Fresh off four grueling weeks of racing at the Giro d’Italia and Critérium du Dauphiné, Sepp Kuss blended into Durango like any other 24-year-old Durango High School graduate back home for a summer visit.
The professional road cyclist returned to his hometown to recover from the first half of the demanding schedule that comes along with being a World Tour rider participating in the biggest races in the cycling world. As he begins to look forward to the second half of the season with an uncertain upcoming schedule, he has taken time to get back to his mountain biking roots alongside childhood friends such as Stephan Davoust and Howard Grotts, though he’s not out to prove he can navigate the singletrack trails of Durango as quick as his friends, who are among the best in the United States on knobby tires.
“For me now when I ride my mountain bike, it’s go as slow as I can and look forward to the downhills,” Kuss said. “I’m a pretty lazy mountain biker these days, but it’s nice to catch up with those guys and see what the scene is like in the mountain bike world and share war stories.”
While Kuss may be coy about his mountain bike prowess these days, those who have shared a trail with him said he is anything but novice.
“He’s quick. He tries to play it off as if he doesn’t know how to ride a mountain bike anymore, but he certainly does,” Davoust said. “Knowing Sepp for so long, he’s always been a very laid-back soul. It’s cool to see he hasn’t changed at all because he’s pretty special. When you have success and are doing as well as he is, it can go to people’s heads. Sepp is just out cruising and having fun with it.”
Kuss wrapped up two massive efforts June 16 at Critérium du Dauphiné in France. He saved his best result for last to cap off the first half of his season competing for Team Jumbo-Visma, a World Tour team based out of the Netherlands. He finished fifth on the eighth-and-final stage and placed 26th in the overall race standings, 19 minutes and 19 seconds behind race winner Jakob Fuglsang of Denmark. He finished third in the best young rider standings.
During the week-long event, Kuss was at the front of a couple breakaway efforts, once more showing his climbing prowess that was on full display last August when he rode away from the field to win three stages and the overall title at the Tour of Utah.
His win at the Tour of Utah helped him earn his first Grand Tour ride of his young career last August at the Vuelta a España. Kuss took the lessons learned from that effort in which he finished 65th overall and had a 10th-place finish on the seventh stage into his sophomore Grand Tour appearance this May at the Giro d’Italia, as he received a late call up from Jumbo-Visma to replace injured teammate Robert Gesink.
Kuss had a big job to do as a support rider for Primož Roglic of Slovenia, one of the race’s heavy favorites. After three weeks of chaos, Roglic finished third overall, while Kuss finished 56th in the standings and 14th among the best young riders and was happy to see the race end with a pink carpet ride through Verona Arena after 21 stages.
“It was pretty cool to be on the team when we had a really big favorite for the race,” Kuss said. “On one hand, it’s a big opportunity. On the other hand, it’s a lot of added stress. For me, my first Giro, which is one of the more hectic races, it’s a lot of mental energy that you’re using every day to make sure you’re on the front with the favorites and not losing any time. ... I think in the end we were happy with the podium.
“For me, when I finished the last time trial in Verona, I actually didn’t know what to expect. We went through a tunnel and then all of a sudden you open up into this amphitheater with this pink carpet, big jumbo screen and I was just kind of ready to be done with it, get me out of here. It’s three weeks of just chaos, and at that point you want to shut off from everything and just be. It’s cool to be in that atmosphere but, at the same time, you’re so mentally cooked you just want to relax and do something different.”
At last year’s Vuelta, Kuss labored through the final half of the race after putting in attacking efforts early in the three-week tour. He learned from that experience and knew better how to control his output at the Giro. Still, like every rider during one of the three Grand Tour events that require a three-week effort, he had his down days.
So when Kuss had only a week off to prepare for Dauphiné, he wasn’t sure how his body would react. He was proud of the performance in France and returned to Colorado optimistic about the rest of the season.
“It’s nice to end on a good note, and it gives you confidence that you can actually be with some of the better riders and can take that confidence into training for the second half of the year,” he said. “That’s a huge component is just knowing that you can do it. It gives you much more incentive to do the right things in training, be focused and give your best effort.”
When Kuss was named to the Giro team, it put the rest of his schedule for this season in flux. According to the Jumbo-Visma team page, he is scheduled to race Aug. 3 at the Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian and make his second start at the Vuelta, which is scheduled for Aug. 24 through Sept. 15. But Kuss is unsure yet if he will race the Vuelta in his new home country of Spain. An alternative may be the Tour of Poland.
Some pressure was taken off the young rider’s shoulders earlier this year when Jumbo-Visma renewed his contract for another two seasons through 2021. Still relatively new to the sport after transitioning from mountain biking to road racing only in 2015 when he first competed in the Tour of the Gila, the 2017 graduate of the University of Colorado knows he has plenty of work to do over the next two-plus years to continue to prove he can have a long career on the World Tour.
“Getting your first is one thing, then getting your second on the World Tour is always a bit harder,” Kuss said of his contract. “It’s nice to have that taken care of, but at the same time, when you have a new contract, you have to show your worth. They have to get their money’s worth out of you. In the end, it’s a bit more pressure because you actually know what’s expected of you. It’s not just getting experience. You have a real role and expectation.”
After checking off two of the three Grand Tours in the Giro and Vuelta, he also hopes to cross off the biggest of them all, the Tour de France. He won’t be on the start line this year when the Super Bowl of road cycling kicks off July 6 in Belgium, but he hopes to earn a start and finish in Paris
“The Tour, everybody wants to ride the Tour,” Kuss said. “It’s really competitive to make the team to ride the Tour. I think from the rider standpoint, it’s probably one of the more manageable Grand Tours to get through. From what I’ve heard, it’s really stressful, but it’s a very controlled race. On the other hand, the Giro is a free-for-all with harder stages, harder climbs, weather, just a lot of different variables. To do the Giro, finish it and be there is a good experience, a good one to tick off the list.
“Volta a Catalunya, one-week stage races with longer climbs, I’d be pretty motivated for. One-day races like Lombardy, Strade Bianche, stuff like that. For me, I’m figuring out what races suit me best, and at the end of the day, I’m happy to do any race. They’re all pretty special in their own ways.”
For now, Kuss is focused on continuing to improve and develop, and he continues to look forward to getting away from the chaotic world of European cycling and enjoying trips home to Boulder and Durango, where he can blend in and get his best training.
“It’s nice getting back in Durango with family and friends. It’s just a much slower speed, which is pretty nice,” he said. “When you’re racing in Europe, it’s really fast-paced and kind of this cycle of race, travel, recover, spend a week at home, race again. Everything goes by super fast. You come home to Colorado where it’s a pretty chill life speed, then everything slows down and you can kind of stop and smell the roses.”