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The Vuelta a España Edition
On racing, teamwork, and social media backlash.
Mark Slavonia (MJS) is an investor, a pilot, and an avid cyclist. He wrote about radio altimeters, rowing machines, traveler’s checks, and more. He posts other things that are interesting on his website.
Mark here. Sepp Kuss, a likable young American, is one of professional cycling’s best support riders. He works tirelessly, day after day, to help his more famous teammates win, sacrificing his own chances for victory and glory in service to the leaders of his world-beating team, Jumbo-Visma. In this year’s Vuelta a España, cycling’s third three-week Grand Tour, Kuss found himself in the lead through an unusual confluence of good luck, team tactics, and great form. His nearest rivals were two of his own teammates, star riders whom he’d supported to their greatest victories.
For Jumbo-Visma, this was a huge opportunity. By riding as a team to support Kuss, they could reap tremendous goodwill and highlight the esprit de corps of their team, while giving a popular supporting rider a chance to shine. They became the first team to finish 1-2-3 in a Grand Tour in over fifty years. (They also won all three Grand Tours of 2023.)
Why is this interesting?
Jumbo Visma very nearly blew it.
The team’s two big stars, Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard—who won this summer’s Tour de France—and Slovenia’s Primož Roglič, the 2023 Giro d’Italia winner, launched relentless attacks on the hardest days, dropping all the other teams’ riders and even putting Kuss into some difficulty. Kuss gamely soldiered on, defending his tenuous lead alone, without assistance in the race’s critical moments (the sort of assistance that he is famous for providing those same teammates). At each day’s finish, he congratulated his teammates after they stabbed him in the back and then tried in vain to justify their actions in obviously anodyne and insincere press interviews.
Cycling fans, who had created a flood of memes celebrating Kuss’s one shot to finally ride for himself, exploded in apoplexy. What were Roglic and Vingegaard doing? Jumbo-Visma had turned a feel-good story into a public relations disaster.
One of cycling’s unwritten rules is that riders don’t attack their own teammates. Not attacking a teammate creates strategic advantages that teams can exploit to force other teams to expend more effort. Teams go to great lengths to amplify the mythology of the taboo against attacking a teammate, talking endlessly about how “it doesn’t matter which of us wins, we’re a team.” This builds trust within the team and makes the strategic threat credible to other teams.
Like many unwritten rules about trust, this norm has advantages for everyone when followed, and a corrosive effect when violated. Riders that break this rule risk falling afoul of their team managers, becoming unpopular with fans, and developing a reputation for being untrustworthy.
Thankfully, Jumbo came to their senses, and after a few days of backlash, Roglic and Vingagaard helped lead Kuss up a mountain stage just as he had done so many times for them throughout the years. In the end, Kuss managed to hang on by a slim margin (just 17 seconds after nearly 77 hours of racing), and Jumbo team management could pretend that all was well and that things had gone exactly according to plan. (MJS)
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Mark (MJS)
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