Sepp Kuss wins first Tour de France stage but Tadej Pogacar retains lead

Sepp Kuss, of the Jumbo-Visma team, won stage 15 of the Tour de France, from Ceret to Andorra-La-Vieille, after a 32-rider breakaway broke up on the final climbs of the Port d’Envalira and the first category Col de Bexailis.

The 26-year-old Coloradan, who lives in Andorra during the season, held off the pursuing veteran, Alejandro Valverde, of the Movistar team, on the final descent, to take a career-first win in the Tour.

“I’m lost for words,” Kuss said. “To be honest, I’ve really suffered a lot in this Tour. I just didn’t feel I had the spice in the legs. Today I knew it was finishing where I live and I was really motivated.”

Kuss, a former winner of the mountainous Tour of Utah, has always been at home at altitude as his father was a well-known US national ski coach. He studied English Literature in Boulder before racing in the world championships as a mountain biker, prior to moving into road racing and joining Jumbo-Visma as a climbing lieutenant to Primoz Roglic.

“I know the final climb fairly well,” the American rider said. “I actually don’t ride it so much in training, because it’s so hard, but I knew the beginning was tough, so I knew if I went there, and got a gap, then I could try and hold it to the finish,” Kuss said. “I still can’t believe I’m in the Tour de France, much less winning a stage.”

On what could, on the eve of the second rest day, have been classifed as ‘moving day’, both the Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma teams opted to gamble on dislodging the race leader, Tadej Pogacar, with a change in tactics.

Both teams, increasingly desperate to find the defending champion’s weak spot, sent riders, including Kuss, into the 32-man group with the hope of pressuring the seemingly implacable Slovenian and his UAE Emirates team.

The 2018 Tour winner, Geraint Thomas, the erstwhile Ineos Grenadiers leader, now recovering little by little from the three crashes that derailed his Tour, led his teammate Richard Carapaz over the penultimate climb, the 2021 Tour’s highest point, the 2,408 metre Port d’Envalira.

On the 80 kilometre an hour descent the Welshman then bridged across to his teammates, Dylan van Baarle and Jonathan Castroviejo, which, with Pogacar isolated from his own team, gave Ineos four riders in the front group.

Yet even that was not enough to perturb the limpet-like Pogacar who, despite the lack of team support, held off a series of attacks from his rivals in the stage’s closing kilometres.

Four kilometres from the top of the winding and narrow final climb of the Beixalis Carapaz attacked, with Pogacar and Kuss’s teammate, Jonas Vingegaard and Rigoberto Uran, of EF Education-Nippo, on his wheel. Next it was Vingegaard’s turn and then, with a counterattack, Uran’s. Throughout it all, however, Pogacar remained unperturbed.

“I don’t think he’s unbreakable,” Thomas said, “but as Dave Brailsford would say, he’s like a bamboo. He bends but he rarely snaps, so we will see. But you’ve got to keep faith and confidence. Anyone can have a bad day. He’s been racing hard and aggressively from the start, so you just never know.”

But, as the stages are ticking by, the opportunities to dent Pogacar’s armour are dwindling and the bunching of those fighting for a top three finish is intensifying.

“It’s hard with UAE having such an advantage,” Thomas said. “They don’t mind if somebody at 10 minutes [in arrears] goes, but then suddenly that rider jumps five minutes and that’s another one in that group. It’s certainly different racing from any Tour I’ve done. The control isn’t there.”

But Thomas insisted that neither he nor his teammates were giving up. “No, we’re still in the race and fighting for that podium, at least. There are still things to go for, you know, stages. The morale is still there. We are still looking forward to racing hard.”

“Our strategy was that our numbers could advantage us,” Ineos Grenadiers sports director, Gabriel Rasch, said, “but now it’s more clear. We have Carapaz in the top five. He’s had good legs and he’s been brave, really brave. But he hasn’t got what he’s deserved so far. But hopefully he will.”