The final stage of the Tour de France is unlike most bike races. The day starts with the race leader and other significant riders riding easy, posing for photographs with their teammates as they roll along, as if it was a parade rather than a race.
That’s what Durango-born professional cyclist Sepp Kuss was doing Sunday afternoon, hours away from completing his second-career Tour de France.
Although the overall competition winner is already sorted out by the final stage, there’s still a sprint finish up the Champs-Élysées, so as the peloton rolls into Paris, the pace picks up as riders search for one last chance at victory. After 21 days and more than 2,000 miles of racing, riders must exert themselves one last time.
“You're just kind of counting down the laps until it's over,” Kuss said in an interview this week with The Durango Herald. “Then you know you can celebrate and be happy with your teammates and what you all went through together, whether you won or lost or anything. I think it's special for everybody to finish there in Paris.”
Kuss’ three weeks in France were full of wins and losses. The obvious highlight for the 26-year-old was winning Stage 15, which finished in his adopted home country of Andorra. Plus, his teammate Wout van Aert won three stages, including the final one in Paris. But the race also saw multiple of Kuss’ Jumbo-Visma teammates drop out because of injuries.
At the start of the race, Kuss’ primary objective in the race was to provide support for teammate Primoz Roglic, last year’s runner-up and a prime race favorite for this year’s edition. However, Roglic was forced to withdraw from the Tour with severe bruising and road rash after a series of crashes.
There were still plenty of opportunities for his team to prosper, though. Stage 15 presented a course that could suit Kuss’ abilities; a steep climb was followed by a blistering descent to the finish line in Andorra, where Kuss and many of his teammates live.
The Durangoan launched his attack on the final climb, and held a 20-second advantage as he crested the summit. He maintained his lead over Alejandro Valverde of Spain to become the first American to win a stage at the French race since 2011.
“It was really a special day and it's cool to know that you won a stage in the Tour de France,” Kuss said. “But I think as cyclists you're already looking to the next thing, the next goal, and you always have a pretty short memory. Already that day feels so long ago. You're already thinking about the next race or what you're going to do on the next day almost, so yeah it's, I guess it's pretty fleeting.”
After the day’s podium ceremony and interviews were complete, Kuss turned his attention to being a helper again for teammates like Jonas Vingegaard, who finished second overall. Even though Kuss’ day in the spotlight was fleeting, his friends and family in Durango remain ecstatic.
“It must have felt so cool,” said Chad Cheeney, co-founder of the Durango Devo program who coached Kuss when he was a young mountain biker.
“I think someone told me that (NBC commentator) Bob Roll mentioned Devo and he must be good at downhilling if he's from Durango Devo or something,” Cheeney said. “I just knew it must have been a pretty rad descent to victory.”
Since rising through the ranks of domestic and international professional cycling, Kuss has established a home base in Andorra, a tiny country situated between France and Spain.
“That stage meant a lot to him with adopting Andorra as his new home,” said Sabina Kuss, Sepp’s mother. “He's building a house there, and his girlfriend and her family were there, so he said that truly motivated him to know that he was going on his adopted country roads and seeing his Spanish family up there.”
The COVID-19 pandemic along with a busy professional life has kept Kuss away from Durango in recent years, but his parents are able to keep up with him by watching the races that are broadcast.
“We're always excited by whatever bike race he’s in,” said Sepp’s father, Dolph Kuss. “We watch them all.”
Sabina Kuss adds that the Tour finishing brings a bittersweet feeling.
“We got to see him every morning for three weeks,” she said. “Now we don't get to wake up in the morning and see Sepp. But I'm just thrilled that he ended his tour without any injuries or road rash or anything. He's in great shape to start his Vuelta in about a month.”
After the Tour, many cyclists immediately boarded a plane to Tokyo for the cycling events in the Olympic Games. Kuss had made the prior decision to not compete in the Games, rather focusing on the Tour and La Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain).
“I assumed they (USA Cycling) would want me to go just considering the course and how much climbing there was,” Kuss said about the Tokyo Games. “Already in the winter, knowing what my schedule was going to be, I didn't have so much interest in going. And, yeah, I mean, even at this point I don't regret not going so much.”
With riders leaving for Tokyo and others having already dropped out of the race, the post-race revelry in Paris was muted compared to other years, but Kuss still had opportunity to hit the town.
“At our dinner we just had three riders, but it was a really nice evening,” he said. “A lot of the riders’ and staff’s families had come to Paris, and we all met at the Dutch Embassy there so it was a nice setting and, you know, speeches and everything and good celebration.”
Reactions from the Durango community poured out over the course of the three-week race, especially after Kuss’ win on Stage 15.
“Big ups to Sepp Kuss,” Todd Wells, a former mountain bike Olympian, wrote on social media. “Huge ride today winning in his European home base of Andorra.”
“Thank you Sepp Kuss for doing Durango and America proud by winning today’s Tour de France stage,” wrote friend and professional mountain biker Payson McElveen. “The tears of joy this morning wiped away my own (racing) frustrations and reinvigorated my excitement to get back to working hard.”
“He's got a lot of fans in Durango,” Dolph Kuss said. “Everyone I talk to, they're always excited about his riding and they enjoy watching bike races. In fact, a lot of people have become more interested in watching bike races since Sepp has been participating the last couple of years.”
“People say, ‘Tell Sepp we're cheering for him,’ or ‘Tell Sepp great job,’” added Sabina. “I always convey that to Sepp, and you can just feel him smile and he always says, ‘Well, I really appreciate that.’ So, he's really aware of it. He's got a tight community in Durango that supports him.”
One stronghold of support is the Durango Devo program, where Kuss got his start as a competitive mountain biker. Devo athletes learned about Kuss’ win at the Mountain Bike National Championships in Winter Park, where multiple Durangoans rode to wins and podium performances.
Kuss serves as a role model and real-world example for the Devo athletes, who range in age from 2 to 18.
“He's just a banner guy and he has a great outlook on life,” Cheeney said. “Just being around people, he can do it. Those things go a long way in a role model. He hasn't been here much in the last few years, but when he does come home he's pretty in-tune with hanging out and talking to the kids, so that's awesome.”
For his part, Kuss says that aspiring racers should follow their passions and have fun doing so.
“If they can learn anything from me it's just to enjoy riding your bike and doing it because you love it. That's what I try and show whenever I'm racing or the training that I put into the results. It’s always about love and enjoyment, and I think that's what the main message they should take from what I'm doing, because in the end, that's what it takes to be at this level is to just really have a passion for it.”