As of the second rest day at the Vuelta a España, Sepp Kuss led the general classification by more than a minute and a half, but in the last two days of racing, that lead has been cut down to just eight seconds – by Kuss’s own teammates at Jumbo-Visma.
First, it was Jonas Vingegaard dropping Kuss en route to the stage 16 win, and on Wednesday, it was Primož Roglič pushing the pace to drop Kuss and then take the stage 17 win with Vingegaard in tow. Vingegaard now sits just eight seconds off of Kuss’s GC position with Roglič in third at 1:08 back.
At this point in the Vuelta, it has become clear that nobody will be challenging Jumbo’s GC dominance. There is little need for Jumbo to apply further pressure to their rivals now. That leaves it entirely up to the Jumbo riders themselves to decide whether their teammate Kuss, who has been a tireless worker for the causes of Roglič and Vingegaard over the years, gets to hold onto his race lead.
Will they actually “let” Kuss win this thing? We still don’t know yet. One possibility is Kuss may be caught in a leadership struggle between his teammates that – while likely more to do with the Tour de France than the Vuelta – could cost him the race lead. But for his part, Kuss finally made his own hopes known after Wednesday’s stage, albeit in his typically diplomatic and understated way.
“I also want my shot.”
For the first time this Vuelta, Kuss said outright that he wants the win. “I think behind the scenes, we work really well together,” Kuss said of his teammates after climbing up the mighty Angliru on stage 17, which happened to occur on his 29th birthday.
“They’re two big, big champions and yeah, I also want my shot, but I also am happy to work for them when it’s called for.”
Blink and you might have missed it, but Kuss did actually say there that he wants to win, which is something that we’ve almost never heard from him, at least not in recent years as he has contentedly slotted into the role of superdomestique.
This time, he has a great chance of winning his first Grand Tour, which would be the first Grand Tour victory for an American in a decade. All that stands between Kuss and that title is his own teammates, who have two climber-friendly stages left (stage 18 and 20) to consider firing off attacks aimed squarely at a rider who has been there for them time and again in previous Grand Tours.
Vingegaard’s stage 16 attack and Roglič’s pushing of the pace on stage 17 were not just back-to-back violations of the unwritten rules of cycling, in and of themselves highly unusual occurrences in a sport where you just don’t see riders attacking teammates in a race leader’s jersey. They also raise questions about the broader long-term strategy here, especially now that Kuss has finally come out and said that he does want his shot.
For both Vingegaard and Roglič, isn’t there significant value in showing to your stalwart supporters that you are willing to pay them back when the opportunity arises? Wout van Aert was savvy enough to let Christophe Laporte win Gent-Wevelgem because those things help inspire trust and motivate future domestique work in his favor. As any competent feudal lord understands, it pays to keep the vassals happy. Isn’t that reason enough to back Kuss as the leader this one time?
Collateral damage in a broader leadership fight?
The complicating factor here is that Kuss may be caught up in a shadowboxing match between Vingegaard and Roglič, both of whom likely want – and on any other team would deserve – sole Tour de France leadership. In just a few short seasons, Roglič has gone from a rider who seemed destined to win a yellow jersey with only two stages to go in the Tour to the second option on his own team. Given how strong he clearly still is, it makes sense that Roglič would want another shot at the Tour.
Roglič could see a battle with Vingegaard at the Vuelta as a way to prove his worthiness – just as Vingegaard knows that holding off any challenge from Roglič here helps cement himself as the clear top dog for next year.
Unfortunately for the birthday boy on Wednesday, when Roglič decided to hit the accelerator on the misty slopes of the Angliru, dropping Kuss in the process, Vingegaard felt the need to follow his Slovenian teammate rather than stick with the rider in red. It is worth noting that Vingegaard did not seem interested in going any harder than Roglič was pushing things, as if his main concern was simply guaranteeing that Roglič did not gain any time to leapfrog him in the overall standings.
Nonetheless, Vingegaard still managed to eat into Kuss’s gap for the second straight day, and another hard stage is still to come on Thursday. At this point, even if Vingegaard is OK with Kuss holding onto red and winning the overall Vuelta title, he may be just as heavily invested in keeping Roglič in his sights so as not to cede any ground in the leadership conversation around next year’s Tour. Roglič, meanwhile, may continue to try probing attacks to see if he can gain time on Vingegaard.
Regardless of how that battle plays out, the main loser could be Kuss, who can’t afford to ship any more time to Vingegaard, whether the Dane is the one pushing the pace or not. Up to this point, Jumbo-Visma brass seems content to let this play out on the road, with coach Grischa Niermann saying as much after stage 17.
“We agreed at the beginning of the week that we are still all three going for it,” he said. “I think everybody would like to have Sepp still in the lead – and he is still in the lead – but they also want to win the stage and we also agreed that everybody is allowed to go for it. That’s what happened.”
Roglič, meanwhile, described his stage 17 actions as simply riding his “own tempo” in a post-race interview. “Everyone goes – on such a steep climb – as fast as possible,” Roglič said.
Publicly, the team has been all smiles about this decidedly strange approach so far, with Kuss being heard on post-race audio telling Roglič that he “had a weird feeling” in the finale but then added, “I said if I drop, I drop.” That seems like a remarkably calm approach for someone to take considering it was his own teammate doing the dropping, but that is also the sort of rider that Sepp Kuss seems to be.
It is at least possible that after back-to-back days of intra-team attacks, management finally steps in and orchestrates something a bit more controlled for the final few days of this Vuelta.
Even if that does happen, would it mean backing Kuss to maintain team morale and also soak up the good PR that will come from the feel-good story of a hardworking domestique finally getting his day? After all, both Roglič and Vingegaard are going for Grand Tour doubles here, so there are reasons to back either of them too.
Only time well tell. At the very least, it’s been highly entertaining so far. Bring on stage 18.
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