Super Sepp Kuss elevates into the Vuelta a España GC race

After a commanding breakaway win on stage 6, the American has a path to Vuelta victory. Can he do it?

Clock17:09, Thursday 31st August 2023
Sepp Kuss on the podium of stage 6 of the Vuelta a España

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Sepp Kuss on the podium of stage 6 of the Vuelta a España

When does a super domestique become just plain super?

Sepp Kuss has long been referred to as the gold standard of the domestiques in the professional peloton, but after a commanding performance on stage 6 of the Vuelta a España, he firmly threw his name in the hat to be a GC contender of sorts in his own right. Stage 6, with its difficulty, seemed telling that Kuss might be destined for more than a singular stage win and some mountain assists at this year’s Vuelta.

“It was an incredibly hard stage,” Kuss said after the finish. “We wanted to try and go in the breakaway just to test Quick-Step. We knew it would be a hard day to control so that was the primary objective. Then we were in there with Dylan [van Baarle], Jan [Tratnik], and Attila [Valter] and they rode super - I have to thank them a lot for the work they did.

“The whole day I felt super super good. I was only thinking about when to go and when to try and make the difference. The whole climb I was just enjoying the environment that we have in the Vuelta. It’s always a special race for me.”

Kuss’ comments were echoed by his two captains, Jonas Vingegaard and Primoz Roglič, after the stage as well.

“We did super well today,” Vingegaard said. “In the start, the boys were amazing. We put pressure on Quick-Step and it turned out perfectly for us today.”

“[Kuss] is an amazing guy and he really deserves it.”

Yet, to find the real context behind the tactics of the day and why it was Kuss who was up ahead, the pre-race comments from Jumbo-Visma highlight some of the ways in which the team valued Kuss taking a more forward approach to his own GC challenge.

“We definitely have a strong team and it’s not really necessary now to say whether it is me or Jonas in front,” Roglič said before the start of the Vuelta. “But we all need to realise the fact that we want to win the Vuelta at the end - it could also be Sepp Kuss, he is also part of the team.”

Vingegaard, always the more reserved of the two Jumbo-Visma captains, was a bit more coy: “For sure, Sepp is one of the best climbers in the world and he is one of the super important domestiques. You can see his stats, he has been on all the winning Grand Tours teams for our team, so he is for sure very important. But I think every teammate is super important as well.”

Regardless of what Jumbo-Visma has been saying officially, and what the conventions of cycling say about a GC challenge from a historically inconsistent climbing domestique who has already raced two Grand Tours this season, there are plenty of hints that suggest Jumbo-Visma views Kuss as a realistic winner of the 2023 Vuelta a España.

There are also the very real time gaps between Kuss and those who have proven themselves over three weeks of racing.

After six stages Kuss trails new red jersey Lenny Martinez (Groupama-FDJ) by eight seconds. While Martinez is a heralded young rider, he is only 20 years old and completely untested in long stage races. Beyond him, the names within 2:30 of Kuss are not Grand Tour stalwarts. Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates) is closest at 43 seconds, but he lost 46 seconds to Kuss in under 4km of climbing.

Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious) is a former Monument winner and sits 1:42 a drift from the American, but he has never contended for GC in stage races. His teammate Mikel Landa is the one name who could produce a challenge at 1:50 down on Kuss, but if there is one rider who could lose more time in the time trial to come than Kuss, it is Landa.

Now, Remco Evenepoel is well within striking distance. With a 20km time trial to come, 2:37 could be cut down to mere seconds. Nevertheless, Kuss on his day might just be a better absolute climber than Evenepoel and is at the very least a more experienced Grand Tour racer. It is by no means a done deal that the Belgian overhauls Kuss over the next 15 stages.

What does Kuss himself think of it all?

“For me, to win a stage is just incredible. And we’ll see, I don’t know where I am in general [classification] now but it’s one day at a time, first I just have to enjoy this.”

And enjoy it Kuss has, with a podium champagne chug to emphasise that enjoyment. It is also probably prudent. With Kuss on Grand Tour number three and a full tilt at an overall win would be new for him. A dramatic fall in the GC would not be out of the ordinary.

Still, stage 6 seems to be a turning point in Kuss' evolution. Even in the event he fades in the race, it seems like domestique is the wrong word for a rider of his class, even if super is placed in front of it. He has been, for lack of a better word, super.

Head over to our Vuelta a España race hub for all the latest news, results and tech from Spain.

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