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Sepp Kuss continues to turn heads in 2020.
On Tuesday the American unleashed a series of searing attacks in the final kilometers of the Vuelta a España’s opening stage, bolting away from the peloton again and again on the Alto de Arrate climb.
The first accelerations drew out the GC favorites on the ascent. And then, just before the finish, one final move by Kuss set teammate Primož Roglič up to attack from the field, win the stage, and take the red leader’s jersey.
“I knew Primož would have a good chance if he attacked over the top, so we tried to make it hard in the group, and hold a steady pace over the top, and he was able to get a good gap, and make it to the finish,” Kuss said at the finish. “It was really exciting.”
Indeed, Kuss’ aggression was the defining strategic move during the Vuelta’s opening stage, which saw Jumbo-Visma fight with rivals Ineos-Grenadiers in the final two climbs.
Ineos initially looked to have the advantage, and the British team set a punishing tempo on the Alto de Elgate climb before the final ascent of the day. The aggression shed plenty of riders, including the squad’s own co-leader, Chris Froome.
As Ineos chugged away at the front on the final ascent, however, it was Kuss who upended the British team’s strategy with his attacks.
At the finish, Roglič praised Kuss’ strength in the stage.
“I think we were all suffering — we have crazy guys,” Roglič said. “Sepp is flying.”
Kuss eventually finished 8th place on the day, just 10 seconds behind Roglic. With his Jumbo-Visma teammate Tom Dumoulin crossing the line in 16th place, 51 seconds down, Kuss has quickly emerged as the squad’s second card to play in this season-ending Vuelta. The attack also netted Kuss 10 KOM points and vaulted him into the lead in the King of the Mountains competition.
Kuss said the KOM jersey was a byproduct of a careful team strategy.
“We have the red jersey now with Primož, and that priority is number one,” Kuss said. “I didn’t even realize I was first over the KOM in first position, so we’ll see what the situation is like tomorrow.
Domestique duty in the mountains
This year’s Vuelta a España opens with a punch, as organizers have packed multiple mountain stages into the opening week of racing. On Thursday the third stage finishes with the summit finish to La Laguna Negra de Vinuesa, and then on Sunday, the sixth stage finishes atop the Col du Tourmalet.
Whether or not Kuss will ride for stage wins or a high placing on GC is yet to be seen. In a pre-race interview, the American said he was committed to supporting Roglič and Dumoulin as co-leaders of the Dutch team.
“With the mountain stages being right from the beginning it’s also an opportunity to bring other teams out to force them to chase,” Kuss said. “I think for the most part I’ll be helping Primož and Tom. With so many mountain stages it’s a good area for me to help those guys.”
In 2019 Kuss won a stage of the Vuelta, and the victory was a turning point in his grand tour career. In the ensuing stages, Kuss rode strongly to help Roglič capture the overall at the race, and the victory marked Jumbo-Visma’s arrival as a top team for grand tours.
Since then Kuss has become a major component of Jumbo-Visma’s grand tour machine.
“The stage win in the Vuelta last year was a big breakthrough for me, it gave me so much confidence and it’s my favorite race of the year,” Kuss said. “I was still really motivated to come here and do well, and to win last year with Primož was great, and I love working with him.”
So far the 2020 season has seen Kuss take a major step forward in his development. In August he won a mountain stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and then in September he raced the Tour de France and emerged as the top climbing domestique in the race.
Kuss helped guide Roglič to a stage win, and his strong riding in the mountains kept Roglič in the yellow jersey for much of the race. Only a surprise upset by Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates) on the final ITT unseated Roglič from the overall.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, Kuss said it’s difficult to pinpoint areas in which Jumbo-Visma could have executed a different game plan against Pogačar.
“Sure, we could have used a guy like Tom differently to attack and maybe draw out the others, but it’s also hard to say that when you’re defending the jersey and you have to ride in a defensive way to just keep the team together,” Kuss said. “It’s hard to look back and say this and that, but overall we did everything we could.”
The Jumbo-Visma squad would obviously like to overcome the setback at the Tour de France with an overall win at the Vuelta. This year the race has been shortened to 18 stages, however it includes the punishing ascent of the Alto de l’Angliru on stage 12, as well as a multitude of other punishing ascents.
It’s a safe bet that Sepp Kuss will be a man to watch whenever the road points upward.