A water carrier just won the hardest cycling race on the planet

Cyclist Sepp Kuss, center, on the podium of the 21st stage of the Vuelta a España with Jonas Vingegaard, left, and Primoz Roglic, right.
Enlarge / Cyclist Sepp Kuss, center, on the podium of the 21st stage of the Vuelta a España with Jonas Vingegaard, left, and Primoz Roglic, right.

Ricardo Rubio/Europa Press via Getty Images

Something amazing happened this past weekend.

If you are an American, you probably have not heard about it. You probably don’t know who did it or what he did. And until you clicked on this article, you probably didn’t care. But you should.

Sepp Kuss won the Vuelta a España.

Who? Did what now?

Kuss is a 29-year-old professional cyclist from Durango, Colorado. On Sunday, he won one of the three major “grand tours” in road cycling. The others are the more famous Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. All are grueling, three-week races across the flatlands and mountainous terrain of their eponymous nations. The Spanish tour is the last of the three, and this year it had the most difficult and demanding route.

What’s so remarkable about Kuss winning is that he has devoted his career to helping other cyclists win these grand tours. His Vuelta win is a little bit like Kansas City Chiefs starting center Creed Humphrey winning the National Football League Most Valuable Player trophy instead of his quarterback, Patrick Mahomes.

Kuss is much beloved in the professional peloton and cycling fandom. He has a myriad of nicknames, from “The Durango Kid” to “The Mailman” (because he always delivers as a helper) to my favorite, “GC Kuss.” The latter was a formerly ironic nickname because, while Kuss is absolutely one of the world’s most elite climbers on a bike, he never came close to winning the “general classification” in a major pro bike race.

GC Kuss checks out the special paint job on his road bike ahead of the final stage of the Vuelta a Espana.
Enlarge / GC Kuss checks out the special paint job on his road bike ahead of the final stage of the Vuelta a Espana.

Jumbo Visma

Until this Vuelta.

There is a famous cycling film that was made 50 years ago, at the Giro d’Italia, titled Stars and Water Carriers. That edition of the race featured the biggest of stars, including Belgian rider Eddy Merckx, widely considered to be the greatest bike racer of all time. But the film also focuses on the water carriers, the riders who fetch water for their team leaders, protect their position in the peloton, ride into the wind, and so much more.

Kuss is a water carrier.

He is a highly paid one, to be sure. He makes more than $1 million per year as a luxury domestique. In the mountains, he does the final lead out for the stars on his team, Jonas Vingegaard of Denmark and Primož Roglič of Slovenia. You’ve probably never heard of these two men, but they are two of the three best “general classification” riders in the world. (The other one, not at the race, is Tadej Pogačar, who improbably also hails from Slovenia). Vingegaard has won the last two Tours de France. Earlier this year, Kuss also helped Roglič win the Giro d’Italia. They ride for the best cycling team in the world, based in the Netherlands, and sponsored by a chain of supermarkets called Jumbo-Visma.

Should you not ride for the race leader?

Early on in this year’s Vuelta, Kuss was sent in a breakaway to mark other riders. Because other cycling teams in the race did not view him as an overall threat to win the race, Kuss gained an advantage of a couple minutes. It was thought that he would lose this during the time trial stage because he has not ridden these race-against-the-clock stages particularly well in the past.

But then a couple of things turned the race on its head. Kuss rode a pretty good time trial, only losing about one minute to many of his rivals. And then the main rival to the Jumbo-Visma team, a Belgian named Remco Evenepoel, had a bad day in the mountains, losing a lot of time. Suddenly, Kuss, Roglič, and Vingegaard were ranked first, second, and third, respectively, in the standings.

GC Kuss was no longer a joke. But could the water carrier transform into a star? For days over the last week, it was not at all clear. This would require Vingegaard and Roglič, stars of the sport, to submerge their egos and transform their roles. Could they become water carriers? Would they?

Cycling is a beautiful and preposterous sport. It is beautiful because of the amazing landscapes and intricate tactics that individual riders and teams follow in their pursuit of the overall win; a victory during the daily stage of the race, and other competitions within the competition. It is preposterous because of what cyclists do to their bodies to compete. They starve themselves to become exceptionally skinny, and then they go out every day for three weeks and beat the hell out of themselves. The wattage they can sustain on a bike, 300, 400, 500 or even more leg-breaking watts for minutes at a time, boggles the mind.

Leadership is also a great challenge. Kuss had never undertaken these responsibilities before, the weight of expectation, or carrying the burden of winning for his team. He did not expect to be in his role. This was his third grand tour of the year, riding these demanding and exhaustive races in May, July, and now September. No rider can peak for all three races, and he was only able to do it because he played a supportive role in all three, taking some days easier than others.

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