After a tough climbing stage at his debut Tour de France on Friday, Sepp Kuss said he forgot his 26th birthday was looming Sunday. It turned out to be a birthday he won’t forget.
The professional road cyclist from Durango had plenty in the tank Sunday on a brutal beyond category climb of Grand Colombier with a summit finish on Stage 15 of the Tour de France. Kuss looked like he may have had the best legs of the lead group of 12 riders, but his job Sunday wasn’t to go for a stage victory. It was to support Jumbo-Visma team leader Primož Roglic, and Kuss did a brilliant job.
Kuss twice staged a leadout for Roglic’s final attacks. Roglic tried to make his move with 400 meters to go to the finish line, but it was a bit early. After Kuss had dropped back, he was called on once more to surge to the front and attempt another leadout for Roglic in the closing meters. He stood on his pedals and quickly took position.
But the first attack may have taken a bit too much out of Roglic, the leader of the Tour de France after Week 2. It was fellow Slovenian and closest rival Tadej Pogacar of UAE-Team Emirates who would take the stage win and cut four seconds into the lead of Roglic.
Still, Roglic maintained a 40-second lead going into Monday’s rest day and a brutal final week in the Alps.
“It was a great day for the team,” Kuss said in a Jumbo-Visma news release. “We rode an almost perfect stage. It seemed like everyone was outperforming themselves. In the final, we might have approached it slightly differently. Maybe I should have been on Tom (Dumoulin’s) wheel to start the sprint for Primož earlier. But all in all, it was a great stage for us.”
The stage was set by Jumbo-Visma rider Wout van Aert, who took a strong five-mile pull at the bottom of the 11-mile climb of Grand Colombier after the team had worked hard to reel in a breakaway group.
Paired with the brutal high pace set by Roglic, Dumoulin, George Bennett and Kuss, the result was a major catastrophe for defending champion Egan Bernal of the Ineos Grenadiers team. The young Colombian simply could not match the pace of the Jumbo-Visma squad, which has been a theme of this Tour de France and was also the case at the Critérium du Dauphiné, the leadup race 10 days before the Tour.
Bernal entered the day in third place after losing more than 20 seconds to Roglic on Friday. Bernal dropped from second to third on Friday, but he plummeted all the way to 13th on Sunday, as he lost 7 minutes, 20 seconds to Roglic and Pogacar.
“We stuck to our plan by increasing the pace,” Kuss said. “As a result, some rivals lost time and the rest were riding at their limits.”
Pogacar would win his second stage of his debut Tour de France. He finished the 108-mile route in 4 hours, 34 minutes, 13 seconds. Roglic, a few seconds back, was credited with the same finishing time.
“I came just a little short to win,” Roglic said in the team news release. “Pogacar was a bit faster. I would have liked to win to reward the guys for their work, but that didn’t work out, unfortunately. I compliment my teammates. They were very, very strong. Impressive even. The pace was really high. It was a tough, but all in all good day for us. So far, everything is going according to plan, but we are not there yet. ”
Australian Richie Porte was the third man involved in the final push to the finish line. He attacked a bit early and set up the last surge by the Slovenians. Porte finished third, five seconds back.
Kuss would roll into the finish line in sixth place, 15 seconds behind. He moved up two spots in the overall standings to 17th, 34:37 behind the lead of Roglic.
The Durango star is the top American in the overall standings. Though he has not been able to go for an individual result with a stage win, his chances aren’t quite over. He could get a shot on another brutal climbing Stage 17 on Wednesday. But Kuss isn’t worried about going for a stage. His job is to deliver Roglic to Paris still wearing the leader’s yellow jersey.
Now, that appears to be a two-man battle between Roglic and Pogacar with Bernal out of the picture. There is a long way to go, but Jumbo-Visma has been a superior team all Tour and for most of the season. Defending the yellow jersey is a job the Jumbo-Visma riders are ready for.
Kuss’ goal all along was to feel strong the third week of this Tour. That goal has now been accomplished. He indicated Sunday that he has felt his form come around and is as strong as he was when he won Stage 5 of the Critérium du Dauphiné.
“I am also happy that I am doing better every day. Much better than in the first week,” Kuss said. “It’s nice that the feeling I had in the Dauphiné is back.”