Sepp Kuss hinted at a possible attack on the final climb during the fifth stage of the Tour of Utah on Saturday.
“Just because you have the yellow jersey doesn’t mean you can’t attack,” Kuss said Thursday night in a phone interview with The Durango Herald.
The 23-year-old from Durango assumed the lead at the seven-day road cycling race Wednesday when a dominant climbing performance sent him to the Stage 2 victory and past Tejay van Garderen into the yellow jersey as the race’s overall leader. With a 19-second lead going into a tough climbing stage Saturday on a 98-mile route from Canyons Village at Park City Mountain to a climbing finish at Snowbird Resort, Kuss mounted a huge attack with 5 miles to go to the finish. Nobody could touch him on the climb from there, and he claimed his second stage victory of the week in a time of 4 hours, 2 minutes, 32 seconds.
“I got to the bottom of the climb and decided to ride my own pace,” Kuss said in the post-stage news conference. “It was easier than having to deal with jumping with everybody. I didn’t really know how many (kilometers) were left in the climb, just felt good. Decided to make a decisive move, put everybody on the backfoot maybe and ride my own race. It ended up working out again today, so really happy.”
Kuss lived up to his word on the queen stage of the race and shocked the peloton with his attack. When he made his move with 5 miles to go on the Hors Category climb – a climb beyond classification – of Little Cottonwood Canyon toward the finish at Snowbird, he quickly passed break rider Kilian Frankiny of BMC Racing. Frankiny was part of the original break up Guardsman Pass, the first big climb of two on the stage.
With 2½ miles to go, Kuss had built a 45-second gap on the peloton and was 20 seconds ahead of Israel Cycling Academy rider Ben Hermans, who finished second on the stage 39 seconds behind Kuss.
“When I got the gap and saw Ben Hermans behind me,” Kuss said, “he’s a really strong rider, I thought, ‘Oh no, that’s not who I want chasing me right now’ because he’s a real engine. After that, I was really hurting.”
Durango’s Sepp Kuss wins Stage 5 at Tour of Utah, his second stage win of the week and second DOMINANT climbing performance. He’s got the yellow and climber’s jerseys going into final day Sunday! @seppkuss @LottoJumbo_road #TOU2018 @TourofUtah pic.twitter.com/ZxAJcGFGoD— John Livingston (@jlivi2) August 11, 2018
Kuss smiled as he got out of his saddle and repeatedly attacked up the final climb. Regarded as the best climber in the field, the young Team LottoNL-Jumbo rider was in his element. He showed little sign of fatigue after the stage.
“In the beginning, I was maybe smiling a little bit just because there’s no better feeling than just kind of standing up on the pedals, and just attacking is really fun,” Kuss said. “When you’re on a good day and you feel good, there’s really no better feeling in the world than dancing on the pedals up a climb.
Kuss was another 1:18 ahead of third-place finisher Peter Stetina and 1:27 ahead of fourth-place Rob Britton, the defending Tour of Utah champion.
The pace was set on the first big climb of the day, when Kuss and the peloton charged up Guardsman Pass, a Category 1 climb. Many riders in the field were left behind, and the leaders flew down a 5,000-foot descent back into the Salt Lake Valley.
After Kuss’ two dominant climbing performances, he has a 1:21 advantage on Hermans going into Stage 6 on Sunday. His six-day combined time is 18 hours, 32 minutes.
He is 2:05 ahead of Joe Dombrowski and 2:07 in front of Hugh John Carthy and Jack Haig. Dombrowski and Carthy are both EF Education-Drapac/Cannondale riders. There are only eight riders within 3 minutes of Kuss’ time.
Colorado’s Keegan Swirbul, the 2015 Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race winner and 2018 runner-up, is in the top 10 in ninth place, 3:01 behind Kuss. Van Garderen fell to 18th and 7:17 behind Kuss. Durango’s Griffin Easter of the 303Project is 26th, 10:57 back. He also finished 26th during Saturday’s stage, 5:49 behind Kuss. Easter’s brother, Cullen, is in 43rd, 28:51 back. Swirbul’s Jelly Belly/Maxxis teammate Cormac McGeough, a Fort Lewis College cycling alum, is in 94th, 1:06:50 behind Kuss.
Sunday’s stage will start and finish in Park City. At a distance of 76 miles, there are two more big climbs. The first is a Category 3 with sustained 15 percent grades. The riders will then descend and then climb Empire Pass with grades of 10 to 20 percent before a final descent back into Park City to the finish line.
Kuss will wear the yellow jersey for a fourth consecutive day Sunday. He also overtook the king of the mountain jersey from his teammate Daan Olivier with his performance Saturday.
“This win is one for the entire team here in Utah. Everyone has given their maximum,” Team LottoNL-Jumbo sports director Sierk Jan de Haan said in a news release. “Then Sepp had to finish it, which gave him the boost to win. I cannot be more than proud.”
Saturday’s win was the second stage win of Kuss’ professional career. He has only competed as a pro road cyclist for three seasons. Last year, the 2017 graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder competed for Rally Cycling, a continental pro team. Previous to his ascension on a road bike, Kuss competed in mountain biking.
Kuss wore the yellow jersey for one day at last year’s Tour of Utah with one of his breakout performances on Stage 2 with a climbing finish at Snowbasin Resort. He finished second on that stage and held the overall lead for only one day. On the Snowbird climb a year ago, Kuss finished 13th behind many of the same names he handedly beat this year. In 2017, Kuss went on to finish ninth overall. In the offseason, he signed a contract with Team LottoNL-Jumbo, a World Tour team based out of the Netherlands.
After Saturday’s win, a humble Kuss thanked each individual member of his team for helping him get to the final day in the yellow jersey and especially for their ability to chase down attacks before Saturday’s final climb.
“I think we had like four guys up the road at one point because they were so good at covering the moves,” Kuss said. “The nice thing about being on a Dutch team, cycling is a little bit in their blood. They’re really good at tactics. For a guy like me who is a little confused by that sometimes, I can sit back and save energy.
“I think halfway through the stage, the team had done such a good job I thought I’d try to go for the win again to do it for the six guys on the team that helped me out so much. To make it across, I was more happy for them and the staff and everything. It’s been such a nice atmosphere at this race with the team. Really, all credit to them and, of course, the fans and everything. It’s fun to be able to relate to the people watching the race and having a good time with them.”