckon it was nice for Sepp Kuss to remember that he had someone in his corner.

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