Vuelta a Espana

Vuelta a España: How Sepp Kuss could win on the Angliru

If a few things align, Sepp Kuss could get a chance to win atop Spain's toughest mountain this weekend.

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There won’t be any fans giving him high fives as he pedals victorious toward the finish line, but Sepp Kuss is poised for the biggest victory of his young career this weekend on Spain’s hardest mountain at the Alto de l’Angliru at the Vuelta a España.

One of the most iconic images of the past few years for U.S. elite men’s pro racing was Kuss’ breakout stage victory in the 2019 Vuelta. The so-called “Durango Kid” was so far off the front in stage 15 that he could celebrate with fans lining the stage, and even giving them high fives as he pedaled toward his first grand-tour stage win at the Santuario del Acebo.

Flash forward 13 months or so, and the 2020 Vuelta is stacking up quite similarly to last year’s scenario that could open the door for Kuss to chase the stage victory.

COVID-19 infections resulting in a series of strict health measures will mean there will not be any fans lining the twisting road up the Angliru, but if a few things align, Kuss could have a real chance to become the first American to win on the fearsome Angliru. Here’s how:

First off, Kuss is in perfect position to ride into a breakaway in Sunday’s five-climb, 109km across Spain’s ruggedly beautiful Cantabrian range. In fact, it’s almost the same scenario as how he won last year.

The Alto de l’Angliru is one of the steepest and most feared climbs in European cycling. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

After losing 10 minutes last weekend on the road to Formigal, he’ll start Friday’s 10th stage 20th overall at 10:06 back, meaning he is no direct threat to the GC. He was in a similar spot last year, albeit further back on time, when got into the winning break en route to victory at Santuario del Acebo.

Kuss is the perfect rider for Jumbo-Visma to send up the road Sunday. He’s by far the strongest rider on the team right now, and if he can link up with a group of strong breakaway riders, he can do minimal work in order to be fresh if and when Primož Roglič comes across. And if the break stays clear, and if Roglič has things under control, Kuss would have the green light to race for the win.

Those are four big “ifs,” but it could happen.

It goes without saying that Kuss is firmly committed to helping Roglič win the Vuelta, and he would only go on the move if it was part of the team’s tactical pay.

The big difference this year compared to last year — and it’s one that will shape tactics this weekend — is where Roglič is stacking up on GC right now. In 2019, Roglič was in firm control of the red leader’s jersey, and started the Santuario del Acebo stage last year with a comfortable lead of 2:25 to Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and 3:01 to Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Emirates).

In contrast, Roglič is in a bitter fight for the overall leader’s jersey. After Thursday’s ninth stage, three riders lie within 44 seconds of race leader Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers). Roglič recovered some time from his costly blunder last weekend at Formigal by winning Tuesday’s summit finale and bounced into second overall at 13 seconds back. An experienced Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) is 28 seconds adrift in third, and the newly confident Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling) is fourth at 44 seconds in arrears.

If the GC remains this tight after the equally brutal climbing stage Saturday, Jumbo-Visma might not want to send Kuss so far up the road away from Roglič in a breakaway. In fact, some expect Saturday’s 170km, four-climb stage to prove more decisive than the Angliru. Saturday could be another chance for Jumbo-Visma to play the “Kuss card” on the road to the Alto de la Farrapona, a beautiful climb into a valley along the edge of some of the last habitat for Spain’s elusive brown bears.

This weekend is the last chance for the climbers to attack Roglič before Tuesday’s decisive 33.7km time trial in Galicia, where some estimate Roglič could take a minute or more versus his rivals. If Roglič has the same legs this weekend as he did to produce victory at Moncalvillo, he won’t be waiting for the time trial. Everything is in play this weekend.

There are a lot of riders who have the stage marked on their calendars, which means Kuss could find some very good company in a breakaway if he has the freedom to move Sunday. Riders like Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana), Guillaume Martin (Cofidis), Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), and Davide Formolo (UAE-Emirates) are likely candidates.

If Roglič can crack Carapaz at Farrapona to snag the red leader’s jersey, the team just might cut Kuss loose for a shot at the Angliru.

Kuss has been floating through the climbs so far in this Vuelta. And he has the legs for the win.