After a couple of stages well-suited for the sprinters, it was finally back to the mountains Friday at the Tour de France. Durango’s Sepp Kuss was in his element.
The 25-year-old third-year WorldTour professional cyclist for Team Jumbo-Visma was frequently at the front of the peloton Friday on Stage 13. The 119-mile route featured seven categorized climbs with two Category 1 ascents, including the finish atop the volcanic summit of Puy Mary at a grade of 8.1% but with a finish at nearly 15%.
“It was a good stage. A hard one. You have to suffer a lot,” Kuss said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “These are the days where you start to see big cracks in certain guys. That will be even more amplified in the third week. It’s nice to keep building momentum.”
Kuss, working for race leader Primož Roglic of Slovenia, took massive pulls through the climbs. Jumbo-Visma controlled the pace of the peloton much of the day behind a breakaway group of 17 riders.
Friday’s stage had a race within the race. While Colombia’s Daniel Felipe Martinez of the EF Pro Cycling team won in 5 hours, 1 minute, 47 seconds, the battle for the yellow jersey played out a few minutes behind the breakaway group.
Roglic had teammates Kuss and Tom Dumoulin with him all day. They helped control the race, while Roglic would climb hard to the finish line to take 12th on the stage ahead of fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar. Roglic said he knew it was going to take maximum effort on a climb that would hurt, but he wanted to make a big move.
The big news came from the Ineos Grenadiers team. Team leader Egan Bernal, the defending Tour de France champion from Colombia, dropped back on the final ascent after Ineos went to the front on the penultimate climb to try to make a move. The pace set by the Jumbo-Visma riders proved to be too much. Bernal entered the day in second place, 21 seconds behind Roglic. Unable to keep up in the final kilometers with Roglic and Pogacar, Bernal fell to 18th place on the stage and third in the standings, 59 seconds behind Roglic.
After the stage, Bernal was bent over his handlebars, visibly cracked from the effort to minimize the loss in time to Roglic. Meanwhile, Roglic still looked fresh.
“Primož indicated that he was feeling good and that he wanted to try something in the last two kilometers,” Dumoulin said in a Jumbo-Visma news release. “He was dominant, and the team did very well. It is the first day that differences have been made in the GC. We had hoped to gain time on Egan, but we didn’t expect it. Especially not when Ineos took over on the penultimate climb. They were going really fast. They really went full throttle. After that, Sepp and I took over. Sepp was really strong. It’s still a long way to go in this Tour, and there is a very tough third week ahead of us.”
Pogacar, who had lost valuable time on Stage 7 on a tough day battling crosswinds, has clawed back into second place only 44 seconds down, aided by his win on Stage 9 and his climbing efforts alongside Roglic.
“It’s good to put time into Bernal, but there’s a lot of other guys that are dangerous, too,” Kuss said. “Pogacar in particular. He’s been one of the strongest riders in the race. It’s a bit more difficult putting time into him throughout the rest of the race. We will see what we can do.”
In all, the riders had to tackle roughly 14,500 feet of climbing Friday. Kuss would go on to finish the stage in 25th. He jumped four places into 20th overall.
Kuss said the team knew it would be one of the toughest stages of the 21-day race. He was proud of the way the team responded when Ineos tried to take control late.
“We were still there with three guys. It ended up being a perfect final climb for Primož’s speed,” Kuss said. “We just tried to make a good pace for him, follow whoever, and it worked out well. But there’s still a long way to go to get to Paris.”
Kuss helped Roglic to the win at the Vuelta a España and a third-place finish in the Giro d’Italia in 2019. Now, the team is working to protect Roglic in the leader’s yellow jersey for another eight stages.
“I am very happy with how it went today,” Roglic said in the team news release. “I took valuable time on my rivals, except for Pogacar. He is very strong and he is a tough opponent. It’s no surprise to us that he’s doing so well. We saw that in the Vuelta last year. But all in all, it was a good day. As long as you gain time, it’s OK and to my advantage. Every second counts. The team was again very strong today. This is not only my performance, but that of the whole team. After all, we do this together. It was a tough day and the final climb, above all the last two kilometers, was very steep. It was tough, and everyone was riding at their limit. This has been a good day, but we are not there yet. The Tour is still long and a lot can still happen. We will continue to focus on our plan and then we will see where it takes us.”
Kuss said he feels stronger this week than the first week of the Tour. He hopes to continue that trend going into Week 3. His goal all along was to be fresh in the Alps and ready to send Roglic into Paris still wearing the yellow jersey.
“I’ve done a good job of saving myself for when it really matters,” Kuss said. “Backing off otherwise. On a personal level, I feel a lot better than the first week and hope I keep going that direction. Some days you can be good, some days you can be really bad. That’s the weird thing about a three-week race.”
The next two days will set the tone for a brutal final week in the Alps and a Stage 20 uphill individual time trial. Saturday’s route has one mountain climb and several hills before a downhill finish that will suit the sprinters.
Stage 15 on Sunday, which will be the 26th birthday for Kuss, is a brutal ascent of Grand Colombier in the Jura mountains. It features another summit finish.
“We have so many guys who are good on every terrain. For Primož, that gives him a lot of confidence knowing we’re always there with him no matter how hard the race is,” Kuss said. “Sunday’s stage is going to be really hard and a great ending to the second week. If we can be in a good position in the Alps during Week 3 and all we have to do is defend, that will be ideal.
“If I am not suffering too much on Sunday, that will be a gift enough. I forgot it was my birthday.”