Figuring out who Jumbo-Visma’s preferred leader is at the Vuelta a España was always going to be determined in this final week. Would they back their unlikely man in red, Sepp Kuss, or would one of their seasoned Grand Tour winners, Primož Roglič or Jonas Vingegaard, get the nod over the affable American?
The situation, regarded as an enviable one, was assessed rather simply by Jumbo. “The road will decide,” has been their go-to comment ever since the race began in Barcelona more than two weeks ago. With the aforementioned trio locking out the podium spots at present, it was assumed that stage 17’s ride up the terrifyingly steep Angliru would give everyone a clearer picture if Kuss was indeed on course for an unfancied and unpredicted maiden Grand Tour triumph.
But instead, drama, unexpectedly, came to the forefront on stage 16. A rolling day along the Cantabrian coast culminated with a steep climb up to the beautiful village of Bejes in Los Picos de Europa. Vingegaard, in third, attacked first, everyone presuming that it was intended to draw out a response from Juan Ayuso, Enric Mas and Mikel Landa; the theory was that they'd then tire and Jumbo, through Kuss, would exploit it in the closing moments.
No counterattack came, however, and as Roglič obdurately stuck with Kuss, Vingegaard’s lead kept on growing and growing… and growing even more to the point that he was within touching distance of overturning his 1:44 deficit to Kuss and superseding him as the race’s leader.
Finally, with a kilometre to go, the remaining GC riders responded. Vingegaard won the stage but the movement behind prevented him from jumping into red and, let’s be honest, embarrassing his teammate who leads the race. Roglič took four seconds off Kuss, but most crucially Vingegaard has overhauled the Slovenian and is now 29 seconds behind Kuss; in other words, around 500m of steep mountain road.
Trying to explain what happened is, for the moment, guesswork. When asked what his win meant for his overall intentions, Vingegaard - who dedicated his win to his teammate and best friend Nathan van Hooydonck who was admitted to hospital after a car accident in the morning - said, “I don’t know. I just want to enjoy this moment. I don’t think about that.”
It looked very much, however, that Vingegaard not only has serious ambitions of overtaking Kuss at the summit of the classification, but that he was given permission to do so. He attacked with intent; he pressed on inexorably; not content with just winning his second stage, he was clearly on a march towards red.
There were shades of Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins at the 2012 Tour de France, of the supposed helper attacking his leader. It’s not quite the same for Kuss hasn’t publicly been designated as Jumbo’s preferred choice, but the optics were similar. When Kuss found Vingegaard after the stage, there were hugs, high-fives, congratulations and a smile. If Kuss was annoyed, he did well to hide it, but the American clearly knew the cameras were following him. Why let internal politics play out in public, especially when TV viewers have their eyes searching for any indication of unhappiness?
What’s most striking about what happened on stage 16 is that Kuss would not have expected a challenge for his jersey to have come under the Cantabrian rain; the fact it did raises questions about Vingegaard’s loyalty to him, and whether Jumbo really do have faith in the man who in the past few seasons has given and sacrificed all in pursuit of Vingegaard and Roglič winning themselves.
The road was always going to decide this week, but it didn’t need to have its say at this juncture, and nor in this manner. What is widely assumed to be an enviable position for Jumbo now looks a little more enviable. Internal politics might just swing the door open to Ayuso, Mas or Landa taking one of those podium spots.