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On Thursday, the American edged closer to securing the first U.S. male grand tour victory in a decade after Jonas Vingegaard and Primož Roglič agreed to a cease fire, and rode in support for the rider who helped them win six grand tours.
After drawing heat for attacking Kuss on Spain’s hardest mountain, Jumbo-Visma pivoted its tactics Thursday to protect the American climber who is narrowing in on an historic grand tour win.
“Today was a step forward for the GC, and I have to thank my teammates for helping me during the entire stage and in the end,” Kuss said. “Now we are content with how the GC is shaping up, and now we have finish it off in Madrid.”
- What’s happening at Jumbo-Visma?
- Kuss finds GC mentor in Jonas Vingegaard
- How Vingegaard trained to crush Pogačar at the Tour
Barring disaster, Kuss now looks to have this Vuelta within his grasp with three stages until Sunday’s final podium in Madrid.
If he avoids mishap, the 29-year-old will become the first American to win the Vuelta since Chris Horner in 2013.
“I think I deserve this leader’s jersey, and I have more confidence every day,” Kuss said Thursday. “I fought yesterday until the end as much as I could, and I am still in the jersey.”
After a wild and sometimes controversial 48 hours, Jumbo-Visma reverted to cycling’s traditional playbook Thursday, and raced to protect Kuss and chaperoned him safely across the finish line in the Vuelta’s last big mountain stage.
Vingegaard even eased up near the finish, and Kuss’s lead grew from eight to 17 seconds to the two-time Tour champion. Roglič remains in third at 1:08 to all but assure a Jumbo-Visma clean sweep of the final podium.
Following a few days of internal strife and on-the-road drama, Jumbo-Visma closed ranks around the popular and powerful climber.
“It was a successful day. Everything stayed the way it should,” Roglič told reporters at the line. “Everything went to plan, we made a plan and yesterday evening they said the GC should stay the way it is. So we tried to keep it like that.
“I’m the first one that wants Sepp to win this race, for sure,” the three-time Vuelta champ said. “We still have some hard days to come.”
Late-night meeting seals the peace: ‘We had to reel things in’
Kuss revealed insider details of the drama and controversy that rocked the team in the final week of racing. Two key meetings shaped the team’s strategy in the decisive third week.
With Jumbo-Visma having a stranglehold on the top podium spots and looking well on its way to securing its historic third grand tour win of 2023, the team met on the Vuelta’s second rest day to map out the closing stages.
The agreement was to let every one race to win the Vuelta, a decision that would rattle the peloton when the race turned into the brutal Cantabrian mountains of northern Spain.
“We wanted basically to leave the race with the feeling that everyone could leave everything out on the road, which turned into maybe a difficult situation,” Kuss revealed Thursday. “To me, that seemed fair.”
The Colorado climber — who moved into the lead in stage 8 and carried the red leader’s jersey out of the Pyrénées — immediately came under friendly fire in Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s mountain top finales from his two Jumbo-Visma teammates.
Vingegaard and Roglič attacked Kuss to win back-to-back stages.
Those tactics might have been agreed upon inside the team bus, but fans and media were scratching their heads about what was going on.
Some couldn’t understand why the team wouldn’t simply ride to support Kuss, a popular rider who’s helped the team win all six of its recent grand tours.
A classy gesture from Vingegaard and Roglič 👏
The Team Jumbo-Visma duo returned a favour to Sepp Kuss, working for the leader of La Vuelta on Stage 18 after the American's role as a super-domestique in their Grand Tour wins 💪
— Velon CC (@VelonCC) September 14, 2023
“There was a lot of negativity surrounding those two stages, which was hard to read from the outside because of what we agreed on our before the Angliru,” Kuss said. “Especially watching on TV, it might have been difficult to understand.
“We could have never imagined that all three of us would be the strongest in the race, and that complicated things,” he said. “After [Wednesday] we had to reel things in.”
Perhaps fueled by angry fan reaction and uproar on social media, as well as the fact that Kuss bravely defended the red jersey on the Angliru, the riders and staffers met late Wednesday to hash things out.
According to team manager Richard Plugge, everyone had a say.
“That is the way we work,” Plugge said. “It’s not my decision or the the sport director’s decisions. The riders also have a say. It is ‘our’ decision.”
After Wednesday’s drama on the Angliru, the riders and sport directors finally closed ranks and agreed that the best and most equitable thing to do was to race for Kuss to win this Vuelta.
“I think the three of us, at least speaking for myself, I left everything out on the road, and I feel like I deserve this place,” Kuss said. “Once everything was more settled in the GC, we decided to race in the way you saw today.”
Vingegaard: ‘It’s nice to pay back Sepp’
There was still the business of racing Thursday in the last hard mountain stage of the 2023 Vuelta.
With Remco Evenepoel (Soudal Quick-Step) clear up the road to chase his third stage victory out of a breakaway, all eyes were on the GC group, and whether or not Vingegaard or Roglič would attack Kuss.
Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) opened up the action in a bid to move into fourth overall, and Kuss covered the move. Vingegaard and Roglič didn’t take the bait, and raced defensively for Kuss to the finish line as others, including Enric Mas (Movistar) and Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) piled on.
Vingegaard held up his end of the bargain, and lived up to his promise Wednesday when he said he wanted Kuss to win this Vuelta.
“We wanted to keep the GC as it was, and there’s another day Saturday. We will keep fighting,” Vingegaard said. “It’s nice to be able to pay him back and do something for Sepp. He’s done so much for me and Primož, and I wanted to pay him back today.”
The inside-the-bus peace treaty sees two of the peloton’s biggest grand tour winners now riding in support for Kuss, and clears the way for the Coloradan to win the Vuelta in the first grand tour victory by a U.S. male in a decade.
“I am getting closer to Madrid. Today was a big hurdle,” Kuss said with a relief. “Now we have to finish it off.”