Friday, September 15, 2023

2023 Vuelta - Jumbo Visma & the Kuss Conundrum


It’s been a hell of a Vuelta a España. Not since Vuelta del Taco Truck have I been so enthralled. Not that it’s a particularly close race lately—Team Jumbo Visma is dominating—but there’s some intrigue within the team. As I write this, the American Sepp Kuss is still leading the GC, but with just a handful of seconds over his teammate, recent Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard. Kuss is only another minute ahead of another teammate, recent Giro d’Italia winner Primoz Roglic.

The really weird thing is, Kuss’s lead has been dropping a bit, stage after stage, because his own teammates have been attacking. A member of my bike club emailed the group, “Can one of you armchair directors sportif explain today’s stage of the Vuelta in which 2 guys on the GC leader’s team attack him on the final climb? I’m struggling to find a charitable explanation.” By the time you read this, things may have changed, but I want to follow my pal’s prompt and investigate this weirdness from this particular moment in time, right after the Angliru stage, when the team still has the opportunity to decide how to conduct itself, with Kuss still in the red jersey. I have developed some theories.

Theory #1: it’s just the hierarchy

It could be that Team Jumbo Visma is simply too risk-averse to shake up the established hierarchy for no good reason. Not that they don’t have good reason, from my perspective as a fan. I mean, I think rewarding a very loyal domestique, who some commentators are saying may be the best mountain domestique in the history of the sport, is actually a good reason to challenge the established pecking order. But this team is about winning races, not just being cool. Roglic has won the Vuelta three times, Vingegaard has won two Tours de France, and the team can be confident these guys won’t falter in the final week, or buckle under the responsibility of finishing out the job. As a GC leader, Kuss is an unknown entity.

Beyond tactics, this hierarchy could extend into the messier realm of unconscious bias, like an unofficial caste system in the sport. Consider the label domestique. It wasn’t until I was talking about bike racing with some recovering journalists recently that I thought much about this term. I was just trying to tell the story of Kuss pounding champagne after his brilliant stage win (more on this later), but—with the curiosity befitting journalists—my friends backed me up and said wait, wait, wait. … support riders are actually called domestiques? It really is an ungenerous term, like calling your teammates “the help.” In this light, the sport really does promote elitism. Meanwhile, it surely takes a massive ego to be a Grand Tour winner and perhaps guys like Vingegaard and Roglic take it as an article of faith that they’re simply superior to their staff, occupying a more rarified realm. (“Kuss?! That motherscratcher? He’s never even made the final podium!”) If that’s their feeling, the idea of this (albeit strong) domestique becoming a GC winner is just preposterous and cannot be allowed.

From this hierarchical viewpoint, even letting Kuss ride hard in the Stage 10 time trial was actually charitable.  Don’t forget that Floyd Landis, while in his last year of service to Lance Armstrong, was severely punished for riding too fast in a Tour time trial (instead of saving his energy for his support role in the later stages). Although Floyd professed his innocence—“I was going easy, I’m just really strong!”—Lance threw a fit and flushed Floyd’s blood bag down the toilet, right in front of him, to remind him who was boss. (No, I did not make that up. It really happened. It’s in Tyler Hamilton’s book.)

By the way, Kuss was a good sport after the Angliru stage, congratulating his two teammates on, well, beating him.

Theory #2: no gifts

During one of his Tour “victories,” Lance let Marco Pantani win the Mount Ventoux stage, which was an unpopular move with everyone. In the press conference post-race, Lance casually mentioned he’d only cared about the GC, basically announcing the gift, and Pantani was offended and said so. There was more backlash because Lance could have just been making an excuse instead of admitting Pantani was stronger, and for this reason Lance himself came to regret his professed generosity. Many Pantani fans felt ripped off, too, like there was an unnecessary asterisk next to their hero’s win. Well, the next time Lance had the opportunity to win a stage, when he already had the GC in the bag, he took that opportunity, and during the podium celebration the former five-time Tour champ Bernard Hinault said to him, “That’s right: no gifts.”

Hinault lived by this ethos himself. Prior to the 1986 Tour de France, he announced that he would be working for his teammate, Greg LeMond, to reward him for his past support. It would be like passing the baton. But in the actual race, Hinault totally attacked LeMond, several times, leading to a big dustup in the media, a real soap opera. When questioned about breaking his word, Hinault shrugged and said something like, “I wanted to make him earn it.” And wasn’t it a better story in the end, that LeMond had to beat everyone, even his friend and teammate, to prove he deserved the Tour title?

Applying this to the current Vuelta is admittedly a bit of a stretch, but perhaps this “make him earn it” notion is a clever story Vingegaard and Roglic are telling themselves because it’s more palatable to them than, say, theory #1.

Theory #3: Plan B

It’s also possible that according to some convoluted tactical logic, to have Vingegaard and Roglic attack is just a way to make sure Jumbo Visma has a plan B for winning the GC if Kuss should happen to falter. Since the time Kuss took the red jersey, Vingegaard has soloed twice. The first time, at least, the Dane wasn’t in great position on GC, having had a poor stage or two. His attack bought him some needed time on his rivals, and after all nothing was preventing Kuss from also attacking and defending his own position (which he did). Such tactics aren’t very nice, of course, but if the overall team directive is to win the GC at all costs, and if Vingegaard and Roglic have the legs, why not?

This wouldn’t be the first time a team put a GC leader’s bid at risk to support a Plan B. In one of the Tours that Lance “won,” his teammate Víctor Hugo Peña crashed in the team time trial, and the team waited for him. I was astonished … Lance was not known for his dedication to the team, to put it lightly. A pal explained to me that Peña was the team leadership’s Plan B for the GC if something happened to Lance, so they needed to keep him from losing time in the TTT.

Jumbo Visma themselves have some experience with Plan B: last year, when Roglic crashed in the Tour and couldn’t perform at his normal level, his support rider Vingegaard had been kept close enough on GC to take over and get the win.

Theory #4: envy

It could be that Vingegaard and Roglic are nursing petty jealousies when it comes to Kuss. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves: Kuss is better looking, has more charisma, is more of a crowd favorite, and as the tireless, loyal domestique is more relatable than these past heroes … and now he gets to lead the Vuelta on top of it all. A real Cinderella story.

In case you don’t take all these claims for granted, let’s look at a couple of Kuss’s endearing exploits. When he won his first Vuelta stage a few years back (and again when he won a stage this year), he did something that American mountain bike racers have done for years: as he headed for the finish line he rode near the fencing at the side of the road and held out his hand to high-five scores of fans. I don’t think these European fans had ever seen anything like it. To see him doing that, a big shit-eating grin on his face … I had tears in my eyes.

And then let’s consider Kuss’s podium celebration after this year’s stage win. He took the standard jumbo-sized bottle of champagne and sprayed the crowd with it, as is customary, but the he went completely off-script. Most cyclists, especially climbers, can barely lift that magnum to their lips, and take a prim little sip. Kuss hefted that bad boy above his head and started just pounding it. Check this out:

It’s kind of amazing how long he went and how much he drank … that would be impressive even for a non-bike-racer. The commentator Christian Vande Velde said admiringly, “You go, boy!”

It’s not just any cyclist who could do this to such good effect. Roglic, who to me looks like a bit of a thug with his swarthiness and amateurish tattoos, might have looked kind of scary pounding the booze. And Vingegaard … God forgive me, but everything about that guy seems a bit weird, so to see him guzzling the champagne might have just seemed, I dunno, a little creepy. But Kuss, with his apple-pie face and boyish charm, and his unassuming persona, and that little surprised, half-suppressed burp at the end, all wrapped up with an exuberant grin ... well, it’s the very epitome of charisma.

Roglic in particular might envy Kuss’s situation enough to want to spoil it. In the 2020 Vuelta, during the last mountain stage, Roglic had a narrow GC lead that was challenged when Richard Carapaz made a sweet solo move. Carapaz needed only like 40 or 45 seconds to unseat Roglic, and things looked dicey for a bit. Uncharacteristically, Kuss was dropped, and another Jumbo Visma domestique had to make his way up and slay himself for Roglic. In this situation, Kuss—though he’d let down his leader in a key moment—didn’t get a lot of attention; his lapse wasn’t that visible because the cameras weren’t on him. Compare this to the one Tour de France that Roglic probably felt he had in the bag, only to spectacularly lose it in the final time trial to the upstart Tadej Pogacar. Roglic will never live that down. And now Kuss, who is leading the Vuelta seemingly by accident, could go on to lose it without any particular disgrace because after all, he didn’t come into the race with any ambition other than to do his normal job of domestique. To Roglic, that might rankle enough to incite an attack or two.

Theory #5: the business people

It’s possible that Vingegaard and Roglic didn’t launch those attacks on their own initiative. The big brass of the team might have ordered them to do it, for financial reasons. After all, if Kuss were to win the Vuelta, he’d be in high demand from other teams and Jumbo Visma might have to raise his salary. If all they care about is one of their members winning the GC, why not make it one of the guys who’s already at the top of the salary scale?

Theory #6: the business people, continued

It’s also possible that the team’s business leaders didn’t like Kuss’s champagne-swilling antics. Perhaps, they feel, this sent the wrong message about the Jumbo Visma team culture. They may have decided his behavior was unprofessional and glamorized the uninhibited consumption of an alcoholic beverage. “Think of the kids! Those poor impressionable youth!” they might be thinking. Perhaps they determined that the less attention Kuss gets from here on out, the better … so he shouldn’t be allowed to win the Vuelta. So they deploy their henchman, Vingegaard and Roglic, to stop him.

Theory #7: nationalism

Ever since the Dubya years, and particularly since the Trump years, the United States hasn’t exactly been the darling of Europe. It also doesn’t help our cause when American tourists like me go around saying things like, “World War II: you’re welcome.” (No, of course I don’t actually say this, but you get the point.) It also didn’t help that Lance took his don’t-mess-with-Texas ethos over there and messed with Europe, handing the Tour (and the sport) its biggest scandal in history. For Vingegaard and Roglic, as helpful as Kuss has been to his team, maybe they’re nursing some unconscious anti-American grudge such that they can’t bring themselves to promote him to the protected rider.

If you’re skeptical about this theory, and haven’t felt like Kuss wears his nationality on his sleeve, consider Exhibit A, his bike travel case:

That really does smack of unbridled patriotism, doesn’t it? I mean, would you use such a loud, brazen product? I sure wouldn’t. With all this in mind, you’ll surely be relieved to learn that (at least to my knowledge) Kuss’s bike case actually looks nothing like this.  I was just messing with you.

Theory #8: it’s not about Kuss

It could be that these attacks actually have nothing to do with Kuss. For all I know, Roglic and Vingegaard are bitter rivals, and their attacks are simply on one another, with Kuss and the rest of the peloton being collateral damage. Or even if the two get along, Roglic could be lashing out at having been kept off the Tour team this year, and wants to show everyone he was wronged, and/or Vingegaard wants to demonstrate that only he could have won the last two Tours.

Theory #9: irrational exuberance

Maybe these riders have been trying to do the right thing and work for Kuss, but they just can’t help themselves. When you’ve got the legs, it’s hard to resist using them. Look at LeMond in the 1985 Tour, attacking Hinault, his team leader. I already mentioned Hinault returning the favor in the 1986 Tour. Then there was Marc Soler up in the breakaway throwing a tantrum during the 2019 Vuelta when his Movistar team called him back to help his leader (i.e., do his fricking job). Sport in general is riddled with reckless, impulsive behavior. Chalk it up to testosterone poisoning.

Theory #10: none of the above

Of course it’s entirely possible there’s a perfectly good reason for these attacks that just isn’t apparent to an armchair directeur sportif like me. For example, Roglic and Vingegaard could be space aliens driven by forces utterly foreign to us humans. That would explain a lot, actually.

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