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The Jumbo Visma Shark-Jumping Will Be Televised

78th Tour of Spain 2023 - Stage 17 Photo by Luis Angel Gomez - Pool/Getty Images

There is a funny story from I think the 1968 Giro d’Italia, which I recall as one of those Eddy Merckx anecdotes. He and teammate Vittorio Adorni are dominating the race’s general classification, with Merckx in pink by some nine minutes over the nearest non-teammate. The race is almost over, but after a day’s stage and transfer to the next hotel, Merckx and Adorni go to their hotel room together. There, Merckx pulls out a map of the next day’s stage, points to a spot, and says to Adorni, “Tomorrow, we attack here!” Adorni responds, “Attack? Attack who?”

The story is supposed to be funny because obviously there is no answer. It’s a ridiculous story. And yet Jumbo-Visma decided, on the slopes of the Angliru yesterday, that there was an answer, and it was the Red Jersey, their own rider, Sepp Kuss. Maybe these guys are the successors of Rabobank after all.

For 24 hours the cycling world has litigated the matter of whether Jumbo should have allowed Jonas Vingegaard and Primoz Roglic to attack Kuss while the American super-domestique held the lead. The team’s main riders and managers hemmed and hawed to the press all evening about how they sure do want Kuss to win, or maybe they will just see... something and let it work out blah blah blah — nothing of enough substance that would explain, or even stop contradicting, what we saw with our own eyes. They aren’t protecting their leader at all, however simple and secure a task that may be, not when their big stars can just light up the stage battles.

My take is that it is an abomination, given how splendid a teammate Kuss is, that you would suddenly trash the edict that you don’t attack your leader, made far worse by the Merckxesque level of security they enjoy. Vingegaard has had enough glory for a lifetime, and Roglic nearly as much, even if I dismiss him as “king of the last 200 meters.” Kuss, for his part, knows that this thinned out Vuelta GC offers him the chance of a lifetime, that there is literally nobody in sight of even the third-best Jumbo rider right now, with Evenepoel blowing a gasket and little more than an undercooked Juan Ayuso and repeatedly overcooked Mikel Landa for “competition.” At least LeMond could point at Stephen Roche and tell Hinault, are you sure I shouldn’t go up the road??

None of it makes any sense unless you think someone involved is either an idiot or acting in bad faith. For my money the leading culprits are with Vingegaard and Roglic, who are not idiots but who may actually believe their own bullshit about wanting Kuss to win. Lack of self-awareness, alas, is not endearing, and definitely not a form of honesty. They can’t help themselves when they ditch their leader, even though they know it’s wrong and can mouth the words afterwards about how it was “uncomfortable” or whatever they said. In the moment, though, they couldn’t turn off their competitive drive. Elite athletes are not always good hangs.

The more troubling issue, though, may simply be that the two stars are taking shots at each other, a product of the triangulation effect of having the mild-mannered Kuss as the de facto leader of the Vuelta. Roglic wants to win, and he probably still thinks this could be his team, if he could avoid bad luck at the Tour, so let’s all just go back to 2020 and have Jonas working for Primo. I am of course referring to the Vuelta a España from that year, the one where in addition to an unheralded Vingegaard, Roglic enjoyed the support of Kuss, who literally saved Roglic from total disaster by towing him up the Angliru and keeping the Slovene within striking distance of Richard Carapaz. Sometimes you can’t make this stuff up. Nobody would ever believe you.

Anyway, Roglic maybe sees himself as the Walrus, when in fact he is obviously the Egg Man, and has been ever since he fell off his bike at the 2021 Tour and broke his shell all over the road. Vingegaard (the actual Walrus) knows this, and either pities his teammate or is annoyed enough to feel like he needs to lay the smack down. Two stubborn hypercompetitive elite athletes who have never been told to use their off switch, assuming they have one, are very predictably fucking over their amiable teammate in historic ways because they have never been trained not to do this.

This, not the worldwide public expression of horror, is the reason why Jumbo-Visma are currently standing over their waterskis, telling the driver to gun the engine, so they can show their true greatness to the world by jumping over a shark. Nobody seems willing or able to stop the boat. Common decency has been relegated to, at best, the fifth or sixth most important consideration, after ambition, immediate gratification, money and a few other things. The jump is happening. It won’t be stopped. The cameras are rolling. And the aftermath is just as inevitable. Like Schrödinger’s cat, Jumbo’s reputation is simultaneously, right now, both soaring magnificently through the air and already dead.

Not all of this calamity is of their own making. To some degree this is just the way things are. Cycling isn’t very hospitable when it comes to dynasties, and the only exceptions we can think of, outside the mega-doping moments, are homogeneous enterprises like SKINEOS, which raised a bunch of stars through British Cycling, and like the 1990s-2000s Yankees, the guys that grew up together stayed together. Maybe you could say that Guimard pulled off a similar trick by nabbing, consecutively, Hinault, Fignon and LeMond, the latter two as pups. But that didn’t really last, and then you could look at other attempted superteams, like La Vie Claire, which very briefly cobbled together a constellation of individual stars, and it blew to smithereens inside of three years. That’s who Jumbo resemble, an international mega-team whose stars are veteran riders from all over Europe (and the US!), notwithstanding a nearly all-Dutch foundation of support. The Typical Belgian Hardman, the Danish fishmonger and the Slovenian ski jumper can maybe work together like one of those Walt Disney Incredible Journey stories, where a dog, a bear, and an armadillo have to join forces and survive Army boot camp or rescue the orphanage from an evil landlord. It may be fun for a while, but it was never built to last.

Even if these three really did love each other, Jumbo would still be facing their inevitable regression to the mean for having committed the other cardinal sin of cycling, dominating an entire season and sweeping the grand tours, painting the biggest, brightest possible bull’s eye on themselves. Entire teams may be found banding together to stop them if their own complicated ambitions don’t just stop themselves. But they will. Netflix and its docuseries shows don’t document conflict, they nurtures it like the tiny little spark that everyone is counting on to cook tonight’s dinner. The pressure will come at Jumbo-Visma from all sides, until Wout Van Aert becomes so tired of trying to explain that he and Jonas are really good friends that he just gives up and signs with Quick Step. Roglic is already auditioning for his next leadership role, wherever it may be. Someplace where they understand the true value of time bonuses.

Vingegaard is the alpha, of course, and Jumbo would be smart to stay firmly tethered to his star for the future, but don’t look for his lieutenants to stay on board forever, not when they too can now expect to get seriously paid somewhere. That may be the dirtiest secret of all as to why Jumbo can’t just escort Kuss to the winner’s circle in Madrid. They have to talk to his agent again next summer.

Anyway, enjoy the polemics, the prospects of more varied and competitive cycling next year thanks in large part to this horrendously non-competitive Vuelta GC. This dominance won’t be tolerated for much longer, not now that its sheer magnitude is there for all to see. Things have to change. You can feel them changing. The darkest hour is just before the dawn.