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At the Kuss family home in Durango, Colorado, Dolph and Sabina Kuss screamed into the television this past Sunday, watching their son, Sepp, navigate the twists and turns on his bicycle as he descended the Col de Beixalis during stage 15 of the Tour de France, thousands of miles away in Andorra.
Behind Kuss, Alejandro Valverde gave chase, hoping to challenge the American for the stage win.
“Come on Seppy, take a risk,” shouted Dolph, a two-time Olympic cross-country skiing coach for Team USA in 1964 and 1972. “I was encouraging him on that downhill so he wouldn’t have to battle Valverde out for the last few seconds going into the finish. Sepp, of course, I know he’s not void of downhill skills. When they would show the splits – 18, 20, down to 15, back to 16 – oh man, every one of those second losses felt like they sucked the wind out of you, and every gain brought you to life.”
Sabina, herself a cyclist who has conquered the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic from Durango to Silverton on numerous occasions, at times with her son in tow during his early days on a bike, said she could watch him without fear as he reached speeds as high as 50 mph on the downhill for the first time in her life.
“Thank goodness there was no rain,” Sabina Kuss told VeloNews. “We know Sepp is a good descender, so this was the first time I could relax, and I took every curve with him.”
As Dolph and Sabina proudly looked on, Sepp held off Valverde, and coasted across the line to take the biggest victory of his professional cycling career. In doing so, he became the first American in a decade to win a stage of the Tour de France.
Back in Durango, Colorado, where Sepp grew up, the victory sent ripples through the community. Those who knew him best had just watched him do what he had done so. many times on a mountain bike throughout his childhood. And in the days after the victory, these friends explained how Kuss’s win reverberated throughout the mountain town in Southwestern Colorado, that has produced so many great cyclists before.
“Back in 2017 when he was racing domestically for Rally Cycling, Sepp, Howard Grotts and I rode the South Boundary Trail from Angel Fire to Taos in New Mexico,” said pro mountain bike and gravel racer Payson McElveen of Durango.
“It was a super long descent and pretty technical in the end. I don’t think Sepp had ridden his mountain bike in like nine months or something crazy because he had been focused on the road. But he just hops on his mountain bike, and he was ripping, and he was even wearing road pedals and road shoes. Howie and I had just gotten off a full mountain bike season, and Sepp had absolutely not lost a beat.
“So when he dropped into that descent on the Tour, I had a pretty good feeling he was just going to absolutely rip it. It was easy to believe in his massive bank of skills at this point,” McElveen added.
Dreams of mountain bike success fill many Durango children at a young age. From his early days working with coach Chad Cheeney at Durango Devo, Kuss was known for his small frame, pointy elbows, strong climbing ability, and the tail whips he would try to throw off even the smallest features on any trail.
“Like everyone, he was into mountain bikes. But he would always ride the road, too,” Cheeney said. “Sepp always had these really cool and funny custom road bikes, beaters he had boughten off eBay or found in the Durango Cyclery recycling section. He’d find these super-light frames and put funky parts on them. We’d go on rides, and his bike would be creaking and rattling loose. He was this cobbler of bikes.”
During his senior year of high school, Kuss made the USA Cycling roster for the UCI mountain world championships, and he was a member of the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory Devo Sweet Elite team put together in Durango. It was made up of under-23 stars such as Kaylee Blevins, Lauren Catlin, Tad Elliott, Grotts, McElveen, and Sarah Sturm along with high school shredders in Kuss and Stephan Davoust, among others.
While none of those riders ever would have gone on to predict the success Kuss would have in road cycling, he left a few clues behind along the way.
“We were at a race in Colorado Springs for Sweet Elite, and Sepp couldn’t make it because he was in Europe for a world cup,” Cheeney said. “We all watched the live timing for it. He started like 130th, and it was a super climbing race. He moved all the way up to like 50th or something. All of us had the tingles, and we looked at each other like, ‘Holy cow, Sepp can really, like really, climb. Before, we all knew he was fast, but that was this world-class moment. Before, you just thought of Sepp as some chill and mellow guy. You never thought of him as a world killer.”
McElveen recalled training rides with Grotts, the 2016 mountain bike Olympian, and Kuss during those days. After, they would return home before meeting back up for yet another spin. Asked how he had spent his downtime, Kuss would surprise them with his answer.
“He’d be like, ‘I went back and watched the full four-hour replay from the 2003 Giro d’Italia Stage 17,’” McElveen said. “We would be like, ‘Wow, that’s really specific.’ He was giving this massive time commitment to watching these really long road races from a decade ago. You could see there was this brewing interest he had in the highest level of the sport, the most traditional version of the sport. Based on his mountain bike results, I would have never thought we’d see him in the Tour de France. But interest-wise, it makes sense he is there. He seemed so inspired by these massive alpine stages of the grand tours.”
Elliott was the rider Kuss looked up to most. He was a two-time under-23 mountain bike national champion and an elite Nordic skier who went onto a pro career on skinny skis. Dolph Kuss had coached Elliott’s father, Mike, at the Olympics, and the two have remained extremely close their entire lives, leading backcountry expeditions deep into the San Juan Mountains throughout Kuss’ childhood.
Elliott envisioned Kuss going on to a mountain bike or even a hockey career, but not the Tour de France. Still, because of the cycling culture established in Durango since the 1990 mountain bike world championships when world champions such as Juli Furtado, Greg Herbold, Ruthie Matthes, Ned Overend, and John Tomac called the southwest Colorado mountain town home, Elliott said it wasn’t a shock to see Kuss win Sunday as he sipped coffee on his couch and watched him make the break.
“Sepp’s always been a normal Durango kid, running around being a little menace who loved riding his bike, and you always knew he was very, very talented,” Elliott said. “There was never this moment I point to where I thought he would be one of the best in the world and on TV, but it’s just not a surprise to see him winning, and we’re never surprised here in Durango to see someone we grew up with or our neighbors have these incredible results.
“If you watched any other American win a stage at the Tour de France, you would be excited and feel country pride. But when you see Sepp win a stage at the Tour de France, somehow you have all those same feelings, but it feels natural. Stuff like this when it happens in our community, it’s really fun, but it doesn’t feel otherworldly, and that’s pretty cool.”
As Kuss caught his breath after Sunday’s finish in his new adopted home country of Andorra, his mind turned to Durango, those who had helped him along the way, and how his friends who were chasing mountain bike national championships the same day.
“There’s always a story behind every successful rider,” he said. “The mentors and the people who helped them get to that point. That is something I will always be grateful for, and the support of everyone in Durango means so much on a day like today.”
At U.S. mountain-bike nationals in Winter Park Cheeney gathered the crop of Durango Devo riders, and they hosted a watch party of the Tour replay in the team house that night. Cheeney looked across the room, perhaps making eye contact with the next great WorldTour pro in the making, and told them the legend of Kuss.
“They thought it was so incredible that not more than 10 years ago, he was in their shoes,” Cheeney said. “That’s kind of special when you can show these kids, hey, he wasn’t always just winning at mountain bike nationals when he was their age. They can relate to a normal dude who just kept working hard.”
In Park City, Utah, Durango’s other WorldTour pro, Quinn Simmons, watched Kuss with pride and felt inspired.
“Seeing that as an American is really special,” Simmons said. “That win is the biggest accomplishment from an American on the bike in the last 10 years, across all disciplines. For it to be Sepp that gets it done as a Durango boy makes it even more special. It will serve as a big motivator for us other American pros to step up our game.”
Above any of his accomplishments, Kuss had continued to make Durango proud for his steady, laid-back demeanor, his compassionate attitude, and friendliness that makes everyone in his hometown feel as though they are his friend and as if they were there to personally cheer him on and embrace with a hug Sunday, even from more than 5,000 miles away.
“You can take the kid out of Durango, but you can’t take the Durango out of the kid,” Sturm said. “Sepp has always had such a unique attitude and is so similar to (Grotts) in the way they purely enjoy the action of riding a bike. It’s so cool to see someone who is such a good person find such success and maintain who he is throughout all of it. It’s why people are so excited for him.
“For us, Sepp is still that same goofy kid. Now, he’s just really fast.”