Sepp Kuss went from promising prospect to bonafide star during an unforgettable week at the Tour of Utah.
The 23-year-old professional road cyclist from Durango wrapped up the seven-day race with his third stage win Sunday. He once again showed he was the best climber in the field, as he left everyone behind during the final ascent of the week, this time on Empire Pass. Kuss handled the last descent back into Park City, as he zipped through the rain to the finish line. He was forced to ride hard all the way to the finish thanks to a late charge from chase rider Brent Bookwalter. He could finally relax after the finish, as he was crowned the Tour of Utah champion.
“This week was really great. It really was a special week,” Kuss said in a Team LottoNL-Jumbo news release. “I knew I was in a good form going into the race, and I was pretty confident, too. But to win three stages and the overall ranking is really special. The team was once again very strong just like the rest of the week. I can’t thank them enough for what they have done for me.
“Halfway through the stage, I felt my legs were good. So, I decided to play my cards on the final climb and take it safe on the descent. This victory is one for the whole team because without them this was never possible.”
Kuss finished Sunday’s Stage 6, a 76-mile route with the start and finish in Park City, in 3 hours, 9 minutes, 22 seconds. He was eight seconds ahead of Bookwalter and Jack Haig. Kuss’ seven-day total time of 21:41:12 was 2:09 faster than Ben Hermans and 2:21 ahead of Haig. Bookwalter finished fourth, 2:39 behind Kuss’ time.
“Yesterday, I hurt myself a lot by trying to follow Sepp,” Hermans said after Sunday’s stage. “I didn’t want to do that mistake again today.”
Kuss admitted he finally was hurting on the final stretch Sunday. With the fans cheering him to the finish line, he couldn’t hear Bookwalter and Haig behind him and wasn’t entirely sure he would be able to win the stage.
“After that descent in cold rain, my legs totally locked up,” Kuss said in the post-stage news conference. “I had to make a big effort on the climb before. The fans were so loud that I couldn’t hear anything behind me. I thought, ‘If they pass me, I won’t even know.’ It’s just so loud. I was trying to drive all the way to the line, but I was really suffering.”
In all, Kuss conquered 548 miles that featured more than 43,000 feet of climbing. The Tour of Utah is called “America’s toughest stage race.”
Along with the yellow jersey, Kuss also eared the King of the Mountain jersey as the race’s best climber. The three stage wins in Utah were the first of his professional career, and the overall victory also was his first.
“It almost feels like a home race for me, aside from Colorado Classic,” Kuss said. “Coming from Durango, there’s a lot of connections to the Utah area. It’s cool to see familiar faces. What makes the race special is all the fans. Everyone is super enthusiastic, respectful fans and it has that American flair. It’s fun to be here with the European guys and show them all the funny U.S. stereotypes.”
Durango’s Sepp Kuss wins Stage 6 at the Tour of Utah! His third stage win of the week, and he wins the race! He’s the yellow jersey and king of the mountain jersey winner. First pro win. Unreal week! @seppkuss @TourofUtah #TOU2018 @LottoJumbo_road pic.twitter.com/ISsfu6H1n2— John Livingston (@jlivi2) August 12, 2018
Kuss rode confidently in the peloton during much of Sunday’s stage. He showed no fatigue after winning Saturday’s queen stage that featured a brutal climbing finish up to Snowbird Resort. The final climb of the week started near Mile 65 of Sunday’s route. Kuss attacked and dropped Haig and Nicola Conci as he left the chase group and went after solo break rider Nate Brown. As Kuss charged up Empire Pass, Brown tried to stay on his wheel but quickly realized he would not be able to stay with Kuss, and he was dropped with 8.4 miles to go. Kuss summited the pass alone at more than 9,000 feet of elevation.
“When I could see Nate up ahead, I thought I’d go again for the stage win,” Kuss said. “It broke my heart a bit to pass him because he’s one of the good guys.
“I’d never ridden the descent here before, so I didn’t really know what to expect for the corners. It was a bit wet, as well. I didn’t want to take any chances at all. I knew the guys behind me like Brent would take some chances. I tried to ride my safe descent and try to make it to the finish line.”
Kuss claimed the leader’s yellow jersey after he won Wednesday’s Stage 2 that featured the first big climb of the week up Mount Nebo in the Wasatch Range. He broke from the peloton early in the climb and went solo for more than 30 miles to the finish line to earn the first stage win of his career.
Tejay van Garderen of the BMC Racing Team won Monday’s time trial prologue, while Kuss was 25th and 17 seconds back. Kuss didn’t fall any further back during Stage 1 on Tuesday and was in 21st place going into Stage 2. After Wednesday, Kuss had a 21-second lead on second-place Neilson Powless, a fellow LottoNL-Jumbo rider and the only other American on the Netherlands-based team. Van Garderen fell to 25 seconds back. From there, the LottoNL-Jumbo team made sure nobody would take the yellow jersey away from Kuss.
Two lower elevation days followed with the 116-mile ride from Antelope Island to the town of Layton on Thursday and the 68-mile circuit race through Salt Lake City on Friday. The team worked at the front of the peloton both days and made sure Kuss got to the finish line out of harm and in position to not lose any time.
Kuss solidified his race victory with Saturday’s effort on the 98-mile route from Canyons Village at Park City Mountain to Snowbird Resort. He 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. With 2½ miles to go, Kuss had built a 45-second gap on the peloton and was 20 seconds ahead of Hermans, who finished second on the stage 39 seconds behind Kuss.
Kuss smiled Saturday as he got out of his saddle and repeatedly attacked up the final climb.
“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 after Saturday’s stage. “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.”
After that effort, Kuss had a commanding lead of 1:21 on Hermans, and nobody would threaten him Sunday with two more climbs.
With the lead going into Saturday, Kuss could have opted to ride comfortably in the peloton. But he was determined to continue attacking on the climbs during the weekend.
“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.
Kuss, son of Dolph and Sabina Kuss, 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. Before his ascension on a road bike, the 2013 Durango High School graduate competed in mountain biking.
Back home in Colorado, Kuss captured the awe of even some of his childhood friends, such as mountain bike Olympian Howard Grotts. After he won the Leadville 100 mountain bike race Saturday, Grotts was eager to watch Kuss on TV.
“None of us are really surprised he’s reached this level,” Grotts said. “It’s so fun to watch Sepp be successful on the road racing scene. He totally deserves it because he works really hard. It’s great to see him bring home that yellow jersey.”
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 two-year contract with Team LottoNL-Jumbo.
In his first year with the new team, Kuss wasn’t pleased with his early-season results. His fortune changed with a strong showing on two big climbing stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné in France. He went on to finish 28th overall and then was able to come home to Colorado where he split time between Boulder and Durango ahead of the Tour of Utah.
“For me, it’s nice and a bit of a relief to repay the team with some results because in the spring I was really not riding well at all,” Kuss said. “But I always was doing my best, and I think they saw that. Every race I was getting a little better and adjusting to a new team and life in Europe. To come back here and just repay that confidence that they’ve always had in me, even when I was not riding so well, is really nice.”
Kuss will head back to Europe soon to make his UCI Grand Tour debut in the Vuelta a España. That race will begin Aug. 25 and run through Sept. 16 with 21 stages. His team will work hard for George Bennett, who was eighth at this year’s Giro d’Italia.
“I definitely am excited for it,” Kuss said. “When I found out that it was kind of in the cards a few months ago, it gave me a lot of motivation. It’s going to be super hard. I’ve never done anything like it. I’ll just take it week by week and see how I feel. Obviously George is riding super well. When you go there with a guy who could really perform in the race, you can bring it up another level. It will be exciting to go there to help him out. Definitely a lot of confidence after this race to give it my all for George.”