The Vuelta’s toughest summit finish to date at Javalambre has created multiple question marks for GC contenders like Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-QuickStep) and Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers). But for one team, Jumbo-Visma, the current GC situation could hardly have been better.
A solo win for Sepp Kuss at Javalambre after he and three teammates got in the break of the day completed Jumbo-Visma’s ‘set’ of stage wins in all three Grand Tours this year, and the American has now moved into second place overall, just eight seconds down on race leader Lenny Martinez (Groupama-FDJ)
Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard, after difficult starts to the Vuelta, both showed a marked improvement in condition and managed to drop both Evenepoel and Thomas. Vingegaard is now lying eleventh at 2:52 on Martínez, while Roglič is in twelfth at 2:58, confirming that with three riders well placed on GC, Jumbo-Visma are looking very much like the team to beat in this year’s Vuelta.
When a small group of reporters put it to sports director Marc Reef at the stage 7 start that the squad’s current situation was bordering on the perfect, he smiled and replied “you could say that.”
“Stage 6 was always going to be a hard day and we thought we could put Soudal-QuickStep under pressure, but perhaps also to do some things ourselves.”
“Finally, though we had a better situation than we could have expected up front. With Sepp being up there on GC as well, Jonas and Primoz taking time on Remco and the rest of the GC guys, it worked out better than we could expect.”
Kuss’ overall advantage on all the pre-race contenders currently stands at nearly three minutes and that does change the team’s strategy for the GC, Reef agreed. However, he warned that Tuesday’s individual time trial next week could see the all-rounders regain ground on an out-and-out climber like Kuss.
“First they have to drop him as well so that’s something we can profit from though we also have to do a TT on Tuesday,” Reef said. “There are two mountain stages [at Xorret de Catí on Saturday and the Collado de Caravaca de la Cruz on Sunday] first, and when you look at past TTs, Remco should regain quite a bit of ground on him [Kuss] and perhaps overtake him.”
However, assuming Kuss does not lose more than three minutes on the Belgian next Tuesday in Valladolid, “He’ll still be up there on GC, even if Remco closes in on him. And that means Remco will have three guys to watch, which is great for us.”
Reef pointed out that while the strategy from now on for Jumbo will be to exploit Kuss’ advantage to the maximum, the team already had considerable faith in Kuss ability to shine in his own right. The team’s strategy at Javalambre, where Dylan Van Baarle, Jan Tratnik and Attila Valter all worked hard for Kuss, was evidence of that.
Kuss’ presence in the Giro this year only came about after Wilco Kelderman was injured in Tirreno and unable to take part, but his participation in the Tour and Vuelta was always planned, Reef said.
The million-dollar question, of course, is whether Kuss has any interest in going for GC in his third Grand Tour.
The American insisted after stage 6 that he was here to work for Vingegaard and Roglič, but rival team directors are adamant that Kuss actually can be an overall contender. When asked directly, Reef preferred to turn the question around and neither confirm nor deny that possibility.
“As long as our rivals think he’s a GC contender, that’s good for us,” Reef said with a grin, and when asked again if Kuss was there for the overall or not, simply added, “Well, I can repeat what I just said to you, if you like.
“He’s also done top tens in GCs in Grand Tours and he’s certainly shown he can stay on a high level in a three-week Grand Tour.”
“But it depends, also, on what happens the race. Primoz and Vingegaard are our main contenders, but because of that situation, Sepp can become a threat for the other teams.”
A stage victory for a team support rider like Kuss was a very special moment, Reef said, given how much he has contributed to the team’s Grand Tour victories up to now. “It means a lot to him that he can get his chance, but also to the squad.”
At the same time, Vingegaard and Roglič are also doing well after a difficult start for both, with Roglič crashing on stage 2 and Vingegaard feeling out of sorts early on.
“They are both up there. They had a tough first few days, but they showed they are up there. And we can believe now that they will get better, so we are very confident about them.” And with Kuss also in the mix, even more so.