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Tour de France

Tour de France: An oral history of Sepp Kuss’s big breakthrough

Five years after his victory atop Oak Glen, Sepp Kuss and others look back on the breakthrough ride that propelled him to the Tour de France.

Victory changes everything.

Just ask Sepp Kuss.

These days we know Kuss as America’s newest stage winner at the Tour de France, and one of the most fearsome climbers on the planet. But just five years ago Kuss was an anonymous college Junior at the University of Colorado who had begun to dabble in road bike racing.

Sure, he had a background as a junior mountain bike talent, but in 2016 Kuss had little plans for pursuing cycling as a career.

Then, one big win changed everything. On stage 2 of the 2016 Redlands Bicycle Classic, Kuss bolted away from top climbers Lachlan Morton and Janier Acevedo to take an emphatic stage win atop the famed Oak Glen climb. Kuss came into the race as an unknown — just another development rider on the Missouri-based Gateway-Harley Davidson amateur development team.

He left the race as the hottest prospect in U.S. racing.

“It was a bit [of a] surprise to actually win because I have never really won anything in my life,” Kuss told VeloNews. “Maybe some local mountain bike races here and there, but this was the first time I won something big, and it was also doing something that I was relatively new to. So, it was like ‘wow, cool, I’m just figuring this out and it’s neat,’ I have never been a winner before.”

That victory opened doors for Kuss to join Rally Cycling, which then paved the way for his step into the WorldTour with Jumbo-Visma, where Kuss has attained lofty heights. But back in 2016, there were no guarantees that Kuss might win — or even attend the race altogether.

VeloNews spoke to Kuss, his teammates, and his team director about that special moment in time to understand how it occurred, and what impact it had on his budding career.

An opportunity unlike the rest

Team Gateway-Harley Davidson (now Gateway Devo Cycling Team) was launched in 2010 by Rene and Chris Creed, two former bicycle racers who owned and managed a Harley Davison dealership in St. Louis.

The two sponsored the Tour of Missouri and even gifted a motorcycle to Mark Cavendish after he won the race’s opening stage in 2009. After the race shuttered that year, Chris and Rene got the idea to sponsor a development team to keep themselves involved in the sport.

Sepp Kuss (left) with Chris and Rene Creed (far right) Photo: Chris Creed

Chris Creed (team co-founder): When it started out it was your typical local team. We had kids who thought they were good enough and wanted free stuff, and I was a newly revisited Cat 2, and I was just finishing races. We bought bikes for the guys and paid entry fees, and every year we’d spend a little more, and buy a car or a team caravan. My wife and I were like ‘we’re spending a ton of money, but we can’t stop because these kids are succeeding.’ We were also having so much fun doing it, and mainly because the riders we were bringing on needed a way to get to the races. We had guys like Dan Eaton, and we’ve had 15 guys who have gone on to have pro careers. We’re always on the lookout for guys who are good who are needing help getting to the races.

Sepp Kuss: My buddy [retired pro] Nate Wilson had a ton of connections in the road scene, and he was in Boulder while I was at the University of Colorado. We’d been riding together and he knew that I was interested in doing some road racing. I think he put the word out there to see if anyone was interested in me.

Nick Traggis (team director): I had run the Horizon/Einstein’s Bagel’s team and then moved on to directing Gateway for a few years, and in 2016 I got a call from Nate saying we have this mountain bike kid in Boulder and we need to get him on a road team. I was like ‘OK, I’ll see what we can do.’ His results were not spectacular in road races. I know Nate so I know he knows what he’s talking about. That year I did the Old Man Winter Rally gravel race [in Lyons, Colorado], and our team was the local hot-shot team. That year Sepp bridged across to the team leader on a mountain bike and then dropped him. We were like ‘OK, maybe Nate’s onto something.’

Creed: Nick contacted us about Sepp and said he’s this mountain bike racer with no road experience. I think he’s a Cat 3 on the road. We had [team rider] Isaiah Newkirk out of Boulder look at his numbers, and he said yeah, Sepp is the real deal. And then we had [team head coach] Jim Schneider interview him. With any of these kids, we don’t care if you have good numbers, we want to know if you’re a good kid. Sepp was such an amazing kid. Jim said he’s the real deal and he won’t be with us very long.

An amazing ride that almost didn’t happen

Kuss joined the squad in early 2016, despite his lack of road racing experience. The team was focused on a handful of early races: Valley of the Sun, San Dimas, and the Tour of the Gila. Noticeably absent from the team’s calendar was the Redlands Bicycle Classic. That’s because the team did not have entry into the invite-only race.

Gateway Harley Davison in 2016
The Gateway Harley Davidson team during its 2016 training camp in Arizona. Kuss is far left. Photo: Chris Creed

Kuss: I think on their side they were a bit unsure because I didn’t have many results or experience, but it was worth a shot. Nick’s word was worth a lot, and that’s how I got started with them. I think Redlands was my second or third race with them.

Creed: We went to Valley of the Sun for our training camp, did that race, and then went to Tucson. The guys went out to ride Kitt Peak, some gigantic 120-mile long ride, and they finished a long way from Mt. Lemmon. Sepp said I’m going to ride back and do the 50 miles to Mt. Lemmon, and he broke one of Tom Danielson’s records on that ride. I posted the picture of the Strava under the hashtag #SeppCanClimb and said ‘this is going to be fun.’ We did Valley of the Sun and there was nothing really spectacular there. So he wanted to do San Dimas because there was an uphill TT. I was like we can send a team out there, and sure enough, he got 4th place and Bryan Gomez won the sprint jersey, and it was like yeah, this is happening.

Traggis: We’re ramping up the racing schedule and we’re not in Redlands. There’s no guaranteed entry for teams like Gateway — you have to apply and back then you never knew if you’d get in. We almost didn’t get in. We did some backdoor lobbying when we learned that a team from Australia couldn’t come. Our host family knew the president of the race or something. It was probably two weeks out that we got in. We didn’t find out until after training camp.

Creed: We knew we had potential but we were still such a small team. We only got into Redlands because a team backed out.

A rough introduction

Kuss’ first day at the Redlands did not go well.

Traggis: It was my first time directing the team, and first time meeting Sepp, and we were feeling each other out. We do the first stage, the highlands circuit, and it’s a little technical with a hill — one of those races where if you’re not good at positioning you’ll get gapped off. And Sepp lost a few minutes because he didn’t know what he was doing. That pack has a specific rhythm, and if you don’t understand it, you can get caught out. So that took him out of GC on that first stage. I was like OK, he’s new to road racing. It actually took a lot of the expectation off. A lot of my job is talking up my guys to the pro team directors. I’m bothering them, and they’re like yeah, whatever. So, everybody was ignoring me about Sepp.

The Gateway Harley Davidson team at the races in 2016. Photo: Chris Creed

Kuss: I remember the first stage. It was this circuit race, and there was this crazy fight for position every lap. It was super hot, and I totally blew up and felt awful. I was like ‘Oh man, I’m not off to a great start.’ I knew the summit finish would be more ideal for me, so I told myself to regroup and try something the next day.

Traggis: He was so calm and collected. He never showed signs of stress or pressure or any of that stuff you see in guys. At that age you don’t have a ton of shots to make it to the pros, so kids get super stressed. They put so much pressure on themselves. He really seemed like a kid who was enjoying the ride.

Coronation on Oak Glen

Sepp Kuss reacts to his big win atop Oak Glen. Photo: John Holderness/StageFour photography

Kuss: I knew I was a good climber. I went into stage 2 with some tactical ideas of what I wanted to do, but not really a huge plan. I had an idea of who the good guys were, like Lachlan and Acevedo, and some other guys. The whole race I’d just watched the good riders to see what they were doing, if they were relaxed, then I would be relaxed. I just tried to follow them.

Traggis: It was the first time in a few years they went back to the finish at Oak Glen, and we knew Sepp was our climber. It was like ‘let’s give him a crack at it.’ We put a guy in the early breakaway to take the pressure off. And we knew it just turns into a hill climb once you get there.

Kuss: On the final climb I just went when the other guys had used up their energy. Yeah, that was my tactic, and it worked out more or less. It was a big surprise. For me, growing up in cycling I never had aspirations [to win]. I wanted to do well and give it my best, but it was never like I need to be a champion or anything like that. I think that’s how I approached it. I never approached it from a perspective of oh, you’re destined to do this or that. I always had a feeling I had some potential but was never super proactive about unlocking it.

Kuss and his teammates celebrate the win. Photo: Chris Creed

Traggis: Once it turned into a hill climb Sepp just did his thing to everyone. With radios, you don’t find out until later. So we’re parked and then hear the number, and we all went crazy. It was super cool. My phone started ringing after that.

Creed: I was working on a Harley in the shop and got a text and just started going crazy. We all went nuts. We knew he had the talent and the capability, but we hadn’t done anything big yet as a team.

A pathway opens to the pro ranks

Kuss made his WorldTour racing debut at the 2017 Amgen Tour of California with Rally Cycling. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The win put Kuss on the radar for the major U.S. pro teams, and soon, multiple directors and agents were calling Traggis, asking how to contact the team’s top climber. That was the breakthrough Kuss needed, and within a few weeks, he signed with Rally Cycling and launched his pro career.

Jonas Carney (Rally Cycling director): That win got Sepp on everyone’s radar. I met him in the parking lot during the TT and he just really impressed me. Nice kid. Super personable. Funny guy. He immediately made a great impression on me. I made some calls because I have a lot of friends, and it wasn’t hard to find out about him. He had great references and he checked all the boxes. Meeting him in person was a huge bonus, and having those references come fast meant we didn’t have to work too hard to learn about him. People were like ‘Sepp is awesome.’ We had the ability to bring a guy in mid-season and we went for it.

Kuss: If I hadn’t gone to Redlands, it’s hard to say what would have happened. On one side you think cycling is so fickle that you have to pounce on opportunities at the perfect time. On the other side, if you work hard and have the right network and really push for something, it’ll eventually come through. It was a bit of good luck.

In 2019 Kuss won a stage of the Vuelta a España. Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Traggis: There are guys you think can make it. For the other guys, it’s a cool experience to race alongside a guy like that as an amateur. When you bring a guy like Sepp through it raises the whole level of the team. In those last few stages, we won the green jersey with Gomez and had a great team performance at the race. Gila was our last race with Sepp and the team went to a whole other level. These are amateur guys who are going back to school on Monday, riding two levels above themselves because they are part of a race, instead of finishing 80th place. It’s super cool when you can take someone with that talent and use it as a catalyst to motivate a team.

Kuss: I was definitely going to continue cycling while I was doing school, but it was hard for me to picture trying to pursue pro cycling while not making any money. So, to a certain extent, I did think I had to make it happen now. It was like, if it doesn’t work out, then it’s just one door of my life closing. I still love riding my bikes, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to struggle for something that might not come to fruition.