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David L. Stanley

Looking Back at the 2023 Vuelta a España

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David Stanley is an experienced cycling writer. His work has appeared in Velo,, Road, Peloton, and the late, lamented Bicycle Guide (my favorite all-time cycling magazine). Here's his Facebook page. He is also a highly regarded voice artist with many audiobooks to his credit, including McGann Publishing's The Story of the Tour de France and Cycling Heroes.

David L. Stanley

David L. Stanley's masterful telling of his bout with skin cancer Melanoma: It Started with a Freckle is available in print, Kindle eBook and audiobook versions, just click on the Amazon link on the right.

David L. Stanley writes:

Remember the Day:
It was the 17th day of SEPP-tember when the most valuable man on Jumbo-Visma, Sepp Kuss, the Eagle of Durango, was rewarded for his loyalty and gear-grinding work. How astounding was this? Very. Jumbo-Visma took its seventh Grand Tour victory as a team. American Sepp Kuss was a member of all seven of those winning teams. This year, the J-Vs did the unprecedented: they won all three Grand Tours. It is 100% accurate to say that without Sepp at the front when it mattered, neither Primož Roglič or Jonas Vingegaard stands on the top steps in Rome and Paris.

Sepp Kuss at the end of the Vuelta, still in red. Sirotti photo.

La Vuelta 2023 in Four Parts.

Part I – Why Can’t Primož and Jonas Play Nice?
Here in the US, we’ve been disgusted at the lack of support that Sepp Kuss, the Eagle of Durango, has received from the two men for whom he has ridden himself to the nub to ensure their Grand Tour wins. There is a direct line between Sepp’s gutty teamwork and nearly all the Jumbo-Visma Grand Tour victories. No Sepp? No wins. Simple.

The Big Question: What the Hell was wrong with Ruglick and Vinegar? Here’s the scoop, courtesy of Caley Fretz and The Escape Collective. (Go read his full piece. Thank me later.) This battle was not two GT winners who ganged up on their ace domestique to keep him down. This battle was a pissing match between the two GT winners. Primož, age 33, desperately wants one more chance at a TdF win. Jonas, age 26, is saying “No fricking way, dude. The Tour is mine.” Roglic has a contract offer from (who else?) Lidl-Trek to lead the team next summer around France. Roglič has to hammer Jonas to prove he is TdF leader-worthy for next summer. Ergo, wherever Roglič goes, Jonas has to follow.

Stage 17: Primoz Roglic & Jonas Vingegaard cross the line 19 seconds ahead of Sepp Kuss. Sirotti photo

Sepp Kuss (in red) climbs to finish with Mikel Landa. Sirotti photo

In this internecine battle, Sepp Kuss’s leader’s red jersey is the collateral damage. This situation begged the questions:

  1. Why did Jumbo-Visma bring Jonas without first establishing team guidelines?
  2. As soon as this conflict became apparent, where was Jumbo leadership to lay down the ground rules?

At first, I believed that Roglič, if not for the presence of Jonas, would have ridden for Sepp. Primoz has won 4 Grand Tours. His position is secure. I was wrong. As the Vuelta unveiled, my mind was changed. There was this: “The team management gave us a clear order today, that Kuss must stay in red and that we and Vingegaard will be only his assistants. I don’t know what to say but I have mixed feelings and I can’t say I am happy.”-Primož Roglič 

I also felt that if Jonas only, and not Roglic, was at the race, Jonas might ride for Sepp. At least, I felt that Jonas would not ride against him. Jonas has won 2 Grand Tours, and his future is so bright, he’s fighting off the sunglass companies for endorsements. Again, wrong. “A win for my daughter! A win for my fallen teammate!” Hey, buddy, how helping your teammate win in the same way he’s busted his tail for you? Twice.

When Jumbo-Visma put those 6 Grand Tour wins on the same bus, we all got to see an athletic firefight erupt. Those 2 guys, they are far too close in palmares and abilities to co-exist. You’d like to think Jonas and Primoz could get together on this – “Okay, my dude, we have issues, but now is the time to ride for Sepp, eh?”

But since that didn’t happen, why did Jumbo-Visma directorate put their collective heads underwater as this played out? It cost the team, Jonas, and Primož public goodwill by the busload. It caused Sepp Kuss, I am sure, far too many sleepless nights. By the time J-V leadership had one massive Come-to-Jesus meeting with their superstars, the damage was done. Somehow, Sepp managed to keep on smiling throughout. Kudos, mate.

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Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard should have been pleased and proud to voluntarily race their guts out for their MVP, Sepp Kuss. Only when their collective collars were yanked by management did they step up. I admire them as bike racers. But as teammates, they’re mostly lolling around on the sofa instead of being stand-up guys.

LeMond vs. Hinault was 37 years ago. We’re still yammering on about it. I guarantee bike racing fans will be talking about this Jumbo-Visma FUBAR in 2060.
This Vuelta has been a sports management lesson in how to destroy 9 years of public goodwill in only 4 days of racing. Hey, let’s start a cycling rumor: Elon Musk so admires Jumbo-Visma’s HR management policies that he’s going to sponsor the team- Tesla-X-Twitter.

Greg LeMond on Urs Zimmemman's wheel in stage 17 on his way to finally getting the Yellow Jersey. Bernard Hinault is 3 minutes back.

Part II – Everything Not Normal Should Always be Scrutinized
The blue whale (because they are about 33 times more massive than an elephant) in the Vuelta pond is this: How did Jumbo-Visma so completely dominate this year’s Grand Tours? How did they manage a podium sweep in an incredibly mountainous Vuelta? How mountainous? Stage 13, the Tourmalet stage, was 135 km long. It featured so much climbing that, according to statisticians, the stage was equivalent to a 135 km long ride at a constant incline of 4%. Picture driving from Boston, MA to Old Orchard Beach, ME and it is uphill all the way. That much uphill.

The Big Question.
Is anything untoward going on? Is there any evidence of wrong-doing? No, not one bit that is credible. Am I accusing Jumbo-Visma of anything? No, I am not. Have I suspended all disbelief? No, I have not.

We don’t really get to know about doping procedures and products in real time, do we? The adage is true; the athletes and their ‘teams’ are always ahead of the Blazers and the labs.

1960s – Eastern Bloc weight throwers demolish world records. Western nations follow suit. Steroids, of course, but positive dope tests were rare.

1970s – Eastern Bloc women swimmers set unbelievable records. Steroids, mostly, but positive dope tests are scarce as world sprint champion Sir Chris Hoy climbing with the first group in Liege-Bastogne-Liege (Yes, I know, Sir Chris didn’t enter road races. That’s the point.)

Late 1970s – Marja-Liisa Hemoglobin begins to win Nordic races by massive time gaps. Blood doping, we discovered later, but there was no in-season testing. She was first of many.

1983 - Jarmila Kratochvílová sets 800 m record that still stands. Steroids, we presume.

1985- Marita Koch sets 400 m record that stills stands. Steroids, I guess.

1994- Gewiss-Ballan goes 1-2-3. EPO. Natch.

1994-2004 Major League Baseball’s steroid era produces outrageous changes in physiques and home runs numbers.

1999- present. Then a lot more stuff happened.

We don’t ever get to know the facts of performance enhancement until well after the fact. Does Jumbo-Visma have a new and undetectable motor? Is it chemical enhancement? No way of knowing. Do we have any physical or first-hand evidence? We have none. That falls in line with what we’ve seen with sport and doping since the introduction of amphetamines in the peloton in the post-WWII era, the use of steroids in many sports beginning in the 1950s, and hematocrit/hemoglobin manipulation in the late ’70s until the present.

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What we do know is that what we are seeing with Jumbo-Visma is rare, and in any sport, when things look repeatedly not normal, things are sometimes not on the up and up. There were times up climbs that matched those from the EPO era. We saw JV riders ride clear to moves and/or open gaps at their leisure. It was startling.

In La Vuelta 2023, three superstars raced themselves to places far above the rest of the field. In the final GC, Vingo finished 17 seconds back, Primož Roglič at 1:08. In fourth, not far behind, was the youngster Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) at 3:18. Were the GC gaps astonishing? No. Is it astonishing that the top three places were all wearing the same kit? Yes.

Vinegaard, Kuss & Roglic finish stage 20 together. One big, happy family.

To be clear, there is zero evidence. But there was this by Kuss, Vingo, and Roglič in a response to doping – “Everything the team does is extremely professional.”
I have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career around cycling, a set of skills that includes a vast amount of skepticism for activity that recalls the quote “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” This Vuelta, it was extraordinary. We’ve all seen this movie many times before. I don’t want to sit through it again. Do you?

And yet, there is something simply glorious about Sepp’s victory.

To mangle Walt Whitman: “I celebrate Sepp Kuss, and sing Sepp Kuss, and what I assume about Sepp, you shall assume, For every atom belonging to Sepp as good belongs to us all…”

Part III – The Evil Early Days.
The start of this year’s Vuelta was, er, um, messy.
Stage 1) “Hey, let’s stage a team time trial in the evening.” “And hey, let’s not change the start time when every weather forecast has predicted diluvial storms!” “Yeah! It’ll be dark AND slippery as an ice rink!” Quality problem-solving on this one by the organizers.

Stage 2) The forecast of storms, similar to those that played havoc on Opening Day, forced the organizers to take the GC times at the foot of Mountjuic, 9.2 km from the finish. No complaints, it was a smart move, but can the gods of weather be more angry?

Stage 3) Disrupters planned to pour 400 liters of oil (first thought to be olive oil as a protest, later it was learned that it was motor oil and simply hooliganism). Kudos to the police for preventing a disaster. Meanwhile, at the sharp end of the race, Remco races to a fine victory over Jonas and Primoz, only to find the finish area so overcrowded with soigneurs, and other race-savvy individuals that he smashed into one of them, went down hard, and got up with blood streaming down an otherwise happy face.

Stage 4) “Hey, how about this? Let’s put in a near-160°turn 1 km from a sprint finish!” “Yeah, and let’s narrow the road, too. That’ll make ‘em think!” What it did was take down the entire sector of the peloton that was in the running for the sprint finish except for the front two, the victor, ace sprinter Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and a well-taken second place by Colombian Juan Sebastian Molano (UAE Team Emirates).

Stage 5) A young Irishman on a fine season, Eddie Dunbar (Team Jayco-Alula), with podium dreams and a solid shot at the Top 5, crashed out. In the neutral zone.

Stage 7) Police arrest a man who wanted to drive his car into the peloton as the race reached the finish. The Guardia Civil wrote: "The Guardia Civil has arrested a 28-year-old man of Spanish nationality for the crime of disobedience when he tried to cause an accident in the final stretch of stage 7, at kilometre 216 of the N-332."

Stage 11) Jesus Herrada (Cofidis) pulled off quite the coup. He took the stage and the climber’s jersey. His maniacal soigneur, however, was acting out so badly in the finish area that he was tackled by police, brought to the ground, and removed from the finish area for the safety of arriving racers.

Jesus Herrada wins stage 11. Sirotti photo

Fast Forward to Stage 18) A J-V soigneur is taking care of Sepp Kuss in the road at the stage finish. A cop leans on him to move him out of the roadway. The soigneur shoves the cop (always a strong flex), and the aide is wrestled to the ground by the policia.

As the Grateful Dead so wisely sing, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

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Part IV - Let’s Celebrate the Vuelta.
With Sepp’s win, he is the first rider since the chain-smoking Gastone Nencini, to ride all 3 Grand Tours and also win one. In 1957, the Lion of Mugello took 6th place in the Tour, 9th place in the Vuelta, and 1st in the Giro. Nencini was an amateur painter of note, a very handsome man, and regarded as one of the best descenders in cycling history. “The only reason to follow Nencini downhill would be if you had a death wish”, said French rider Raphaël Géminiani. When Roger Rivière tried to follow Nencini down a mountain on Stage 14 of the 1960 Tour de France, Roger missed a bend, crashed over a wall and broke his spine. But I digress.

Sepp is the first US rider to win a Grand Tour since Chris Horner won the Vuelta in 2013. Sepp’s victory margin of 17 seconds is the third tightest in cycling history. First place goes to the 1984 Vuelta. That race was won with a mere six-second gap by Frenchman Éric Caritoux of the Skil-Sem-Mavic-Reydel team. The next closest margin of victory, of course, is the legendary 1989 LeMond-Fignon battle of 8 seconds down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

Remco. There, I said that word. Remco had one extraordinarily bad day; he had an entire career’s worth of bad days on that ride up the Tourmalet. He lost 28 minutes. He finished a lonely 60th place on that stage 13 from Hell. He fell to 19th place on GC. And yet, no individual has ever lit up a stage race with such grinta, panache, vivacidad after a crushing day like Remco. While we were all busy watching to see if the two superstars of J-V were going to steamroller Sepp like Ken steamrollered Otto in A Fish Called Wanda, Remco attacked with an unrivaled ferocity. It was stunning and thrilling. While I shout Sepp’s name out loud, I was in awe of Remco’s daring. Would he have been allowed his freedom if he didn’t have that bad day? Of course not. But would most riders have been content, after such une jour sans, to sit in the wheels, and join in the occasional attack? Probably. How many would’ve gone that deep every day for the joy and glory of racing and winning? Hinault, Merckx, Pogacar spring to mind. It’s a short list, and full glory to Remco.

Remco Evenepoel in the climber's jersey. Sirotti photo

Once more, thank-you Sepp Kuss. We will remember this one. “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”

That’s all I got. It’s been quite the year, this season of the bike, 2023. It’s 19°C here in Flint, not a cloud in the sky, and dead calm. I’m going to go ride my bike, head out on the gravel towards our local orchard, grab a tin of their hard cider to put in my jersey pocket for later with supper. I’d advise you to do the same.

David Stanley, like nearly all of us, has spent his life working and playing outdoors. He got a case of Melanoma as a result. Here's his telling of his beating that disease. And when you go out, please put on sunscreen.


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