Sepp Kuss stands on the side of the road next to a dirt ditch, his wife waiting patiently nearby. She’s got their dog in her arms. He’s got a cut on his arm, a gouge on his leg, roadrash on his shoulder, and a swollen elbow with mesh wrapped around it. Decent damage bill, but he’s in surprisingly good spirits, all things considered, after a spectator caused Kuss to fall early in the stage, setting off a chain-reaction that spread to Nathan van Hooydonck, who finished the stage but went to hospital for checks afterward.
The day’s tally: zero seconds gained or lost for Tadej Pogačar or Jonas Vingegaard. Two key Jumbo-Visma domestiques marked by the Tour de France.
After 15 stages of the Tour de France – 62 and a half hours of racing – there’s 10 seconds in it. Each of the team leaders at Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates has an unshakeable shadow, and it sometimes seems like it will always be that way. But those in their teams have the best view of one of cycling’s finest rivalries – and even they are not sure which way it will land.
At Jumbo-Visma, Kuss has made a career out of being the last guy there for his team leader – which usually means he’s helping propel Jonas Vingegaard or Primož Roglič to glory. At the Tour, that’s a role that relies on him being able to climb almost as well as Vingegaard, day after day, as well as chasing down Pogačar’s attacks. This year he’s been so good at it that he’s sitting in a remarkable sixth position overall, nine minutes behind his leader.
In that sense, today was almost the same as any other day in this race – but with the added complication of hitting the ground at speed. Kuss jokes that he’s ”off to the body shop to get a fresh coat of paint,” but despite the humour, he’s ready for a rest day.
An interviewer asks how he’s feeling. “I’m tired,” he answers. Not exasperated, not demonstrative – just matter-of-fact. It’s been tiring. It will keep being tiring. Those two don’t stop. Until Paris, neither can their lieutenants.
Kuss lets out a chuckle when he’s asked what he expects of the remaining week. “It’s going to keep exploding every day,” he says, smiling a little, admirably keeping a sense of looming dread out of his eyes. “It’s super tight.” The day after the rest day is an individual time-trial, and there’ll be no teams to support their leaders. “It’s going to be really interesting,” Kuss says, the cycling fan in him coming through. “I don’t think anyone can anticipate what’s going to happen there. And right after that, a really hard mountain stage. A lot can happen.” He’s right. It can, and it probably will.
Filling a similar niche to Sepp Kuss but over at UAE Team Emirates, Adam Yates has climbed into fourth on GC, five and a half minutes behind Vingegaard. That gives UAE a tactical advantage that they’ll be looking to exploit in the third week, even if Yates repeatedly makes it clear that he’s not chasing his own result. The upside: “I’m still high up in GC so if Tadej lets me go, Jumbo has to chase,” Yates explains after the finish today, still breathing heavily and surrounded by a media scrum. An extra effort here, a moment of inattention there: “All these little things add up over three weeks.” Two weeks in, though, Yates is extremely ready for a rest day. After the stage finish he greets his partner and dog, and lets an excited “yeah, fuck yeah!” slip when it occurs to him that he doesn’t need to do this again tomorrow.
Rafał Majka, second last support in Tadej Pogačar’s camp, is philosophical about the team’s efforts today. “We tried the best, but of course, yeah, it’s the race,” he says after crossing the line. He put in some monster efforts on the final climb today, blew up after his job was done, and crossed the line more than seven minutes after Pogačar and Vingegaard finished side-by-side. Majka’s radio was playing up and he doesn’t know the result, but he doesn’t need the specifics to understand how tight the race is.
Time’s running out, but there’s a string of key stages to come after the rest day. Jumbo-Visma’s happy. UAE Team Emirates is happy. Matching team strength, matching team-speak.
Maybe in the end it comes down to something more ephemeral than the legs of two generational talents and the grit of their super-domestiques. Maybe it will take a wrinkle of fate to separate them. Or, in Majka’s words: “Now, we need to have only luck.”
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