Sepp Kuss’ seventh place in stage 8 of the 2023 Vuelta a España has seen the Jumbo-Visma climbing champion take both his first-ever lead in a Grand Tour and the first roja for the USA in the Spanish race since Chris Horner won it outright back in 2013.
Riding his twelfth Grand Tour, Kuss was lying second overall, eight seconds behind Frenchman Lenny Martínez (Groupama-FDJ) after his summit finish victory at Javalambre on Thursday.
48 hours later on the Xorret de Catí, as Martínez faded badly, Kuss tried to distance the remainder of the group of favourites further up the slope.
His attack was reeled in by defending Vuelta champion Remco Evenepoel, but Kuss still managed to stay with the other favourites as they crowned the ultra-difficult climb and crossed the line in seventh place behind teammate Primož Roglič.
Any earlier insistence that he was not a GC candidate alongside Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard has now been quietly shelved, with the American saying after the stage “I would like to keep the jersey to the last day,” and Roglič describing Kuss as an overall contender as well.
However, as Kuss said, what also mattered to him was finally being able to lead a Grand Tour. “That’s something I would never have expected,” he said, “but that’s the beauty of the Vuelta.”
“You see lots of different kinds of riders wear the leader’s jersey, it’s not like the Tour when only the really strongest guy ever gets it. So it’s really cool to be in this position, and I just have to enjoy it because it’s not every day that can happen.”
His strategy on the Xorret de Catí was to try to draw out the other riders, and it appeared to work well as Evenepoel, rather than attacking, dug deep to reel him in.
“The idea was to attack first, to force Remco to do his job, but in any case, you can’t go follow other riders’ wheels on such a hard climb and I didn’t have the legs to maintain the difference, especially with Remco driving so hard”
“But before the stage and during it, Primož said he wanted to go for it, and it was a perfect finish for him.”
Climbing talents are one thing, but Kuss’ ability to down a large quantity of Spanish champagne, known locally as cava, in a single gulp became impressively evident on the winner’s stage 6 at Javalambre. Almost inevitably, he was asked by one Spanish journalist whether he’d had a similarly all-out celebration after taking the Vuelta lead.
“There was maybe half a bottle left…