What happened at this year's Vuelta a Espana was unexpected to even the brightest of analysts. Jumbo-Visma were the big favourites, however they outright dominated the whole battle for the overall classification. Sepp Kuss tells how it was dealing with the internal battle for the red jersey.
“I think I deserved to win the Vuelta. I know that I’m here due to a race situation but from that moment I showed that I could do a good time trial, climb with the best climbers in the world and all in my third Grand Tour of the year," Kuss said in an interview with Marca. "I think I completely deserved this Vuelta but I also have to thank my teammates for putting themselves in my place. We didn't know how far I could go physically and mentally because it’s a new experience for me to be leading a race. But from the moment I became the race leader, I felt so good that I thought I wouldn't lose the jersey."
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That moment only came on stage 18. Beforehand, after taking several minutes on the competition on stage 6, he was ahead of the direct competition but was still a card in Jumbo-Visma's deck. With Remco Evenepoel fading out of GC contention and the team dominating from stage 13 onwards however, it became clear that the fight for the win would be within the team. At the Col du Tourmalet and Bejes Jonas Vingegaard attacked the race and took big chunks of time, and at the Alto de l'Angliru more dramatically, Kuss was dropped by both teammates as Primoz Roglic pushed te pace.
“After the stage it was a bit ugly on television. Before we didn't know that the three of us were going to be the strongest in that race and that made things a little complicated because, normally, your teammates are not your rivals," he tells of the unique situation. "We wanted to compete against our rivals but when we didn't have rivals, it became more complicated. It was a little difficult for me to say 'I want things to be like this'. In the first meeting we had to wait to see what Primoz and Jonas said and how they wanted to do the race."
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Until that day it was unknown who would be taking the race lead, and all riders wanted it. Simultaneously, immense amounts of public backlash surged as Kuss became an absolute favourite. But the team were trying to navigate through it in the best possible way. “I understand Primoz's position. He had been preparing for the Vuelta for half a year. He came to race in very good shape, he had a perfect race and deserved to at least try to win. Jonas has already won two Tour de France and the Vuelta was a chance for another success and he’s a winner."
"I was in the middle, not as a rivalry, but in a competition. From the Bejes stage, I didn't know what it all meant to people who had previously been my leaders, and what role I was going to have or what it was going to mean for the team. I didn't know if they were going to attack me. I had a lot of thoughts and they were not all positive but that was the first moment I thought I could lose the jersey to a teammate rather than a rival.”
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There was a clear dispute within the team, although one that was ultimately the best possible type of dispute a team could hope for. The three riders filled the race podium, and after the Angliru it was decided that Kuss would take the win. “I’ve realised that I am capable of leading a Grand Tour and being very consistent on almost every stage but now I know more than ever how hard it is to be a team leader," he says.
"I still like my job as a domestique because I can relax and switch off during the race. After this Vuelta, I'm more exhausted mentally than physically. I still have to think about the future," he concludes. Without a doubt the American has the ability to fight for Grand Tours however this has been for multiple reasons an exhausting season and now he has the right to take time off and assimilate all of it.