Stage 17 of this year’s Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain) offered all the high drama that fans of the sport crave. In the last kilometers of a brutal mountaintop finish, two-time defending Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard of Denmark and the world class Slovenian cyclist Primož Roglič, himself a 3-time winner of the Vuelta, runner-up in the Tour, and reigning champion of the Giro d’Italia, battled it out up the climb as the race leader, American Sepp Kuss, dropped behind, struggling to cling to his overall race lead of less than a minute.
Roglič claimed the prize at the finish line, followed immediately by Vingegaard, as the seconds ticked down to the arrival of Kuss and another rider. In the end, Kuss held his lead by the narrowest of margins, a scant 8 seconds ahead of Vingegaard after more than two weeks and over 1500 miles of racing.
Media reaction to this turn of events was swift. Both Roglič and Vingegaard were widely castigated for doing what they are paid millions of Euros to do, which is to win the toughest stages of big races in dramatic fashion. The American announcers Bob Roll and Christian Vande Velde on Peacock, which is offering streaming coverage of the race in the US, were visibly outraged; legendary Irish world champion Sean Kelly on the European GCN/Eurosport channel was equally incensed.
Podcasters and commentators who follow the sport called the behavior of the two champions deplorable and unsportsmanlike.
Former pro cyclist and 2013 Vuelta winner Chris Horner had a lot to say about Jumbo Visma’s tactics and treatment of Sepp Kuss on his channel “The Butterfly Effect.”
What made this turn of events so dramatic? Roglič, Vingegaard and Kuss are all teammates on the mighty Jumbo Visma squad that has dominated the sport in recent years. And Kuss, the race leader, is the team’s faithful super-domestique, usually tasked with pacing the hard climbs and rescuing the team’s top riders when they have trouble keeping up – including a memorable turn helping Roglič salvage a victory in the 2020 Vuelta on this very same mountaintop. Shakespeare could not have scripted a more pointed morality play.
Kuss was riding his third grand tour of the season, having supported both Roglič in the three weeks of the Giro and Vingegaard in the Tour in July. It is a feat of endurance that very few professional cyclists, or professional athletes in any sport, are capable of. He found himself in the lead after sneaking into a breakaway in an earlier stage, gaining a handful of time over the leading contenders, and then holding on through time trials and flat stages that are not usually among his strengths.
The likeable Kuss, age 29, has had very few victories in his professional career despite his universally-recognized talent and value as a rider. This was likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He would also be the first American grand tour winner since Chris Horner won the Vuelta (at nearly 42!) in 2013, something likely to raise the profile of the sport in the US, where it remains quite niche.
These circumstances put his more illustrious teammates in an untenable position. Cycling is a team sport, but races have only one winner. Usually, teams are constructed around one, or at most two, riders capable of winning the overall classification, supported by five or six specialists who can climb mountains, win time trials, get into breakaways, sprint for the victory on flat stages, or chase down opposing riders. The idea that a single team would hold all three top positions coming into the final week of a three week race, and that the race leader would be a rider who traditionally supports the team’s superstars, is not only unprecedented: it is practically inconceivable.
According to analysts like former Radio Shack Director Sportif Johan Bruyneel, Jumbo Visma was already courting trouble by putting its Big Two, Roglic and Vingegaard, in the same 8-rider group in the Vuelta, as Roglič had to give up his chance to contest the Tour de France so Vingegaard could defend his 2022 title (successfully, it turned out.) Then Vingegaard surprised everyone by saying he’d ride the Vuelta five weeks later – an offer the team could scarcely refuse. If it were those two alone at the top of the leaderboard, and the podium spots for each were secure, it is very likely we’d have seen an all-out intra-squad battle between these two of the four best riders in the world, teammates or no.
But Kuss is a different matter. He is a loyal lieutenant whose job is to sacrifice his position in the overall classification – and his body – for the team, and he is the best in the sport in that role. What kind of rotten, no-good egomaniac would deny this fellow his moment in the sun, after all he’d done for them? The commentators, all retired professionals who understand the demands of the sport intimately, could barely control their outrage, especially after Roglič made some unfortunate comments in a post-race interview that made it sound like he was throwing Kuss to the wolves.
And so we get the spectacle of incredibly successful professional cyclists, plus the team management, enduring harsh criticism throughout English-speaking media, for doing exactly what they are supposed to do: winning races in dominant fashion. Demanding that two of the sport’s top talents in their prime to sacrifice their own ambitions for winning one of cycling’s most prestigious events, even under these circumstances, is a tough ask.
Considering all the black eyes that cycling has taken over the years for its chronic doping problems, or the criticism that professional athletes often face for their behavior off the field of play, it is remarkable that in this case, a straightforward conflict between the desire for victory and the dignity of good sportsmanship is driving the controversy.
Over the past few days, Jumbo Visma has been able to extricate itself from this dilemma. On Thursday’s mountain stage, which posed the last major opportunity to shake up the final standings, Vingegaard and Roglič rode in support of Kuss, making short work of the rest of the field. Kuss himself sprinted for the finish, gaining a few seconds over his two teammates to pad his lead, and all three celebrated in a conspicuous show of unity at the finish line.
Both Vingegaard and Roglič have expressed gracious support for their teammate, and backed it up on the course, even at the expense of their own chances to win a prestigious race (and possibly pocket a sizeable contract bonus). At the end of Friday’s sprint stage, Kuss, who finished with the field, looked visibly relieved and genuinely happy after what must have been a very stressful week.
Assuming an uneventful final two stages over the weekend, Kuss can put the bow on one of the greatest underdog victories of all time, and give himself a moment to remember for the rest of his life. Whether the glow of winning the three major grand tours with three different riders will be enough to salve the wounds inside the Jumbo Visma team bus remains to be seen. But for the moment, cycling’s small but dedicated English-speaking audience has been treated to one of the most dramatic sporting stories in a generation.