The TV images during and after the final climb on stage 18 of the Vuelta a España today could not have been more contrasting to those that popped up on our screens yesterday – nor could have the sentiment on social media after the stage had concluded. Jumbo-Visma have finally done what it seems like almost all cycling fans wished for them to do. Today, they unequivocally supported race leader Sepp Kuss. There will be no more talks of egos, or infighting, or disloyalty, the decision is made and it looks final.
Once the breakaway was established and Jumbo-Visma allowed the gap between them and the peloton to reach over 10 minutes, it was already clear that if Kuss could stay with his teammates on the final climb to Puerto de la Cruz de Linares, he would hold on to the red jersey today. Everything about the way that the team rode looked different compared to yesterday: Kuss was always in the usual position for a team leader, tucked safely near the front of the peloton, out of trouble on the descents and never doing any additional work in the wind on the climbs or the flat.
When the roads kicked up for the final time as the Puerto de la Cruz de Linares approached, we all held our breath. It was at the same point yesterday on the Angliru climb that Jumbo-Visma’s tactics shocked the world when Jonas Vingegaard and Primož Roglič left the race leader and their teammate, Kuss, alone on the foggy mountain. They pedalled their way to their own success without a thought for the consequences that might come afterwards.
Today, however, the formation that they had were in for the duration of the stage held strong on the final climb. Kuss sat in the wheels, resplendent in red behind his two newly-loyal worker bees as they checked over their shoulders to see if he was still there. Vingegaard tapped away on the front in a steady rhythm that his American colleague could sustain.
As the finish line came into view, Kuss sprinted hard and ended up ahead of both of his teammates at the end of the stage. Vingegaard even dropped back from the group on the approach to the line, seemingly so he could purposefully lose seconds and avoid any risk of him closing the gap to Kuss on the general classification. It was such a blindingly obvious attempt at the Danish rider ensuring he would not become public enemy number one by beating Kuss that it was almost humorous. Don’t you ever try and call me a bad teammate, he seemed to be thinking.
It’s true that the team's actions in yesterday’s stage caused seismic consequences when it came to Jumbo-Visma’s public image. Social media was awash with criticism towards Roglič and Vingegaard for not repaying Kuss for the hard work he has done for them over the years as a loyal domestique. There was undoubtedly pressure from every angle for the team to buckle down and support Kuss as their leader – we all like an underdog win. Jumbo’s actions today had an impact too, but one that was far different from the day before. Instead of scathing criticism, the internet seemed filled with praise for Roglič and Vingegaard as they showed their loyalty and put their own ambitions behind them.
In the end, which Jumbo-Visma rider out of the three was really the strongest in this race is something that we will probably never find out. The team has clearly decided that Kuss should win and whether that’s due to the insurmountable force of public opinion surrounding their actions yesterday, or if it’s because they really believe he deserves it, doesn’t matter much anymore.
Everyone else wanted Kuss to win because cycling loves a good story, and it doesn’t get much better than the rider who enters the race as a domestique coming out on top against two of the best Grand Tour riders in the world. The guy who offers up the front seat of the team car to others, who never gets his chance in the spotlight, who apologises to other riders for sprinting round them at the end of the stage. Are Roglič and Vingegaard happy about the team's choice? That remains a mystery too.
“It’s nice to be able to pay him back and do something for Sepp. He's done so much for me and Primož. I liked to pay him back today,” Vingegaard said. As for Roglič, “I have my own thoughts about it,” he answered cryptically after the stage. It does not seem like the decision today was one that has steadied the ship completely.
All is not done, however, with one tough, hilly test to come in this race on Saturday’s stage to Guadarrama. Thanks to today, Jumbo-Visma will approach that day with a public image that is still somewhat intact (though it might be hastily stuck together by some cheap sellotape). It will serve as the final test of loyalty for Roglič and Vingegaard who, no doubt, will be happy to close the chapter on this strange and tense Vuelta a España. Is the team satisfied with how this race has gone after they reportedly just wanted to leave the road to decide the eventual winner out of the trio? Who knows. But will they win plenty of fans if Kuss finishes in red on the podium in Madrid? That’s for certain. It seems like, at last, they have shown where their priorities lie.