It was a heartwarming scene that did not always seem likely to play out. Jonas Vingegaard, Sepp Kuss and Primoz Roglic, riding arm-in-arm into Madrid on Sunday evening at the end of an extraordinary Vuelta a España; Vingegaard, the reigning Tour de France champion, and Roglic, the reigning Giro d’Italia champion, grinning and pointing at Kuss between them, wearing the red jersey of the Vuelta leader, as if to say ‘Sepp is the man’.
The American, for whom this was a first Grand Tour victory after years as a faithful domestique, looked both humbled and elated at the respect being afforded him by his two more illustrious team-mates.
The demonstration of team unity capped an extraordinary season for Jumbo-Visma, who completed two historic trebles in Spain; a Vuelta podium clean sweep (the first team to do so since Kas at the 1966 Vuelta) and the Grand Tour ‘grand slam’ in a single calendar year (the Dutch superteam are the first squad ever to do that – even Team Sky in their most dominant years never achieved a clean sweep).
It also capped an extraordinary three weeks, one from which Jumbo emerged with their honour just about intact. And their reputation very much enhanced.
How they did it
Make no mistake, things could have gone very differently for the Dutch team over the final few days of the race. For a while last week it looked as if Jumbo might definitively inherit Team Sky’s mantle as the most successful but least loved team in cycling.
After Roglic rode away from Kuss on the Angliru at the end of Stage 17, and Vingegaard followed the Slovenian, Jumbo’s reputation was very much on the line. Kuss’s once healthy lead in the general classification had been slowly whittled down by his two team-mates, who now occupied second and third on GC, and fans of all creeds were apoplectic at the thought that one of them might snatch the jersey from him in his moment of glory.
In cycling, it is not the done thing to attack your own team-mates, particularly when they have spent years sacrificing themselves for your Grand Tour successes. Kuss may not have arrived in Spain as a designated leader for Jumbo, inheriting the jersey early in the race almost by accident, but now that he was wearing it, the softly-spoken 29 year-old from Colorado was very much set fair for victory unless one of his team-mates took it from him.
That they did not was down to a combination of factors, not least a small but crucial turn from Bahrain-Victorious rider Mikel Landa who helped to limit Kuss’s losses on the Angliru meaning the American still led by eight seconds from Vingegaard at the end of last Wednesday.
❤️ Líder desde la etapa 8⃣ hasta el final. Nadie ha podido desbancar a Sepp Kuss. ¡Disfruta del minuto de La Roja!
❤️ From stage 8️⃣ to Madrid, no one has been able to unseat Sepp Kuss! Enjoy the red jersey’s final minute!
#LaVuelta23 @CarrefourES #CarrefourConLaVuelta pic.twitter.com/mmBSnXAHeP
— La Vuelta (@lavuelta) September 17, 2023
But perhaps most important of all was public sentiment. It was clear by Wednesday night that if Jumbo continued to allow their three riders to duke it out, as they threatened to, there would be an outcry and the team would lose a lot of goodwill.
They chose the sensible option, and in so doing banked a lot of PR credit. “It was a great situation that we found ourselves in [with the top three riders on GC] but at the same time one that never happened before and for which there was no textbook solution,” said Jumbo-Visma’s managing director Richard Plugge on Sunday explaining their thinking. “We had good discussions with all parties involved. We listened to everyone’s opinion, put everything on the table, drew up a plan based on that, and asked if everyone was OK with it. As a team, we were true to our values and racing philosophy – winning together.”
Plugge added: “[Picking one winner] is like choosing between your own children. We just wanted to win the Vuelta. With whom it made no difference. It’s great that two great people, based on their personal leadership, allowed [Kuss] to do it.”
How have they done it?
Jumbo-Visma now reign supreme in grand tours. That much has been obvious for a while but this current dominance is on a scale not previously imaginable. It prompts the question: how has a team without the biggest budget in cycling (exact figures are hard to establish but Jumbo are reckoned to have perhaps the third biggest budget on the World Tour, significantly less than the likes of Ineos Grenadiers and Soudal-QuickStep) managed to establish themselves as such a force?
Plugge, a former journalist, spoke on Sunday of this being the culmination of 10 years of hard graft, which he divides into three eras. The first era was simply about survival after the Rabobank years. The second after Lotto-Jumbo came on board, was consolidation. This was the era when Sky were dominant and Plugge says he and sporting director Merijn Zeeman were trying too hard to ape their ‘marginal gains’ philosophy. “We were focusing too much on details,” he said. “But they are only effective if the foundations are in order. We realised we needed to train, sleep and eat properly – the basis for an athlete – and also [sort out] the equipment. So we threw away all the details of marginal gains. Everyone was trying to copy and paste Sky. But it starts with training five hours a day.”
The team began to achieve some success with Dylan Groenewegen and then Roglic joined. He may not have won a Tour de France (yet) but Plugge referred to the Slovenian on Sunday as the team’s “king”.
The third phase was about excellence. Plugge speaks about building a culture, about Zeeman taking inspiration from celebrated Chicago Bulls head coach Phil Jackson, about talking to Dutch special forces to understand how to push athletes without tipping them over the edge.
Only then, with all the pieces in play, was it time to unleash what he has referred to in the past as ‘Total Cycling’, a play on the Total Football pioneered by the Johan Cruyff era of Dutch football in the 1970s.
“It might have sounded like arrogance,” Plugge admitted in an interview with the Cycling Podcast last December. “But when you saw the Col du Granon stage [of the 2022 Tour de France, when Jumbo worked over Tadej Pogacar and effectively sealed last year’s Tour for Vingegaard] you could really see what I meant.”
Can we trust them?
Naturally, there will be those watching Jumbo’s performances this year – we haven’t even spoken about the remarkable Wout van Aert – and thinking: we’ve heard this before. How can we trust Jumbo when history has shown that unbelievable cycling performances are so often literally that?
Ultimately, there is no way of knowing. Scepticism is the default (and the only sensible) setting in cycling and naturally Jumbo’s riders and staff were asked how we could trust them. It undoubtedly helped the Dutch team on this occasion that it was Kuss, not their strongest GC rider, who had won. The American is hugely popular and regarded as very trustworthy. Kuss stated that for him cheating or doping was “out of the question” as he did not need to win to feel good about himself. Accepting that “sometimes you’re not good enough” is a fundamental part of sport, he added.
How long can they keep it up?
While that [doping] question is sure to keep being asked as long as Jumbo maintain these levels, it remains unclear exactly how long that will be for. That Jumbo managed to avoid a full-blown civil war last weekend does not mean that the there were not intra-team tensions. Can the team keep all their riders satisfied? Will Kuss want to lead in other Grand Tours now that he has proved he can win one?
Already there are rumours that Roglic may be sniffing out a move to a team who can guarantee him leadership at the Tour de France.
Naturally Plugge played that down when asked about it on Sunday. “Roglic is our king and the king is difficult to let go,” he said. “He has won every GC race he’s started this year apart from this one and he has won 15 races this year. Why would I consider letting him go?
“If you compare him to football, he’s a goalscorer who scores the most goals for our team, together with Jonas [Vingegaard]. If he leaves then we miss a lot of goals and we have to find someone who scores more goals and there’s not many people who can do that.”
Time will tell. One thing Team Sky did very successfully during their glory years was transition from one big beast to the next, even if some of those successions were bloody.
Plugge made the point that other teams will not be sitting idly by. Tadej Pogacar, a generational talent, will clearly be gunning to reclaim his yellow jersey in France next summer. Ineos lack a bit of direction at the moment but their vast wealth would suggest they will be back at some point, whether with Carlos Rodríguez as their main GC man or someone else. Perhaps after the Olympics Tom Pidcock will go all-in for Grand Tours. Can Remco Evenepoel win a Grand Tour which Pogacar, Vingegaard and Roglic also finish. The jury is still out on that.
“We have to stay sharp,” Plugge concluded. “Merijn Zeeman and I are evaluating what we can learn from this Vuelta to do even better next year. We owe it to ourselves to look in the mirror because before you know it you will be overtaken.
“Our only objective that we didn’t achieve this year was winning the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. There’s still a lot to be done. This is a very nice ‘crown’ on a decade of hard work, but I’m not going to sit back now. We have drawn up a major plan towards 2030. There’s room for even more crowns.”