No one was happier than Sepp Kuss as he pedaled toward victory Sunday atop one of Spain’s steepest mountains.
The 24-year-old Coloradan was so far ahead of his chasing rivals on the Santuario del Acebo he had time to slap high-fives to fans lining the narrow chute to the line. It was sweet reward for a rider who’s coming of age arrived sooner than anyone could have guessed.
In little more than a span of 12 months, Kuss has gone from a neo-pro barely finishing his first grand tour to winning a grand tour stage.
“At this point last year I was completely dead. It was getting difficult to stay in the front group, I was so exhausted,” Kuss said Sunday. “But I learned a lot in this year’s Giro and after the Giro, in the Dauphiné, I felt a lot better.”
Sunday’s emotional victory is also a personal milestone for Kuss, who becomes the 10th American to win a stage at the Spanish grand tour (nine if you do not count Guido Trenti, an Italian who raced with a U.S. license for part of his career).
Kuss added his name to Americans who include Ben King, who won two last year, Tom Danielson, Tyler Farrar, Tyler Hamilton, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer, Jason McCartney and Dave Zabriskie.
For a rider who started racing on pavement barely four years ago, just how did Kuss do it?
For those close to him, his victory Sunday was no surprise.
“I think it’s just clarification that he can be one of the best climbers in the world,” said Kuss’s American teammate Neilson Powless, who’s making his grand tour debut. “It is really cool to see him, see the way he’s progressing and seeing that he’s just more consistently at the top climbing with the top 10 to 15 riders in the world.”
And even team captain Primoz Roglic, a man of few words, had a few nice things to say about his aspiring lieutenant.
“Sepp is very strong, and he is a very important,” Roglic said. “The other guys also feel it when he starts to pull at the front. He is one of the guys I will need when we get into the mountains.”
Kuss’s rise to the top of the WorldTour heap came via an unconventional path. He didn’t climb up the ladder in the USA Cycling program or get tapped by some talent-hunters. Instead, Kuss’s journey to the WorldTour came via a love for dirt and mountain bike racing.
Unlike many of his WorldTour contemporaries, Kuss hasn’t been racing on the road since he was a teenager. Instead, he grew up in Durango, Colorado, a global destination for mountain bike racing. His father, Dolph, was a longtime U.S. national team ski coach, as well as a professor at the local college, Fort Lewis College. Kuss grew up racing on nordic skis in the winter, and like many Durango kids, he rode and raced mountain bikes in the summer with the local Durango Devo cycling team.
Even as he started to shine on two wheels, Kuss never considered cycling as a professional endeavor. Instead, the sport found him. As a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Kuss got more serious about mountain bike racing, and his natural motor and off-road skills soon made him a force at the collegiate level. He juggled his course schedule to allow him more time to race and train in the spring and summer, and when he graduated in 2017, just as he was starting to find his feet on the road that would soon carry him to the top of the WorldTour.
Still, racing professionally wasn’t on his radar. He was still dabbling and having fun, with one eye on starting a business career that had nothing to do with racing.
Kuss hadn’t even seriously taken up road racing until the previous summer when he started to race with Gateway Harley Davidson-Trek, a development road team that helped him land at Rally, just in time to start the Tour of the Gila in 2016. It soon became apparent Kuss had a huge engine, and he delivered a stage win in his just second road race at the Tour de Beauce in June.
“Sepp was a little older by the time he joined us,” Rally manager Jonas Carney told The Outer Line. “He transitioned from mountain biking and immediately started popping results on uphill finishes. He had the motor but needed time to develop his road skills. Things went pretty quickly for Sepp because he had already developed excellent bike handling skills as a mountain biker.”
Kuss’s consistency and improvement continued across 2017, his first full season on pavement. He was the sole domestic U.S. rider to make elite group of WorldTour climbers at the Amgen Tour of California’s battle on Mt. Baldy that year, and then finished second overall at the Tour of Alberta. Kuss’s exploits on long, steep climbs turned heads, and VeloNews focused on Kuss’s unique physiology for a magazine feature story on climbing.
Kuss caught the eye of Jumbo-Visma, which was interested in signing young American prospects. They also picked up Powless, each on two-year deals, and Kuss continued to surprise and surpass expectations. He was clearly a diamond in the rough.
Kuss raced a very busy first half of 2018, with nearly 40 days of racing in the first half of the season, but it took him awhile to shine. Like any new pro, Kuss was overwhelmed a bit by the speed and ferocity at the WorldTour level.
“Sepp had some trouble coming into the  season, but really found his way in our team,” said Jumbo-Visma boss Richard Plugge. “It took some more time for him to understand the way we are working. He really jumped into it, and really got it.”
The big turning point came at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah last August, where Kuss promptly blew the wheels off everyone. He won three stages and the overall, a eye-popping result that punched his ticket to the Vuelta a España last year. All those years of cross-pollination between mountain biking and road racing fully bloomed in Utah for Kuss, and he quickly carried that momentum into the Spanish grand tour.
More opportunities came in unexpected places in 2019. The biggest surprise came in May, when Kuss was preparing to lead at the Amgen Tour of California, when teammate Robert Gesink crashed and was unable to start the Giro just days before the start. Jumbo-Visma was going all-in with Roglic in the franchise’s first bid to win a grand tour, and the pressure was on. The call came overnight, and instead of going to California to lead, Kuss packed his bags for Italy to work.
Like he did so often throughout his young racing career, he embraced the challenge with open arms.
“In the Giro, there are three weeks of opportunities of learning, and figuring out this bike-racing thing. There was no sense of disappointment,” Kuss told Fred Dreier. “It was a sense of, ‘oh no, it’s the Giro — that’s a hard race,’ and we have a leader like Primoz, so I hope I can step up.”
Jumbo-Visma’s Giro didn’t quite go to plan, but doggedly Roglic fought his way to third overall, a milestone for the team that helped set everyone up for the Vuelta.
Flash forward four months later, and Roglic is now in pole position to win his first grand tour. And just as fast, Kuss has emerged as one of the Slovenian’s most efficient and reliable helpers.
“It wasn’t the plan for Sepp to do the Giro. He was preparing for California, so that’s we thought in the end he would be the best replacement,” said Jumbo-Visma sport director Addy Engels. “We’ve seen how fast Sepp is coming up. He’s earned the trust of everyone on the team.”
Jumbo-Visma paid back that growing confidence in Kuss on Sunday. With the Vuelta’s red jersey on the line, Kuss astutely followed wheels as archrivals Astana and Movistar slotted riders into a dangerous breakaway in the four-climb across Asturias. Jumbo-Visma was playing the tried-and-true tactic in GC racing of having riders up the road to help when the captain pulls across. Sometimes the captain doesn’t need that help — and that’s how the door swung open for Kuss on Sunday. Roglic was under control as he marked the wheel of the attacking Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and Kuss had an open road to move.
For the first time since he’s been racing in Europe, Kuss was unshackled from responsibility. He sat on all day because his leader was riding behind, and when he got the green light, Kuss’s preternatural climbing ability shone through for all the world to see.
With fresh legs and a steep road, Kuss climbed with unbridled talent and joy. The high-fives at the end of the stage were the icing on the cake.
“I wanted to thank [the fans], that’s what makes the Vuelta so special is the passion of the fans,” Kuss said. “You get support on the good days, but also when you’re 30 minutes down and suffering. That’s what makes cycling such an incredible sport.”
The future looks bright for Kuss. He’s already signed a two-year deal to stay with Jumbo-Visma through 2021. With the arrival of Tom Dumoulin, the team is poised to become one of the most important stage racing teams in the peloton. And Kuss is right there, ready to step up and become of one of the team’s super domestiques in the mountains.
And perhaps like other great climbers who’ve gotten their chances, Kuss might some day have a team working for him.