As Sepp Kuss rolled into Madrid on Sunday, decked out in the red jersey, I was struck by the thought that cycling fans may never see another Grand Tour like the one Kuss was in the process of winning. The race was never supposed to go this way, but what race worth cherishing ever does? For that matter, when has the Vuelta a España, three weeks of pain and suffering appended uncomfortably to the end of a season already filled to the brim with both, ever been what anyone could call “normal?”
Compared to their peers who have won over three weeks in Italy and France, the list of riders who have won Vueltas (not to mention the circumstances of their wins) is much weirder: In the Team Sky era alone, doomed romantic Fabio Aru, then-41-year-old Chris Horner, and mega-doper J.J. Cobo have each won. Since the turn of the century, eight races have been decided by less than a minute. After completing an outrageous three weeks of racing, against himself, his teammates, and, occasionally, his rivals, Kuss now stands alone as the most unlikely winner on that list.
The first American Grand Tour winner in a decade hadn’t won a stage race in five years, and he did not intend to break that streak this month. That has little to do with his talent, as Kuss has distinguished himself as one of the best climbers in the sport since joining Jumbo-Visma in 2018. The problem is he has done so purely while riding for others. Since he joined five years ago, the team has won seven Grand Tours, the most of any team in that period. When one considers the recent success alongside the team’s measly three Grand Tour wins in the previous 34 years of existence and the fact that Kuss has played a critical supporting role in all seven wins (if you include the 2023 Vuelta), the obvious conclusion is that Kuss is among the best domestiques that cycling has seen in decades, and that Jumbo are lucky to have such a spectacular rider in such an unglamorous role.
Jumbo certainly knows this, as they brought Kuss to Spain for his third Grand Tour of the year, alongside the winners of the two others (Primoz Roglic won the Giro, Jonas Vingegaard won the Tour), so he could help one of them win in Spain and complete the triple crown. When they sent him up the road on Stage 6, they didn’t do so because they wanted him to win the stage and thunder towards the race lead; they did so because Jumbo wanted to put presumptive favorite and Stage 3 winner Remco Evenepoel under pressure. Kuss, given a rare opportunity to chase a win, happily obliged and then some, leaving the desiccated bodies of his breakmates strewn across the Javalambre as he won by 26 seconds and found himself nearly three minutes ahead of the pack of general classification contenders. Even at this point, even after putting together the best time trial of his career, the dream of Kuss actually keeping the jersey and winning the race seemed an unlikely one.
Things took a turn from the dramatic to the tragicomic on Stage 13, when Evenepoel’s legs turned to jelly on the Tourmalet and he lost 25 minutes to Kuss and his teammates. With the top three spots on the podium, all Jumbo had to do to secure an unprecedented 1-2-3 finish and guide Kuss in for the win in Madrid was hold off Juan Ayuso and Enric Mas, a teenager and a guy who never ever wins races, respectively. That’s assuming they would still behave like a team, which is where the trouble started. Once Evenepoel exploded, Roglic and Vingegaard immediately set to attacking each other, leaving a trail of discursive sludge in their wake and leaving Kuss to fend for himself.
Because Kuss hadn’t been there before, and because two defending Grand Tour champions were riding alongside him,he was put in the peculiar position of having to defend his right to wear the leader’s jersey to the press. He clarified after the time trial that, yes, he wanted to win the race. When Jumbo management made public comments, they would only talk about their goal of winning the race in collective terms, not of supporting the guy in the race lead. When Vingegaard and Roglic spoke, they all but said the plan was to wait until Kuss inevitably cracked before racing each other.
They didn’t even wait for that outcome. After Vingegaard won on the Tourmalet, he won again by a minute on Stage 16, attacking Kuss for no real reason on the final climb and narrowing the gap to 29 seconds. Kuss then had to answer questions about whether it was fair that he was leading the race. “I don’t want to win this Vuelta as a gift, that is not sport,” he said after Vingegaard’s second stage win. “They know what I’ve done for them, but they’re also winners.” He also acknowledged that more sabotage was probably coming. “We all know each other well. It’s nice to see they also believe in me and are happy for me and the position I’m in now. But they’re also competitors and they want to win as well,” Kuss said. Vingegaard, while racing like he wanted to rip the jersey off Kuss’s back, kept talking about how he wanted Kuss to win. It was all quite surreal to watch.
The discursive framework of “gifts” briefly came to the fore once Kuss’s teammates started sharpening their knives, which I find both exhausting and insulting to Kuss. The notion that Kuss’s two more decorated teammates refusing to sabotage his race lead and jeopardize his spot on the podium would be a gift, an undue reward for an undeserving rider, is patently ridiculous. For one, if you accept that precept you’d have to acknowledge that cycling is nothing but gifts. No rider ever wins a stage or a race without a dedicated bunch of teammates sacrificing whatever individual ambitions they may harbor in service of someone else. That’s how the sport works. Was Roglic’s 24-second win at the 2020 Vuelta simply a gift given to him by Kuss? Did Vingegaard destroy the field at the 2023 Tour because Kuss gifted him those good positions and free slipstreams? Has any cycling team ever looked at the red leader’s jersey as a bull would?
The drama reached a boiling point on the Angliru, the mythic climb that served as the endpoint for this year’s queen stage. With Kuss nursing his small lead, the three Jumbo riders climbed alone into the milky fog at the front of the race, until they crossed under the two kilometer banner, at which point Roglic attacked and dropped Kuss. Vingegaard followed, and the two champions pushed a hard pace until the line, leaving their leader alone (until Mikel Landa showed up) to cling onto an eight-second lead at the end of the stage.
This was disgusting racing, and it was clearly about more than the 2023 Vuelta. Roglic will soon turn 34, and after his collapse at the 2020 Tour and usurpation by Vingegaard two years later, he might not ever get another clean shot at the Tour de France on Jumbo. So his move on the Angliru was reportedly the staking of a claim, as was Vingegaard’s response. Caught in the crossfire was Kuss, put in the extremely rare and dubious position of having to race without help, as his teammates, who he has spent his whole career racing for, tried to turn the screws on him. Roglic deserves a heap of blame and Vingegaard deserves his own share, but the biggest donkey here is Jumbo’s management, who abdicated any decision-making responsibility and created the leadership vacuum that their two most famous riders filled with farts.
One stage later, after being yelled at by every reputable cycling commentator, Jumbo finally started behaving normally, with Vingegaard and Roglic supporting Kuss and neutralizing opposing attacks. With his teammates finally riding as such, Kuss survived the final few tricky stages and rode into Madrid the victor. Jumbo winning all three Grand Tours this year, the first time it’s ever been done, is a triumph, and it’s fitting that Kuss got to snap in the final puzzle piece. After all, he was there in Italy, setting up Roglic to take a dramatic 14-second overall win, and he was there in France, repeatedly stabbing Tadej Pogacar until he finally cracked.
Kuss is the first rider in 66 years to race all three Grand Tours in one season and win one, a stunning achievement that shows his strength and remarkable consistency. The fans love Kuss and the peloton loves him too, all because he’s a rider’s rider. He has made a career for himself by sacrificing his own ambitions for others, and it feels both cosmically unjust but also even more satisfying that when he finally got the chance to race for himself, the rider that helped out Sepp Kuss the most was Sepp Kuss.