Sepp Kuss has been by Primož Roglič’s side for each of his Vuelta a España victories and he has seen just about everything the race has to offer over the past three years. He knows the path to overall victory here is rarely smooth, but it seems altogether more complicated this time around after Remco Evenepoel’s exhibition on the first mountain stage to Pico Jano.
When Jumbo-Visma claimed the opening team time trial in Utrecht last week, this Vuelta looked to be settling into a familiar pattern, and the sense of déjà vu was only heightened when Roglič himself won in Laguardia on stage 4 to take hold of the red jersey. The Slovenian and his Jumbo-Visma squad looked destined to spend another Vuelta leading from the front.
The dynamic of the race changed in the space of nine, rain-soaked kilometres on Pico Jano on stage 6, however, as Evenepoel bounded clear of the group of favourites and disappeared into the mist. Roglič battled to limit his losses, but he would ship 1:37 to the Belgian by the summit. In the overall standings, he now lies fourth, 1:01 behind the new leader Evenepoel.
It’s not entirely uncharted territory for Roglič, who lost the red jersey to Richard Carapaz for four days midway through the 2020 Vuelta, but he has never trailed a direct rival by a margin like this during his period of dominance. This is shaping up to be a very different kind of Vuelta for Jumbo-Visma. For now, at least, their task will be to prise the race open rather than shut it down.
“It’s still a good position. We can lean on the other teams a bit more, and also play the race a bit different tactically if the situation is there,” Kuss told reporters in Camargo ahead of stage 7. “There’s still so much left and so many hard stages where we can do different things, so we still feel really good.
“There’s still a lot to go – still a long time trial and a lot of hard mountain stages. Anything can happen.”
Roglič was among the few riders with the wherewithal to track Evenepoel’s initial onslaught at Pico Jano, but even he had to relent under the Belgian’s forcing. Only Enric Mas (Movistar) could hold Evenepoel’s wheel to the summit, while an isolated Roglič performed a sizeable part of the pace-making in the chasing group. Kuss, by his own admission, struggled on the final climb, and he came home a little under a minute behind his leader.
“For us, it wasn’t the best day, but it wasn’t the end of anything either. It was only the first mountain stage and there’s still a lot of the race left. I think overall we have room to improve but it was still an OK day,” said Kuss. “I didn’t have the best day myself. I think I suffered a bit in the rain, but that’s also how it goes for me a bit on the first summit finishes. But I think everybody still feels good and is looking forward to what’s coming.”
Like 12 months ago, Roglič arrived at this Vuelta after injury had ended his Tour de France challenge. The crisp acceleration that carried him to victory at Laguardia suggested a smooth rehabilitation from the two broken vertebrae he suffered last month, but the time lost to Evenepoel and Mas hinted at the truncated nature of his preparation.
“For sure, he didn’t have the ideal run-in to the race, but he also wouldn’t be here unless he knew he had a good chance,” Kuss said. “But, that said, I think Remco and some of the others had an exceptional performance yesterday. The time gap at the end was the result of that, but I think Primož himself did what he could, and it was still a good ride. He pushed all the way to the line just to limit the differences, even when there were a lot of guys on his wheel, so it’s still a good sign.”
Both Evenepoel and Roglič will view next Tuesday’s time trial to Alicante as an opportunity to lay down a marker, but before that pivotal stage, the Vuelta takes on back-to-back summit finishes this weekend at Colláu Fancuaya and Les Praeres. The altitude may not be imposing but the Asturian doubleheader has the potential to put a different hue on the general classification picture. Kuss, who is riding the Vuelta-Tour combination for the third successive year, knows that this race has a habit of deviating from the script more readily than the Big Show in July.
“It’s always hard, because you think you know what’s coming, but there can always be a surprise, especially at the Vuelta,” Kuss said. “You never know what can happen, how hard each stage will be. You know a bit of what to expect, but there’s always some surprises.”
This time around, Jumbo-Visma might even welcome them.