Sepp Kuss leading the Vuelta a España: at first it was a bit of fun, a spot of pleasure, #GCKuss becoming a reality on the roads of Spain. But it wasn’t anything for more than that. Remco Evenepoel said as much. “I consider him as an outsider,” the defending champion assessed.
Following the conclusion of the stage 10 time trial in Valladolid, Evenepoel can no longer classify Kuss as a dark horse. He’s in this Vuelta to win it - and is a serious contender.
The discussion before the 25.8km test against the clock was how much time Kuss, definitely a climbing specialist but definitely not a time trial specialist, would cede to Evenepoel and his Jumbo-Visma teammates, Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard. Some commentators suggested as much as two minutes. The answer? 1:13 to Evenepoel, 53 seconds to Roglič and just 11 seconds to Vingegaard, the same rider who annihilated the Tour de France’s time trial in July.
What’s the upshot of it all? That Kuss stays in the lead, holding a 26-second advantage to fellow super mountain domestique Marc Soler of UAE Team Emirates. Evenepoel is 1:09 back, Roglič 1:36 behind and Vingegaard, in seventh, 2-22 adrift. Lenny Martinez of Groupama-FDJ and Soler’s teammate João Almeida are fifth and sixth, respectively, while Juan Ayuso, also of UAE, is eighth, 2-25 off the lead.
It sets up the second half of this year’s Vuelta fantastically well, promising a spectacle befitting of the grand stage. Evenepoel is the lone wolf, fighting against three from Jumbo and three from UAE. Should the Belgian retain his title, it will be a win for the ages, a truly phenomenal result that would warrant all of the justified hype and the unofficial bidding war going on behind the scenes for him.
But for Evenepoel to triumph, he has to snatch back 70 seconds from Kuss. Where and how is he going to do that? Bonus seconds are one place - for all of Kuss’ immense climbing abilities, he is not renowned for his punch, largely because he’s rarely ever had to kick for the line - but mano-a-mano in the mountains, Kuss isn’t easily shaken off a wheel. Having grown up at altitude, he’s also got the upperhand on Evenepoel in the high mountains.
Usually the protector, Kuss will now be protected, along with Roglič and Vingegaard. It’s a demanding task for Jumbo’s five other riders, but it throws up the option of them producing yet another masterclass that they’re becoming experts in executing. Stage 11’s summit finish probably isn’t hard enough, but a Pyrenean triple-header, starting this Friday at the Tourmalet, is the perfect canvas for Jumbo to wrought more havoc on their rivals.
And what about UAE? Almeida overtook Ayuso in the standings by nine seconds, but Soler is 1-50 ahead of them both. They face the same dilemma, and wealth of opportunity, as Jumbo-Visma do. Soler doesn’t possess the same fear as Kuss does, but he’s been reinvigorated since joining from Movistar at the start of 2022. Freed from the pressure and scrutiny that he was under at the Spanish team, he has developed into a Kuss-esque helper, and his time trial performance in Valladolid was comfortably the best of his career. If Kuss is now favourite, neither can Soler, less than half-a-minute adrift, be discounted.
When the start list was unveiled for this year’s Vuelta, the race director Javier Guillén called it the greatest in history. The fact that we’re now discussing whether three generational talents, riders who have won the last four Grand Tours, can overcome two super-domestiques makes this race truly unique and historic. Strap in for the final 11 days, because #GCKuss is on.