There’s something about Stage 2 at the Tour of Utah that brings out the best in Durango professional road cyclist Sepp Kuss.
The 23-year-old went on a solo break Wednesday on the climb up Mount Nebo in the Wasatch Range. He built an advantage of more than a full minute on the peloton as he crested the summit of the mountain pass 62 miles into the stage. He maintained an advantage of at least 50 seconds the rest of the descent before he reached the town of Payson and claimed the stage victory and the general classification lead Tuesday at the Tour of Utah, a seven-day International Cycling Union (UCI) America Tour event.
It was Kuss’ first major stage win as a pro road cyclist, and many riders believe he is the strongest in the field in Utah.
“It feels really amazing to have my first win as a professional on a team as Team LottoNL-Jumbo,” Kuss said in a team news release. “I felt really good today. I knew it would be possible to do something on the climb. And if I were really good, I could go for the win.”
Kuss finished Wednesday’s 86-mile stage in 3 hours, 25 minutes, 57 seconds. He was 29 seconds ahead of Team LottoNL-Jumbo teammate Neilson Powless, a Californian who is the only other American on LottoNL-Jumbo. Kyle Murphy of Rally Cycling finished in the same time as Powless to take third on the stage.
“Sepp going up the road, that was insane,” Powless said of his teammate in the post-race press conference. “The whole time I could hear the director in my ear piece. Sepp was incredible, definitely the strongest climber in the race right now. That’s insane. I’m incredibly happy and at a loss for words going one-two in the stage.”
American star Tejay van Garderen, riding for BMC Racing Team, held the yellow jersey after Monday’s time trial prologue and Tuesday’s 101-mile Stage 1 in Cedar City. He was 17 seconds ahead of Kuss, who entered the day in 21st overall. Van Garderen handed the yellow over to Kuss on Wednesday and fell to third place overall. Kuss’ combined time of 7:49:36 is 21 seconds ahead of Powless and 25 seconds in front of Van Garderen going into Thursday’s Stage 3, a 116-mile route from Antelope Island to Layton.
Kuss showed his elite climbing ability this year on Mount Nebo, as the route took riders beyond 9,000 feet above sea level. Kuss had to chase down a couple of other Durango riders in Cormac McGeough of the Jelly Belly/Maxxis team and Griffin Easter of the 303Project. The two Fort Lewis College cycling alums were part of a six-rider break. The break group had a 2:50 advantage when they began the climb. Easter bridged the gap to solo leader Michael Hernandez of Aevelo and then surged past him to take the solo lead in the early stages of the big Category 1 climb.
Kuss, the 2017 Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race winner, jumped around a group of riders that included 2015 IHBC winner and 2018 IHBC runner-up Keegan Swirbul. Kuss staged a solo attack and worked alone in his effort to bring back Easter. With 32 miles to go, Kuss caught Easter and continued his solo attack. He dropped the 303Project rider and rode solo to the finish from there. He had a 1:15 gap as he crested the summit of the climb.
“At the beginning of the climb, I felt really strong, so I thought, ‘I’ll wait until some of the GC guys start attacking,’” Kuss said in the post-race press conference. “After that, maybe try something on my own if I feel good. Yeah, I made a little surge maybe 4K into the climb and still felt pretty good, so yeah kept going.”
With a technical descent back into Payson, it was hard for the chase group to gain any ground on Kuss, who fought a headwind but flew down the descent until he got back into town in Payson. On the mostly flat ride through town to the finish, the chase of 12 riders was able to close some time on Kuss, but they had no chance of chasing him down before the finish line.
“Definitely a headwind,” Kuss said. “After I passed the peak, I was like, ‘OK, this might not be the smartest decision.’ Still, I felt really good. ... I kept going a reasonable speed and thought, ‘If they catch me, they catch me, I still have something in reserve.’ When I heard the time gaps were pretty stable, I thought, ‘I’ll just keep going with it.’ It was not the most pleasant experience out there, but I’m happy we made it to the finish.”
While Kuss took over the yellow jersey, Easter claimed the red jersey as the race’s most aggressive rider. Powless is in the blue jersey as the best young rider, while Daan Olivier of Team LottoNL-Jumbo is in the king of the mountain jersey. Travis McCabe of the UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team is in the white sprinter’s jersey.
Swirbul went on to finish 10th on Wednesday’s Stage 2, 32 seconds back of Kuss. Van Garderen was 11th in the same time. Easter placed 23rd and was 3:34 back of Kuss. His brother, Colorado Mesa University alum Cullen Easter, was 37th, 10:13 back. McGeough faded on the climb and finished 109th, 20:02 back of Kuss.
In the overall standings, Swirbul is 13th, 52 seconds behind Kuss. Griffin Easter is 31st, 5:08 back, Cullen Easter is 38th, 10:54 back, and McGeough is 97th, 36:37 back. Pro mountain biker Russell Finsterwald of Colorado Springs, competing in his first Tour of Utah, was 61st on Wednesday, 16:27 back of Kuss. He is in 54th overall, 17:09 back, as he competed for Australian-based team Mobius Bridgelane.
Last year, Kuss rode for Rally Cycling and was second to the finish line on Stage 2 at the Tour of Utah. That was a different route that featured a climbing finish to Snowbasin Resort. His performance in 2017 put him in the yellow jersey for the first time in his young road racing career. That result paired with a ninth-place overall finish when the race was over helped him land a contract with Team LottoNL-Jumbo, a World Tour team based out of the Netherlands.
“Sepp showed he’s the best climber in this peloton,” Team LottoNL-Jumbo Sports Director Sierk Jan de Haan said in a news release. “The last (40 kilometers) were mostly downhill, but it was hard because of the headwind and short climbs. That he managed to win this stage after (50 kilometers) solo, is a great achievement.”
Kuss, who is only his third full year of road racing, will now wear the yellow once more on a Stage 3 in Utah. With two big climbing stages to come on the final two days of the race, Kuss has a strong chance to improve on the ninth-place overall finish from a year ago.
“I think there’s some really big favorites in this race,” Kuss said when asked if he was the strongest rider in the field. “We will see. There are hard stages coming up. It’s nice to be in position where I don’t have to make a big move like I did today. I certainly feel we have a really strong team here. Neilson in second is a big advantage to us, as well. We will see. ... I think the race is still definitely very open.”