GUADARRAMA, Spain (AP) — Sepp Kuss arrived at the Spanish Vuelta tasked once more with helping to shepherd some of the top stars in cycling over the mountains and put them in a position to win the prestigious race.
Twenty racing days later, Kuss was being congratulated by his teammates on Saturday for having virtually locked up the first Grand Tour title for an American man in a decade.
Kuss crossed the finish line of the 20th and penultimate stage flanked by Jonas Vingegaard, the two-time defending Tour de France winner, and Primoz Roglic, who was aiming to match a record with a fourth Vuelta title. His illustrious Jumbo-Visma teammates locked arms with Kuss and gently pedaled over the final meters.
“It was very special to finish the stage with my teammates after all the team had put in so much work. I am very, very happy,” Kuss said in Spanish. “(We are) almost there ... we still have tomorrow.”
Kuss will wear the red leader’s jersey heading into Sunday’s final stage, when cycling custom dictates that title rivals respect the leader’s advantage in the largely ceremonial arrival to Madrid.
He kept his 17-second lead over Vingegaard over the 20th and penultimate stage, which is the final day of competitive riding for the overall contenders.
The last American man to win one of cycling’s three-week races, which in addition to the Vuelta and Tour includes the Giro d’Italia, was 2013 Vuelta winner Chris Horner.
When asked how he felt about the support he had from the local fans, Kuss said with a laugh: “With each stage I felt more Spanish, but I am from the U.S.”
Wout Poels beat Remco Evenepoel to claim Saturday’s 208-kilometer (129-mile) ride from Manzanares El Real to Guadarrama in hilly country which included 10 category-three climbs outside the capital. It was the race’s longest stage and took riders past the El Escorial monastery.
Jumbo-Visma lived up to the billing as being the team to beat at the race that started last month in Barcelona.
Not only is the Dutch team set to monopolize the podium in Madrid with Kuss, Vingegaard and Roglic on target to finish 1-2-3, Jumbo-Visma is also on the cusp of sweeping all three Grand Tours this year after Roglic won the Giro d’Italia in May and Vingegaard repeated as the Tour champion in July.
The nearest challenger to the trio was Spaniard Juan Ayuso, the UAE Team Emirates leader, who was more than two minutes behind Roglic in third overall.
Kuss, a 29-year-old from Durango, Colorado, started cycling as a way to train all year for his passion of cross-country skiing. But he eventually changed the skis for wheels and has for several seasons featured as one of the top support riders for Jumbo-Visma. He now lives in Andorra with his wife in the Pyrenees Mountains nestled between Spain and France.
Kuss took the lead on the eighth stage and did not relinquish it, holding his own on massive climbs up the Col du Tourmalet in France and the Alto de l’Angliru in northern Spain. And he clung to his dwindling advantage when Vingegaard and Roglic took their shot at overtaking him with stage wins this week.
The two stars did, however, finally change strategy and rode for Kuss over the 18th stage which was the last demanding mountain ride of the race. Vingegaard said after that stage that it was “sure nice to be able to pay Sepp back. He has done so much for me and Primoz.”
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