If there’s one thing you can be sure of at the Vuelta a España, it is that there will always be some controversy of sorts. You could say the same of the other Grand Tours but the roads of Spain have a knack for producing it on a regular basis. Anyone who knows about my career knows what I’m talking about.
Looking back to the start of proceedings in this year’s race the bad weather was blamed for the race ending in the dark but then you realise that the race was scheduled in the early evening, when it was due to go dark. The stage was also held on greasy Barcelona city centre roads, with teams forced to take huge risks to avoid losing time to their GC rivals. So it wasn’t just one thing, it was a combination of all those elements.
That’s why the Vuelta 2023 endured a painful opening week of crashes and tension and Jumbo-Visma’s first assault on the peloton. That in turn exposed Soudal-Quickstep’s weaknesses and race leader Remco Evenepoel to what was to come. Then Sepp Kuss took over the red jersey and never lost it.
The second week was probably meant to be the calmest portion of the race with the individual time trial giving some order to the GC and then the Col du Tourmalet finish to reveal the true overall contenders. Yet Kuss didn’t fall apart on either of those days, creating Jumbo-Visma’s leadership conundrum, while Evenepoel cracked in the French Pyrenees, forcing him to change his race strategy.
Up until then, the flat stages gave the sprint teams some opportunities but after the Tourmalet, the Vuelta was about surviving to Madrid for many, while the GC battle became a case study in team and rider management.
With Remco and Soudal-QuickStep refocusing on stage wins and ultimately the climbers jersey, the race tactics changed for everyone involved. The attacks became more selective, with only scary riders of immense talent and strength making the escape group and fighting it out for the honours.
With those types of riders on the attack, other teams than Jumbo-Visma were obliged to do the majority of the chasing and controlling to defend top ten placings, so there was never a situation where the Dutch squad had to panic and use their own riders.
The first hour of each day saw a massive fight to be part of the escape but when you have former world champions, Grand Tour podium finishers and the like struggling to make it into the attacks, it was obvious that Jumbo-Visma had the race locked down.
All that was left were the parts they hadn’t planned for: deciding who would actually win the Vuelta
The fairytale story line of the loyal domestique suddenly finding himself in the leader’s jersey slowly developed into one where everyone on the outside of the team was asking if they would really let him win.
I imagine that became quite stressful for Kuss. He wasn’t in that situation by chance or being gifted it, he’d earned it by being consistent just as he had been in so many other races when he was riding for his team leaders.
Now it was his turn to be the supported and protected one but it took awhile for that to sink in in certain minds in the team.
We may never find out who said what, when, and in what manner in the series of Jumbo-Visma team meetings. However, the dilemmas of having multiple team leaders with different egos and ambitions really showed its ugly side on the Angliru.
Jumbo-Visma only avoided a PR disaster when they put an end to ‘the strongest wins’ strategy and convinced Vingegaard and Roglič to ride for Kuss.
It took them far too long to understand the sense of public condemnation that arose when fans around the world saw Roglič and Vingegaard attacking their teammate and race leader.
Whether Sepp Kuss now develops into a more assertive element of the Jumbo-Visma leadership structure remains to be seen.
I can envisage that he becomes a fully protected rider for the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Volta a Catalunya but doubt he will ever challenge for a Grand Tour leadership role.
Jumbo-Visma made a call and strategic decision just in time to avoid a huge scandal and an embarrassing internal battle between its leaders. They were close to being like Stephen Roche and Roberto Visentini at Carera and the 1987 Giro d’Italia but saved the team’s reputation just in time.
Looking at the damage that could have been done to the ‘Samen Winnen’- ‘Winning together” squad, they ultimately avoided a potential scandal quite well. The full blown drama of Vingegaard and Roglič attacking Kuss out on the road never really happened.
Yes, Vingegaard and Roglič did take time back but they had excuses or reasons, as they would like to call them, at the same time as they had temporary lapses of loyalty. Both clearly have egos and ambitions to feed but ultimately I think they are happy to see their friend and loyal domestique win the Vuelta and have his big day in the spotlight.
Would they have been happier if they had won is another story, one that will play out through the winter, not just in their individual minds, but also in the corridors of the Jumbo-Visma offices.
2024 will offer a new clean sheet and a new season but Jumbo-Visma will have to learn from their success at the Vuelta a España.