True to form, right to the end. This Vuelta a España was always going to bow out in the most unpredictable of manners. For three weeks it has hurtled around Spain, dipped into Andorra and France, and left a trail of bedlam in its wake. Through it all there’s been one regular theme: the unforeseen.
The final stages of Grand Tours are typically processional affairs: the GC winning team down (sip, in reality) a glass of champagne, the classification winners pose for photos, and then a doomed breakaway goes up the road before they are inevitably reeled back in, just in time for one final bunch sprint.
Not this stage 21. Of course not. With 40km left to ride, a breakaway formed that included none other than the winner of the KoM classification, Remco Evenepoel, the green jersey wearer Kaden Groves, and time trial supremo and part-time sprinter Filippo Ganna. What would normally be an ill-fated move was anything but with the calibre of riders, Evenepoel making light work of a parcours that didn’t suit him. He may have grown up a footballer, but there is no denying that the Belgian champion is a born bike racer, a man who wants to put on a spectacle everywhere he goes.
Despite a late game of cat-and-mouse that brought the peloton back into contention, Groves overtook the Soudal - Quick-Step rider and held off the challenge from Ganna to make it a trio of victories, underlining his status as the race’s fastest man. It was a thrilling finale that was entirely in keeping with a Vuelta that, at various points, has been confused and muddled. Even if the GC battle has been a private game played solely by Jumbo-Visma since stage 12 onwards, it’s still delivered storylines that will, in part, define an era and careers.
Read more: 'I've discovered things I didn't know about myself': Sepp Kuss' victorious breakthrough journey at the Vuelta a España
Rising from the disorder as champion is Sepp Kuss. America’s new sporting hero, Spain’s adopted son, and the peloton’s pick, if not necessarily his team’s, the 29-year-old completes Jumbo-Visma’s Grand Tour grand slam. Raised in the high mountains, the son of a cross-country skiing legend, Kuss is a natural, a born athlete, and a charming, genial and friendly human being.
The sport of cycling isn’t crying out for a hero that transcends its fanbase - it has them in spades with Evenepoel, Tadej Pogačar, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel - but being led by a people’s champion, the sort of archetypal role model that parents would dream of for their children, is a windfall for cycling, a win on the marketing lottery, and, above all, a feel good story to keep smiles on faces in the interlude between this and the next cycling season.
Coming good on a viral hashtag (#GCKuss) is 2023’s answer to a modern-day American dream, but it’s mostly the fact that the placid, smiling and affectionate Kuss had never set out to win a three-week race, fearful of the mental burden rather than the physical toll, is what makes his ascension so marvellous. So, too, does the fact that he has ridden all three Grand Tours this season, and he becomes only the second person in history to do so and win a three-week race in the process.
He supersedes Evenepoel as the race’s reigning champion (Kuss is the most feted winner of the race by domestic crowds since Alberto Contador in 2014), and now will begin a process of deciding whether targeting general classifications really will become a future goal, or whether he will slip back into his role of super-domestique.
Whatever he chooses - and it is likely to be a fluid choice, one that changes over time - he only needs to cast his memory back to this Vuelta a España to see that despite all the meticulous preparation and the presence of those deemed bigger favourites, cycling is still an unpredictable game, impossible to accurately forecast, and always at the mercy of change. The recipient of all this drama could not be a better person. #GCKuss is a reality.