What a fascinating conundrum Jumbo-Visma have created for themselves at the Vuelta a España. In possession of the race lead and having three riders in the top eight is only the brief summary. Behind the basic facts is a race situation laced with intrigue, complexity, opportunity - and a whole heap of doubt of how it will all finish.
After the eighth stage, American Sepp Kuss is in red, superseding previous leader Lenny Martinez on the climb of Xorret de Catí. Even despite public adoration of Kuss and universal agreement that he is one of the best climbers in the world, this was never the plan. “It’s something I would never have expected coming into this race,” he said. “But it’s the beauty of the Vuelta: there are always lots of changes in the leader’s jersey.”
Kuss has a 43 second advantage to fellow super-domestique Marc Soler of UAE Team Emirates, with Remco Evenepoel 2-31 adrift. Kuss’ teammates, stage eight victor Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard, are seven and 11 seconds behind Evenepoel, respectively.
Jumbo are in the most favourable and enviable of positions: they have three cards to play, options of which are all superstars. With Kuss now declaring his intention to “keep red until the last stage”, and Jumbo-Visma confirming to Rouleur at the start of stage eight that they now consider themselves as having three leaders, it’s a triplet attack that is intimidating, potent and threatening.
It’s why Evenepoel marshalled the front of the finishing climb of stage eight, not wanting to give any of the three Jumbo riders any space to attack him. It was defensive and conservative tactics rarely employed before by Evenepoel, but it was indicative of his acceptance that Jumbo have the upperhand. They can throw several grenades, and continue doing so until one sticks; an outnumbered and solitary Evenepoel, meanwhile, cannot.
It’s not all favourable, though. Three riders brings with it problems and the risk of conflict. Kuss, Roglič and Vingegaard have all been colleagues for several seasons, all won Grand Tours together, and spent more time at races and training camps with one another than they probably have done with their families. They are genuine friends.
But this is a new situation to breach. Jumbo have gone into three-week races with two leaders before, but never have they had to work around the peculiarities of having a trio of ambitions to satisfy and maximise. These are three riders, especially Roglič and Vingegaard, who are winners, and for whom second place is not a satisfying result.
When asked by Rouleur how strategy would be agreed upon from here on in and how race plans are formulated, Roglič said that “we decide together, all of the guys together as leaders: me and Jonas - and obviously Sepp”. The team state that they give their leaders the freedom to make decisions on the road and to not be risk-averse, and stage six’s exhibition was testament to their ability to not just adapt to unforeseen circumstances, but to thrive when the unplanned presents itself.
No-one has any idea of how the following two weeks will unfold. Jumbo’s blueprint - or at least the one they’re projecting in public - is that the road will decide. But right now the road is only revealing three riders of equal strength. Kuss expects to lose a good chunk of his advantage in stage 10’s time trial, bringing the three Jumbo riders even more closely together.
It’s a quandary of infinite pieces, with an immense quantity of possible scenarios. UAE Team Emirates, who count three riders in the top-11, are facing the same dilemma, but as the Vuelta sights its first rest day, it does so with Jumbo-Visma in the driving seat, but none the wiser as to who their pilot is.