TOUR DE FRANCE 2021 – SUPERB SEPP KUSS CLAIMS STAGE 15 WIN FOR FIRST EVER TOUR VICTORY
Andorre-La-Vieille, France : This Tour de France is starting to feel like a football match in which a team goes 4-0 up in the first half, then comes out in the second and seems to be playing for a draw. When fireworks are threatened, it’s hard not to be disappointed when there’s barely a hint of a sparkler.
It’s a perfectly permissible strategy, of course. Whether or not Tadej Pogacar feels capable of adding to the five minute lead he holds over his de facto rivals, there’s no need for him to do so. In the heat of the high Pyrenees, there’s no need for him to put on a show if it might risk the whole thing falling apart.
Fortunately for us, although the very top of the GC might be effectively settled – this is the largest gap from first to second at this point since 1997 – an individual Tour de France stage is made up of multitudes.
There’s the battle for the stage, of course. Stage 15 began with first one (Thomas De Gendt, of course), then eight, then 22 more, for a total, by 35km into the stage, of 32 riders in the breakaway. Of course, a few of those weren’t serious threats for an individual result on such a mountainous course as this one, but plenty of were. Eighteen had previously won Grand Tour stages, nine of those had taken one or more at the Tour de France itself, while Vincenzo Nibali was a former winner of the entire Tour, in 2014.
Something that left plenty of people, including members of Eurosport’s punditry team, scratching their heads was that three of that group, Steven Kruijswijk, Sepp Kuss, Wout van Aert, were from Jumbo Visma.
Van Aert might have polka dot ambitions but surely they were dwarfed by more important matters? Why would the Dutch team’s top three climbers be allowed – or instructed – up the road when they had a general classification position to protect? “As Jonas Vinegaard is the only rider to have challenged Tadej Pogacar in the mountains…. that seems slightly bizarre to me,” says Dan Lloyd.
The answer, we learned from the team via Sir Bradley on a bike, who had spoken to a Dutch TV crew, was that Vinegaard’s bosses did not believe he could handle the pressure of a GC battle. In his paymasters’ view it would be better for the team to go stage hunting than look out for their man in white. Later we would find ourselves wondering if that ought to have been, “the alleged answer.”
In the luscious Pyrenean foothills today’s break, which established itself in a far less fractious fashion than yesterday’s, was allowed to build up a commanding lead over the peloton. With Aurélien Paret-Peintre, the best placed GC rider, at 24.44, we could be sure there would be no Guillaume Martins or Ben O’Connors threatening the overall positions of the top ten.
Does that mean it would be a straightforward day? Perish(ons) the thought.
The battle for sprint points did look like it would be one of the simpler sides to the stage. With Michael Matthews being the fastest rider in the front group, he’d cruise to the intermediate, surely? Thomas De Gendt, had other ideas, making the Australian work for the win on the line, though he still managed to take the maximum 20, and reduce Mark Cavendish’s lead to an untroubling 72.
Groupama FDJ, seemingly under orders to take something from the day, provided most of the break’s firepower in the first half of the race. Which was kind of them. Yet when the action kicked off, somewhat deeper into the stage, the team of red, white and blue was nowhere to be seen.
It was the riders competing for poker dots who started the fire. Poels, Woods and Van Aert teased us on the first categorised climb, made a real fight of it on the second, before Nairo Quintana joined in on the third. The Colombian claimed maximum points and the Souvenir Henri Desgranges on the Port d’Envalira, before going solo on the descent.
It was around that time that Teams Ineos and Movistar also decided to turn up the heat in the peloton. A swollen bunch soon became a skinny one, while a ten minute gap to the front of the race was rapidly reduced to little more than five. The goal was clearly to dispense with Guillaume Martin, the usurper occupying second spot in the overall standings.
It proved entirely effective. The wide, sweeping Andorran roads made for a furious pace and meant there was no time to relax or recover for Guillaume Martin. As the yellow jersey group strung out in a long line, a small gap to the Cofidis rider became a large one, became one he would not be able to bridge. Martin would end up losing four minutes and seven places in the GC.
With Wout van Aert pulling particularly hard, what was left of the break surged towards the final climb, the Col De Beixalis and an inevitable showdown between some of the purest climbers in the world on its steep lower slopes.
With gradients in the high teens, Sepp Kuss made his move. The lightweight American, who lives in Andorra and would have been as familiar as anyone with the climb, had been barely visible for most of the stage. He seemed to have been saving his energy for precisely that moment. Only Alejandro Valverde could follow, and then for barely more than a hundred metres. A ten second lead became twenty, which became twenty five, and the race was gone. Over the top Kuss went, taking more risks on the descent than he perhaps needed to, but managing to stay upright all the same, to become the first American Tour de France stage winner since Tyler Farrar.
“I was really suffering a lot in this Tour,” he said afterwards. “I didn’t feel like I had the spice in the legs. Today I knew it was finishing where I live, I was really motivated for the stage and finally found myself with good legs.”
“I don’t ride [the Col De Beixalis] so much in training because it’s so hard but I knew if I rode hard at the start and got a gap, I’d be in with a good chance.”
A few minutes behind, the top of the general classification gave us a few thrills and fortunately no spills. Ben O’Connor tried to gap, failed, and tried again. Even 2nd place Rigoberto Uran attacked for what felt like the first time in years.
Kuss’s team-mate Jonas Vinegaard pulled a few shapes himself, though they came to nothing, while Wout van Aert fell back to see the young Dane home safely. Jumbo Visma’s tactics might not have made much sense early doors but at the end of the day, it was a game of two halves.
Forgive the footballing analogies. But It’s coming home