Sepp Kuss knew the grueling Category 1 climbs during the 15th and 16th stages at the Vuelta a EspaÃ±a would give him a chance to shine. Sunday, the 24-year-old from Durango turned in another stunning performance to earn his first stage victory at one of the three Grand Tour events.
With four miles to go during Stage 15 of the Spanish Vuelta, Kuss launched a solo attack on the final climb that featured an average of a 9.7% grade for five miles. The base of the climb featured grades as high at 15%. Kuss reeled in Sergio Samitier and climbed with the same enthusiasm he showed in 2018 when he won three stages and the overall championship at the Tour of Utah. Holding off any kind of chase behind him from Ruben Guerreiro and Tao Geoghegan Hart, Kuss won the 96-mile stage from Tineo to the summit finish of Santuario del Acebo in 4 hours, 19 minutes, 4 seconds. That was 39 seconds in front of Guerreiro.
â€œItâ€™s pretty big, I guess. Honestly, it hasnâ€™t quite sunk in,â€� Kuss told The Associated Press. â€œIt is an incredible day.â€�
Kussâ€™ winning effort came on the last of four climbs. The first featured grades of 7.1% for five miles. Seventeen riders were able to get away from the peloton on the descent, while Kussâ€™ Jumbo-Visma team controlled the gap in an effort to support team leader PrimoÅ¾ Roglic and keep him in the leaderâ€™s red jersey.
The second climb came on the Category 1 Puerto del Connio with a 6.2% grade for more than seven miles. At the base of the third climb, Samitier attacked along with Ben Oâ€™Connor and Dani Navarro. With 25 miles left in the stage, they had opened up a gap of more than five minutes. The third climb was another seven miles with grades as high at 10.8% and sustained at 6.2%.
With Jumbo-Visma still controlling the peloton, that gap was reduced to only 15 seconds with 10Â½ miles to go. Samitier again attacked with seven miles to go. With Rolgic set to safely make it to the finish line with no danger to his lead, Kuss was allowed to break away and attack for the stage win. It didnâ€™t take him long to get to the front.
â€œThe Vuelta is incredible for us at the moment,â€� Kuss said in a Jumbo-Visma team news release. â€œThis is an incredible day. We were attentive from the beginning and at the front. Some of the teams sent dangerous guys up to the front, so I decided to go with them. The gap was big enough to go for the stage win. Otherwise, I was going to help Primoz on the final climb. I had no strategy on the final climb, I just went full gas. I celebrated the final kilometer with the fans. The passion they have is fantastic, and that is why cycling is such a big sport. On bad days, they are there for you, they shout you to the top. They always support; that is why I love cycling.â€�
It was the first stage win at a Grand Tour for Kuss, who was in the lead group on Stage 9 in the Pyrenees Mountains of Andorra before he dropped back to support Roglic and went on to finish 16th. Kuss is now seventh in the best young rider classification and 24th in the overall general classification.
Valverde, the world champion, launched his attack up the last Category 1 climb Sunday, and Roglic went with him while the other top riders fell behind. Roglic finished eighth, right in front of Valverde.
Roglic, a Slovenian aiming for his first Grand Tour victory, leads Valverde by 2 minutes, 25 seconds.
â€œWe (are) all celebrating this race,â€� Roglic said in the team news release. â€œIt is an incredible day for us again. But we need to be focused until Madrid.â€�
There is one week until the finish of the three-week Vuelta in Madrid, and Kuss will play a big role in keeping Roglic in the leaderâ€™s jersey until the finish. Roglic went into red after his time trial win on Stage 10 that backed up the teamâ€™s effort on Stage 9 that saw Roglic finish third. Only the 39-year-old Valverde, the 2009 Vuelta winner, can truly contest Roglic and his team in the mountains.
â€œThe grandpa isnâ€™t finished yet,â€� Valverde told The Associated Press.
Tadej Pogacar is third overall at 3:42 back. Miguel Ã�ngel LÃ³pez fell to 3:59 back, and Nairo Quintana lost even more time and is 5:09 off the pace.
Just as he did in Utah a year ago, Kuss slapped high fives with the fans on his way to the big win Sunday, and he was elated to celebrate with his team at the finish line.
â€œI think that is what makes the Vuelta so special, the passion of the fans,â€� Kuss said. â€œI have good days when you feel their enthusiasm, but on the bad days when youâ€™re 30 minutes behind the winner, they are there to cheer you and give you a push. That is what makes cycling special.â€�
Kuss said he is thankful to ride for Jumbo-Visma, which has allowed him to learn quickly while still growing as a road cyclist. It was only in 2016 that the 2013 Durango High School graduate switched full time from mountain biking to road racing and quickly gained attention for his climbing prowess. He graduated from the University of Colorado in 2017 and had a standout season in North America with Rally Cycling before he signed a two-year contract with Jumbo-Visma, a World Tour team based in the Netherlands.
His breakthrough performance at the Tour of Utah led to his first Grand Tour ride at last yearâ€™s Vuelta. Earlier this year, he also rode in support of Roglic in the Giro dâ€™Italia. The lone Grand Tour he has yet to check off now is the Tour de France. With a new two-year contract through the 2021 season, he may get his chance, especially if Roglic targets France next season.
â€œTo grab this kind of victory is not easy. I always work hard to be in a good shape,â€� Kuss said. â€œThe team gives me opportunities. This is the third Grand Tour Iâ€™ve participated in. I get chances to race for myself, like today. Iâ€™m really grateful to the team.â€�
Mondayâ€™s Stage 16 is another tough trek in the green northern mountains, taking riders more than 89 miles from Pravia to a beyond-category summit finish atop the Alto de la Cubilla. If Kuss can find the legs for a second consecutive day, he may look for another top result.
The three-week race ends Sept. 15 in Madrid.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.