Vuelta a Espana 2019
Slovenia’s Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) and Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) – third and fourth in the general classification – finished 41 seconds down on Roglic and Valverde, who crossed the line in eighth and ninth place after a prolonged uphill stalemate.
But the losses were more keenly felt by the Colombian Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who was dropped 4km from the summit to concede more time in the battle for red. After the race’s fifth of eight summit finishes, Quintana now trails Roglic by more than five minutes – his victory in Stage 2 and his three days in red both a distant memory.
Kuss, the stand-out performer of the day, made his move on the final climb, darting clear of the break to reel in lone leader Sergio Samitier of Spain.
Despite a spirited chase by Britain’s Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Ineos), Portugal’s Ruben Guerreiro (Katusha-Alpecin) and Samitier’s Euskadi-Murias teammate Oscar Rodriguez, the 24-year-old American held on for a maiden Grand Tour stage win.
Kuss was able to savour the moment, high-fiving fans behind the barriers and beaming from ear to ear before punching the air over the finish to record his first professional win outside America and the Tour of Utah. He became the fifth Jumbo-Visma rider to win a Grand Tour stage in 2019, with the team winning the TTT in all three races.
Guerreiro beat Geoghegan Hart for second place at 39 seconds before Rodriguez, a stage winner in 2018, took fourth at 53 seconds.
Just three more riders from the initial break – Ukraine’s Mark Padun (Bahrain-Merida), Australia’s Ben O’Connor (Dimension Data) and the American Lawson Craddock (EF Education First) – survived the cull to cross the line ahead of the rampant Roglic, who symbolically led the Spanish veteran Valverde home after their latest GC joust.
Roglic leads Valverde by 2’25” going into Monday’s 144.4km Stage 16, which culminates on the Alto de la Cubilla for a second successive summit showdown.
A hotter than scheduled schlep through the rolling Asturias mountains saw the riders tackle four first-category climbs bookended by two contrasting ascents of the Puerto del Acebo.
Numerous moves came into play early on – like pawns being burned off in a game of chess – before six riders from an initial break emerged on the front of the race going over the summit of the first climb.
It was Spaniard Marc Soler of Movistar – a late joiner to the leading group – who took maximum points and led Geoghegan Hart (Team Ineos), Guerreiro (Katusha-Alpecin), Padun (Bahrain-Merida) and Sander Armée (Lotto-Soudal) over the summit, with the peloton trailing by just 20 seconds after some hefty pace-setting by Movistar.
Dropped near the summit, Vasil Kiryienka (Team Ineos) fought back on to join teammate Geoghegan Hart on the front, before the quartet of Ion Izagirre (Astana Pro Team), eventual winner Kuss (Jumbo-Visma), Rodríguez and Samitier (both Euskadi-Murias) joined on the descent.
With the Jumbo-Visma teammates of red jersey Roglic coming to the front and taking their foot off the gas, the break finally seemed to be given some leeway more than 50km into the stage.
Reinforcements came in the form of Quentin Jauregui (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Craddock (EF Education First), Tsgabu Grmay (Mitchelton-Scott), Dani Navarro (Katusha-Alpecin) and Jose Herrada (Cofidis), before Pawel Poljanski (Bora-Hansgrohe) and O’Connor (Team Dimension Data) joined the party to make it a break of 17 riders.
Samitier led the move over the summit of the second climb, the Puerto del Connio, with the regrouped peloton trailing by just over three minutes ahead of the 20km long descent.
And it was that man Samitier who rolled the dice early on the Cat.1 Puerto del Pozo de las Muejeres Muertas, zipping clear to pave the way for teammate Rodriguez, a stage winner in last year’s race.
The Spaniard was joined by compatriot Navarro and the Australian O’Connor, the trio crossing over the summit in that order with a decent gap of 1’30” over the remainder of the break, the peloton now trailing by five minutes.
The large gap changed the complexion of the race, with Kuss later admitting he was given permission to contest the stage win rather than sit up and await teammate Roglic to lend support on the final climb.
With Samitier dropping Navarro and O’Connon ahead of the final ascent, Kiryienka rode clear of the chasers to pave the way for teammate Geoghegan Hart. Himself preparing the way for Rodriguez, Samitier dropped the Belarusian veteran on the 15% gradient at the start of the climb.
Behind, it was Kuss who led the chase, riding clear of his fellow escapees – and then clear of Samitier – with 7km remaining. While he was given a free pass by his Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif, the likes of Izagirre and Soler were soon being called back for domestique duties for their team leaders.
Soler was able to pull for Valverde, whose attack from the main pack had defeated everyone except the man in red, but Izagirre was unable to provide much filip for the ailing Lopez.
Astana road captain Jakob Fuglsang did help pace Lopez in a chase group with Pogacar, Quintana and the Pole Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) before peeling off once Quintana, in green, hit the wall.
Geoghegan Hart, Guerreiro, Padun and Rodriguez did their best in pursuit of the lone leader, but Kuss was riding like a man possessed, the rangy American dancing up the mountain and belying its constant double-digit gradient.
Kuss’s celebrations started early, the confident 24-year-old throwing caution to the wind by high-five spectators with half a kilometre still remaining. He kept it up all the way to the line but never let up, powering home for a fantastic maiden WorldTour win in his third Grand Tour.
Teammate Roglic’s strong ride to eighth place was the cherry on the cake for Jumbo-Visma, whose vice-like grip on the race was extended on a day everyone bar Valverde lost yet more ground in the increasingly one-way battle for red.
Coming up: Stage 16 – Pravia to Alto de la Cubilla (144.4km)
If the profile makes this stage look quite tricky, a glance over the stats should make the riders sleep easy the night before. The two opening Cat.1 climbs may both contain some tricky double-digit segments, but they’re nothing compared to the goat-tracks of Los Machucos or the Mas de la Costa. And then there’s that final climb with its average gradient of just 6.2% which could well lull many into a false sense of security.
For coming right ahead of the second rest day, this stage could catch some legs already in downtime mode. And while hardly steep, the final 27km climb of the Alto de la Cubilla is a real grind which could hold some hostages. In short: the views from the top will be spectacular but not every GC rider will be in a frame of mind to enjoy them.