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honestly what the fuck
vuelta 2023 stage 17
Let me preface what I am going to say with a historical anecdote, and I think you will clearly see where I’m going with this.
By the year 1280, the Lords of Pettau (Ptuj in present-day Slovenian Styria), through five generations of political intrigue, clever intermarriages, and most importantly, military aid, had all but formally liberated themselves as vassals of the Archbishop of Salzburg. The Pettaus were nobles, yes, but they were not free nobles. They were archiepiscopal ministerials, nobles positioned above mere knights in social status, yet still in service to the princely Archbishops who controlled their personal and political lives, their marriages and how much land they could amass. The Imperial apparatuses, meanwhile, of the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutchy of Austria-Styria gave these ministerials far more freedom, power and influence than did the archbishopric in exchange for loyalty. And so, the Pettaus, specifically Frederick V in the mid-13th century, began to dedicate themselves, risking life and limb, to the various kings and dukes who rolled through the region during a period of upheaval called the Great Interregnum.
The Pettau family’s center of power was the castle and town of Pettau (now Ptuj), an important strategic bulwark on the border of the Holy Roman Empire and Hungary, its historical enemy. By being in this remote yet crucial corner of the world, the Pettaus began to amass more influence than other ministerials in the south of Styria, and thus could begin to acquire more land, and most importantly, behave as though they were apparati of the Imperial state — attending meetings, holding important positions such as captain and judge, and generally punching above their weight. Whichever Imperial ruler came along and demonstrated the most power, they aligned themselves with and bolstered that ruler’s power significantly, whether that was Béla IV of Hungary, who ruled Styria until 1260, the Bohemian King Ottokar II who ruled it until 1278, and finally Rudolf of Habsburg, who ruled at the time of Frederick V’s death. The Pettaus had no qualms about changing their alliances within these Imperial regime changes, but above all their main task was to subvert their feudal ties to the Archbishop and gain their freedom.
Throughout this time, Frederick V lived a chaotic life in the service of these others, all of whom usurped one another. He first aligned himself with the Hungarians, an alliance which backfired to such an extent that Stephen V, son of Béla laid seige to Pettau, almost destroying it in his attempt to control the Pettaus whom he suspected of betrayal and also because of their relative power, a goal he shared in common with the Archbishop, who then pledged the city to the Hungarian king. It was not to last — Ottokar II, to whom the Pettaus had switched sides, ousted the Hungarians in 1260 at the Battle of Groissenbrun. Despite his closeness to the new king (even becoming a member of his entourage), Frederick V was imprisoned in 1268 on grounds of conspiracy with a handful of his fellow nobles for stepping outside his lane and trying to warn the King that there was discontent in Styria. It was only with Rudolf of Habsburg that Frederick saw the greatest possibility, then, for his freedom. He fought in the Battle of Marchfield that ended up killing the Bohemian king, and in exchange, Habsburg granted him his freedom as well as allowing the Pettaus to build more castles in exchange for their military aid.
You would think this is the end of the story, that for all this striving and loyalty, finally, finally, one of Frederick’s betters would have rewarded him for all the conflict he had hence been subjected to. Indeed, it seemed as though the Pettaus had done the impossible and had broken free of their archiepiscopal ties. And yet, in 1280, the new Archbishop, Frederick II saw what was happening, and armed himself against the Pettaus, condemned Frederick V in a court of his peers, and stripped him of his land. And what did the Emperor do? Did he help his faithful lord in this situation? Not really. Essentially, he mediates the conflict with the Archbishop (who still needs the Pettaus to, well, manage the military presence at Pettau), but the end result is that the Pettaus are back to where they started as vassals of Salzburg, and their power is further tempered by the Archbishop forbidding the transference of property through the Pettau female heirs. In short, they are put back in line. While the Pettaus would remain one of the most influential ministerial families until their extinction in the 15th century, they would never again have such a chance at true freedom.
I am done pretending that what is happening to Sepp Kuss isn’t equally unfair and, to be honest, almost tragic.
First of all, I do not care what Jumbo Visma’s PR apparatus tries to spin about the team being a family and Kuss just wanting his two co-leaders to win if they’re stronger. The legs on the Angliru today spoke for themselves. Sepp Kuss hung in there and actively fought to stay in that leader’s jersey while his two teammates, to whom he has been profoundly loyal, dropped him in a joint attack, the purpose of which is simply unknown to me. It makes no sense. The only competitor left with Kuss at the end of the day was Landa, and were the attack only about winning the stage, Roglič and Vingegaard would have had no problem whatsoever sticking with Kuss and smoking Landa in an uphill sprint. But I think we can stop pretending that this is about Kuss at all, because the team really is not behaving as though Kuss is their teammate, as though he does not deserve to win this in his own right. Kuss speaks of not wanting “gifts.” This is mere diplomacy. It is in no way a gift for the other two to help this man, who proved himself in the time trial and now on the Angliru. The legs are there.
The only way you can look at this now is that Jumbo Visma is letting every man ride for himself. This has understandably made everybody angry. Vingegaard fans are angry at Roglič fans (and, as far as I can see on social media, with nationalist undertones). Kuss fans, and a lot of people in general who believe in cycling’s chivalric code — if not just feel-good stories of becoming and transcendence from servitude into victory—are apoplectic. Many just hate the team in general because they are Mapei.jpeg 1-2-3ing an entire Grand Tour. Personally, I just think the whole thing sucks because this is Kuss’s one time he can win a grand tour where as Roglič has won this race thrice and Vingegaard has years of victories left in his legs. Despite an argument I’ve seen expressed, it is not throwing the race to help one’s own teammate, especially because Jumbo have such a grip on the full podium now that they are in no danger whatsoever of losing it. This is not even to mention what a Kuss win would do to the sport, especially fiscally, to re-engage American fans who have been lost in the sauce with criterium racing since the Armstrong era fell apart. This whole scenario is just so weird and stupid.
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There is, and always has been, a belief that cycling is about more than sheer power-meter meritocracy in which the strong dominate the weak. This belief is central to cycling’s mystique and appeal, especially as the old nationalist ties (while always present in fans) have in the professional sense mostly dissolved into more internationally diverse trade teams. The Vuelta itself introduced a solidarity jersey just to highlight this important cultural element. It is not that we love athletes because they are the strongest. They must also represent those elements of our lives that give us hope and belief in a world in which each of us can have our own moment in the sun, that repay us for our emotional investment. In cycling’s culture, it is always worth more to try and lose than to win easily, and a win is worth more if it comes after profound struggle or years of loyalty. These cultural beliefs are so enduring that when they are disturbed, especially by the ruthless logic of physical and technical superiority and total conquest, people naturally get upset, as they are now.
What is remarkable is that Jumbo Visma, a team I very much credit with stoking my own interest in the sport because of how likable they used to be, does not seem to understand this despite being run by an ex-journalist. They have increasingly become a metaphor for the new age of cycling in which all is optimized and emotion has been factored out of the equation, merely another discrepancy one must deal with in the quest for perfection. They do not seem to understand why people love their own riders. People love Vingegaard for his almost Lutheran humility and shyness, Roglič for his transcendence over struggle, Kuss for his loyalty at the expense of himself, and Van Aert for his gentle personality and life-long tete-a-tete with a rival that always seems to have the edge over him in the one-day races where it matters most. Right now, concerning the first three, all of that narrative build up, sympathy, and love is being undermined. The most cursory glance at social media right now will show that even Jumbo’s own fans are turning against one another.
Nobody watches cycling because they want to see a guy pedal up a mountain in the most optimal way possible. It is everything that comes with that, all of the social connections within the peloton, the personalities of the riders, the overarching stories across years and years of riding, and the belief in the impossible, the redemptive, and the beautiful that keeps us engaged. Those pesky emotions, that belief in nice stories, that mythology is cycling, a sport where the best man doesn’t always win, and that is the joy in watching.
In this world, it is better to be imperfect and beloved than perfect and despised.