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There is an understanding, among both the team and the rider himself, that what stands between Sepp Kuss and grander GC ambitions isn’t talent, but consistency. The ability to go day after day, no weak moments. No faltering. Always there.
That soft spot within an otherwise steadfast super domestique will be tested in the next two days across the Pyrenees. There is no room for a fumble on these baking slopes. With Primož Roglič and Steven Kruijswijk gone, Kuss is now the last man, a thin, final buffer between Jonas Vingegaard and the attacks of Tadej Pogačar.
If the pressure is mounting, Kuss doesn’t show it. Arriving at his team bus to a scrum of mostly Dutch and Danish media, his press officer asked if he would prefer a shower before interviews. It was hot out there, lines of salt crusted the back of his jersey and shorts, and a shower is a common way to delay interviews until much of the press gaggle moves on, thus shortening the interview. “No, now is fine,” Kuss said, squaring up to the bristle of microphones.
Kuss played his role perfectly on Tuesday’s ride to Foix. Two category 1 climbs, including the steep ramps of the Mur de Peguère, were the first test of the Pyrenees. Jumbo-Visma, weakened by Steven Kruijswijk’s crash and abandon Sunday, sent two riders up the road as insurance policies against whatever may happen. Should Kuss falter, and Vingegaard therefore become isolated, Wout van Aert or Nathan van Hooydonck could always sit up and wait.
Vingegaard was never alone, at least not for long. Pogačar threw a series of attacks on Port de Lers and though Kuss (and every GC contender except Vingegaard) were temporarily distanced, a small group always came back together.
On the Peguère, Kuss set a pace stiff enough to keep Pogačar in his wheel. On the steepest slopes, near the climb’s peak, it was down just to the three of them: two Jumbos – one in yellow – and the white jersey of Pogačar.
Kuss once again showed that, on his day, few can drop him going uphill. But his difficulty has always been backing those days up end-to-end. “Sometimes, I don’t have the best days,” he admitted after the stage. “But I always give my best and I always want to be there in the important moments.”
But a bad day is a bad day. You can’t motivate yourself out of it.
Part of Jumbo’s strategy this week is to use its collective strength to force Pogačar into increasingly desperate tactics. Kuss’ presence is key to that. It was his tempo that kept Pogačar relatively quiet on the Peguère, and with both Roglič and Kruijswijk out, he’s the only option in those scenarios.
It’s a level of consistency Jumbo has rarely demanded of the young American. Normally, he’s pulled out for crucial moments, and often allowed to rest in between. This week, there will be no rest. He will be Vingegaard’s right hand.
“The mountains are sometimes more simple than you think,” Kuss said. “In the end it just comes down to whoever has the most.”