The Tour de France peloton’s first few days in the Pyrenees have been brutal. Racing a bike uphill is a famously difficult feat of cardiovascular strength under the best of circumstances, and the punishing heat wave gripping Europe has made for some especially unforgiving competition. With temperatures soaring so high that organizers have been forced to pour water on the pavement to keep it from melting and the high mountains straining everyone to their limits, riders have started to abandon the race in droves. This is not altogether out of the ordinary—the third week always claims the most victims—though where this year’s race has deviated from the norm is that over half of the most important support riders for the two men battling over the yellow jersey are gone. In their place stand two young Americans, whose own fight to support their team leaders may help decide this Tour de France.
With two serious stages of racing left in the Tour, Jonas Vingegaard leads defending champion Tadej Pogacar by 2:18. The Dane is wearing the yellow jersey thanks to, in descending order: his tremendous ride up the Col du Granon Serre Chevalier, the non-stop pacing work from the green jersey-wearing Wout Van Aert, and his team’s numerical superiority in the mountains. Van Aert can’t offer much in the mountains, and that numerical superiority is gone, so if Vingegaard is going to ride into Paris in the yellow jersey, it will be thanks primarily to Sepp Kuss. The Colorado native is the last mountain man that Vingegaard has left, after Steven Kruijswijk crashed out of the race and Primoz Roglic abandoned under somewhat unclear circumstances. Those guys are serious hitters, with Tour de France podiums in their palmares and a combined 13 Top-10 Grand Tour finishes. Without them, Kuss, who won a stage last year, will have to be his team leader’s lone defender.
How has he responded to the task thus far? On the packed slopes of Alp d’Huez, Kuss put out every fire. Pogacar tested Vingegaard with a flurry of violent accelerations, keeping him on the defensive and testing his ability to gut through pain. Kuss marked several of Pogacar’s moves, and when Vingegaard had to mark Pogacar on his own, Kuss accelerated back to the leaders everyt ime and resumed pacemaking duties, keeping Vingegaard out of the fire. It was tremendous work as a helper, and when he was on the front driving, he sheared every other team leader, except Geraint Thomas, off his wheel. The post-Team Sky consensus on how to win a Tour de France involves maintaining a terrifying pace on climbs, making everyone too tired to attack in the first place rather than spend time defending attacks as they come. Kuss rode with an impressive steadiness on Stage 12 and Stage 16, anticipating and neutralizing Pogacar’s attempts to win his yellow jersey back. Kuss and his coaches know he can hang among the best climbers in the world on his best day; the issue is consistency. “The mountains are sometimes more simple than you think,” Kuss said. “In the end it just comes down to whoever has the most.” The young American had the most for two days in the mountains, then another stepped up to take his place.
Like Vingegaard, Pogacar finds himself with one climber left. George Bennett, former Vingegaard teammate, abandoned the race at the foot of the Alps after contracting COVID-19. Spanish climber Marc Soler had such a rotten first day in the Pyrenees that he missed the time cut and got booted from the race. Rafal Majka also tested positive, though the former two-time King of the Mountains had a low enough viral load that he continued racing and capably defending Pogacar. The Polish star did a tremendous job of challenging Kuss and Vingegaard until a freak accident on Stage 16 ended his Tour. Majka was leading the select general classification group up the Mur de Péguère when his chain snapped, forcing a weird leg hitch. He finished the stage, only to learn that he strained his quadriceps muscle and would have to leave the race.
That leaves Pogacar with three teammates. Marc Hirschi is having an inexplicably awful Tour and Mikkel Bjerg is trying his best but is not a climber. The only rider Pogacar can count on in the hills is 24-year-old Arizonan Brandon McNulty. With all due respect to Kuss’s work, McNulty put in one of the strongest rides of the whole Tour on Stage 17, shredding the entire lead group on the final two climbs of the day and gapping every rider except Pogacar and Vingegaard. When McNulty grabbed the bit between his teeth on the Col de Val Louron-Azet, the peloton exploded. First David Gaudu and Enric Mas went backwards, then Romain Bardet and Nairo Quintana. Even Geraint Thomas, who is riding in third place, wound up ceding more than two minutes to the McNulty lead group. The pair of teammates couldn’t gap Vingegaard, though Pogacar did win the stage and lock in a top-two spot on the podium. He called his American teammate a beast, which is fair after such a historic ride.
No American has won a stage yet this Tour, though the entire group has acquitted themselves well. Neilson Powless nearly got the yellow jersey very early on, and he’s holding onto 12th place overall. Kuss and McNulty sit 19th and 21st, while Matteo Jorgenson is 23rd. Jorgenson has been Movistar’s best rider of the Tour, getting into the winning breakaway three times and consistently riding ahead of the pack. Not bad for a 23-year-old in their first Tour. Quinn Simmons has also found himself in a few breakaways, and the cadre of Americans has generally been a lively bunch. Something big is coming for one of these riders very soon, though it’s not like serving as lieutenant for one of the two guys contending for the yellow jersey isn’t big on its own.