Sepp Kuss survives three Grand Tours and his own team-mates | a recap of Stages 16-21 of the 2023 Vuelta a Espana

A strong, loyal and selfless servant on the crucial days when stage races are won and lost, Sepp Kuss is pretty much exactly what you’d mould if you had the power to shape the perfect team-mate. It was therefore something of a surprise when the two men he helped to victories in this year’s Giro d’Italia and Tour de France went out of their way to try and deny him a Vuelta a Espana title. Sepp Kuss is surely a man you want to keep onside.

This, for pretty much everyone, will always be the most memorable moment of the 2023 Vuelta a Espana:

Whereas this?

Not so much.

First, the numbers

Before we get into the attempted fratricide and the enforced bonhomie that followed, let’s first remind ourselves how Sepp Kuss found himself leading the Vuelta in the first place.

Kuss is a mountain guy, but a mountain guy who works in support of others. His working week typically involves taking it kind of easy on the flatter stages so he’s fresh enough to rival the very best on the long and steep climbs to which he’s better suited.

Having already lost a good chunk of time by Stage 6 of this Vuelta, he got into a big break – most likely with a view to being up ahead for his colleagues, ready for the final climb. However, the break stayed away and because Kuss is an extremely strong climber, he won, gaining three minutes on all the ‘proper’ contenders in the process.

Also because Kuss is an extremely strong climber – and because the Vuelta doesn’t major on anything other than climbing – that gap was never fully closed and he eventually won the race overall.

The support act

At times over the years, the freshness borne of taking it easy on some stages has translated into Kuss being faster than his team leaders – who are typically Jonas Vingegaard, Primoz Roglic or, in this race, both.

Kuss doesn’t get sidetracked when this happens. He doesn’t race off in pursuit of personal glory. He stays with his man and leads him along at the appropriate pace.

These are the easy days. More often he pulls aside with a kilometre or two to go, having given every bit of himself. He is the burnt-out husk of a fella struggling to maintain forward momentum as the camera follows the big names as they cover that last bit of road to the summit.

Here he is riding at “dropping everyone except Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogacar” pace a few months ago.

It takes a certain sort of person to do a job like this. You’re obviously not in it for glory. Reflected glory maybe – but not actual direct glory. I imagine you have to take a lot of pride in your work to subject yourself to those agonies for the benefit of someone else. I imagine at the very least you’d hope to feel appreciated.

Stage 17 of this year’s Vuelta finished with the Angliru, which is about as relentlessly nasty a climb as a professional rider is ever likely to encounter. To sum up the kinds of gradients involved, David Millar once said: “As you get further into it, you don’t get any of those 10% holidays.”

Towards the top, the three Jumbo-Visma riders who have been significantly better than everyone else in this race opened up a gap and pulled away. At this point, Roglic and Vingegaard opened up another gap and Kuss – the third rider and race leader – let the team know what was happening on his radio.

Here’s Vingegaard having a quick glance back shortly before buggering off anyway.

There had been a 29s gap between Kuss and Vingegaard when that happened. The closest challenger from a rival team had been Juan Ayuso who was already 2m30s behind even before they dropped him.

“I’m happy Sepp is in the jersey and I’d love to see him win this Vuelta,” said Vingegaard afterwards, utterly failing to acknowledge the fact that literally the only person in the world who could prevent that from happening was Jonas Vingegaard.

The support act

A day later, someone had had a word and the two ‘leaders’ finished the race displaying overly conspicuous loyalty to the man who was literally leading.

Or perhaps it wasn’t an act. A more generous take is that strange decisions can be made by tired men unaccustomed to playing second (or third) fiddle.

The team will be hoping that’s a compelling and believable argument because you can be pretty certain that Jonas Vingegaard (two Tours de France) and Primoz Roglic (a Giro d’Italia and three Vueltas) wouldn’t have won anywhere near as much without the contributions of Sepp Kuss. Those two will want him not just on their side, but fully committed to being on their side again next year – which is maybe not quite precisely the same thing…

What’s next?

The 2024 season, I’d say. This year’s Tour of Lombardy is still to come, but quite honestly I think I’m done for this year, readers. Sorry about that.

Please feel free to buy me a coffee or a Belgian beer if you want to thank me for this year’s coverage or if you want to try and guilt me into making more effort next year.

Finally, here’s the email sign-up page so that you don’t miss anything when I finally re-emerge from hibernation.


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