Sepp Kuss is steadily flying higher, one wingbeat at a time. And if that means missing out on a grand tour leadership opportunity, for now, that’s fine.
Kuss is preparing his climbing legs for three weeks of racing alongside Jumbo-Visma captain and defending champion Primož Roglič at this year’s Vuelta a España. After being penciled in for a Vuelta leadership position of his own alongside Steven Kruijswijk earlier this year, the Coloradan mountain ace isn’t getting caught up in disappointment or dissatisfaction at having to make a side-step for Roglič.
In fact, Kuss sees Roglič’s late addition to the team as a good thing.
“It’s actually a better situation that we have Primož on the team. If Steven and I went as leaders, of course, we want to shoot for the best result. Steven’s finished in the top-three in grand tours and he’s really consistent – he knows what he has to do. But for me, I’ve never finished in the top-10 in grand tours so I don’t know what’s possible,” Kuss told VeloNews.
“It would be hard going there and say, ‘I need to do GC.’ But if Primož is there, I can ride with him, be with him and keep learning from the experience. If I can also do a good result that’s fine, but it’s not the only goal. So in the end, it’s a better situation for me.”
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Kuss and Kruijswijk had been slated as leaders for this year’s Vuelta a España when Jumbo-Visma laid out its battle plans in the early season. However, when Roglič was forced to abandon the Tour de France due to injuries, the Dutch squad retargeted its grand tour warhead toward Spanish soil.
Jumbo-Visma will now roll out of Burgos on Saturday spearheaded by Roglič, with Kruijswijk and Kuss sitting in the wings as domestiques de luxe and auxiliary options.
“It’s a hard race right from the beginning, the third stage already is a summit finish so I think things will quickly become apparent what our strategy is,” Kuss said in a call shortly before heading to meet his teammates in Burgos.
“We want to keep all of us safe and up there through (the first week), and we’ll see how the race works out from there.”
The growing tug of leadership
Kuss has long been burdened with questions of GC leadership as U.S. fans wait for their next grand tour winner.
Kuss has continually charted an upward curve since his breakout overall victory at the 2018 Tour of Utah in 2018. Stage wins of growing prestige at the 2019 Vuelta, 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné, and last month, at the Tour de France have continued to confirm Kuss’ slot at the top of the WorldTour. All the while, Kuss has become Roglič’s wingman number one, guiding the Slovenian to two maillots rojo and second-place in last year’s Tour.
Although the 26-year-old Kuss has slotted in as leader at a clutch of stages races in recent years, he’s in no rush to lead a team over three weeks. Instead, he’s looking to learn by riding at the front of the action alongside established grand tour greats such as teammates Roglič, Kruijswijk and Tom Dumoulin.
“For sure in the longer term GC is something I want to try. But I need to make the steps to be able to do it before I go into a race and say ‘OK, my goal is the podium’ or something,” Kuss said. “I still have to do a grand tour with a stable performance for the whole race. So it’s just one step at a time for now. I learn more with every race.”
Kuss has suffered with slow starts to his six grand tours to date, only to rise when the race reaches boiling point in the mountains – just when Roglič needs him. His Vuelta and Tour stage wins both came in the final week of racing.
With a deal with Jumbo-Visma stretching through 2024 in his pocket, Kuss is looking to work on his consistency and widen his scope. Long pigeonholed as a poor time trialist, the lean climber has steadily improved in the race against the clock as Jumbo-Visma looks to give Kuss a more multi-faceted skillset.
“Right now I’m just trying to work on a bit of everything – improve a little bit each year. For me that’s the best I can do,” he said. “I think with that, everything will come naturally if it’s meant to be.”
Time – and his team – on his side
2022 is still a long time away and the Vuelta has not even started. But the new season will likely afford Kuss new openings despite being on a team deep in stage-racing talent both young and old.
“Sepp has grown into a rider who takes his own chances, but he is also super important in supporting the leaders,” sport director Merijn Zeeman said when Kuss was handed his renewal this spring. “He is increasingly becoming a leader himself and we will guide him in discovering his limits in the upcoming years.”
With Jumbo-Visma’s backing and his own eye toward constant self-improvement, America may still see its next stage racing great in the diminutive shape of Sepp Kuss.
But it will come in Kuss’ own time.
I don’t have any definite longer term goals. I want to see what I can do in GC, whether that’s week-long races or grand tours. That’s always what I strive for, but I don’t want to lose the ability and characteristics that I already have now,” he said.
“I just want to keep working on training and being the best I can be and then everything else comes with that.”