Kuss and the rest of his team are being very coy about who is the leader of the team in the race but I am certain it is not the 28-year-old American, though he won’t come out and say so when asked. And when teammate Primož Roglič was asked after winning stage 8 how many leaders the team has, he replied, with a big smile, “Three. And maybe a fourth one will come.” I don’t think anyone is fooled anymore.
But back to Evenepoel. His Vuelta started off in the dark and in the rain, as a downpour turned day into night and the stage 1 team time trial into a hazardous slog, marked by numerous crashes. Organisers had scheduled the stage to start in the early evening so that its conclusion could be televised live on the evening news. And because Evenepoel is the defending champion, his Soudal-QuickStep team started last down the flooded ramp, and so had to navigate the 14.8 km course over an inundated pavement in the dark.
It was quite an accomplishment that they finished third, a mere 6 seconds behind the winning Team DSM Firmenich and second-place Movistar. Even better for Evenepoel, Jumbo-Visma’s double Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard (one of the team leaders) suffered a puncture during the stage, which caused the team to lose about 30 seconds to Soudal-QuickStep, which is the main reason for Evenepoel’s now dwindling lead over Roglič, by 7 seconds, and Vingegaard, by 11 seconds.
Then Evenepoel won stage 3 but came over the finish line so quickly and was so intent on celebrating that he ploughed into a group of soigneurs and other team officials standing just 20 meters behind the line. He crashed to the ground, suffering a bleeding gash on his face and contusions. And finally, after leading Roglič, Vingegaard and his other GC rivals up and over the final climb of stage 8, the short but very steep Xorret de Catí (3.9 km @ 11.4%, with ramps of up to 22%), and then down to the finish line, he allowed Roglič to win the sprint to the line because he thought there had been riders in front of them and that the stage win was no longer at stake. “I definitely could have won. Primož’s sprint wasn’t the fastest,” the chagrined Belgian superstar said after the stage. “It’s very frustrating, because I felt very good, and I think I could win this stage. I feel a bit stupid, actually.”
Kuss was far more upbeat, of course, though he remained cautious. “It’s really cool, I’m happy to wear this jersey,” he said. “We’re in a really good place as a team, but the hardest stages are still to come.”
Finally, Evenepoel was probably adversely affected by the organizers’ unusual decision, made with the riders out on the road, to take the final times for stage 9 2.05 km (and not 2 km!) before the official finish line because rain and passing cars had covered the pavement ahead of the finish with mud. So the time was taken near the end of a steep slope, where Roglič was able to outclimb his Belgian rival. If the time had been taken at the actual finish line, it’s likely that Evenepoel would have taken some time from his rival, just because he is the faster rider and the last kilometre of the stage was almost flat.
Even worse for Evenepoel’s mood was the simple fact that Roglič beat him on a climb, and the hardest climbs are still to come. That does not bode well for his chances. Fortunately for the defending Vuelta champion, Tuesday’s stage 10 is an individual time trial, and he is the current world ITT champion, so he will hope to take as many seconds as he can off the Slovenian on Tuesday and trust that his climbing improves as the race wears on.
And then there is the way that Jumbo-Visma has bullied the peloton, especially in the second half of the first week, as if it was natural and self-evident that they owned this race. First, Kuss handily won stage 6 with an irresistible display of power on the final climb, the Pico del Buitre (10.9 km @ 8%). Then, following the flat stage 7, Roglič won stage 8, as described above, after Jumbo-Visma drove the peloton hard to drop the GC leader, Lenny Martinez (Groupama-FDJ), and enable Kuss to don the race leader’s red jersey (which he is likely to lose in Tuesday’s ITT). And Jumbo-Visma took charge of the peloton as well in stage 9, to protect its leaders from the crosswinds that buffeted the riders for about half of its 184.5 km course.
Entering the second week, they are firmly in control of matters, with Roglič clearly the GC leader, Vingegaard as elite support and backup, if it becomes necessary, and Kuss doing what he always does, providing stellar support on the climbs, and finally receiving a visible reward for it. It’s never a good idea to write off Evenepoel, but I think he will have to find another superpower in his toolkit if he wants to defend his title.
- Sepp Kuss, Jumb0-Visma, 35:23:30
- Marc Soler, UAE Team Emirates, 0:43
- Lenny Martinez, Groupama-FDJ, 1:02
- Remco Evenepoel, Soudal-QuicStep, 2:22
- Mikel Landa, Bahrain Victorious, 2:29
- Primož Roglič, Jumbo-Visma, 2:29
- Jonas Vingegaard, Jumbo-Visma, 2:33
- Enric Mas, Movistar, 2:33
- Juan Ayuso, UAE Team Emirates, 2:43
- João Almeida, UAE Team Emirates, 2:55