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Gravel

Sepp Kuss on the US off-road racing scene, living in Europe, experience vs age — and Keegan Swenson

We catch up with the Jumbo-Visma star about what it takes to race in Europe, and if gravel is experience enough

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When Sepp Kuss graduated from the University of Colorado, he had three mountain bike national championship titles to his name. We know now — and others surely knew then — that Kuss could have raced singletrack all the way to the world championships or the Olympics.

Nevertheless, an open mind — coupled with innate talent and a huge motor — led him down a different path.

“I definitely never dreamed of being in the WorldTour or winning a mountain bike world championship, I just wanted to enjoy riding my bike for as long as possible, whatever that meant,” Kuss said. “For me, it was just discovering who I was as a cyclist and finding what I liked most about riding my bike. For better for worse, that’s what’s gotten me here.”

Read also: Keegan Swenson is crushing the American off-road scene. Would he jump ship for the WorldTour?

Here, in his third season on the road with Jumbo-Visma, with two grand tour stage wins in his pocket, and a life firmly planted on the European continent.

Ahead of the Vuelta, we play a little ‘what if’ with the 27-year-old from Colorado about other paths not taken. What does he make of the US gravel/endurance scene? Could he see himself in it? And, is American off-road racing a breeding ground for WorldTour talent?

VeloNews: I know this is probably an odd interview request ahead of the Vuelta — hey, let’s talk about gravel and the Grand Prix and Keegan Swenson — but are you OK with it?

Sepp Kuss: Yeah, it’s great to talk about something else. I get to have a little more fun with it because I’m on the outside looking in.

VN: Well, do you follow the domestic gravel and endurance MTB scene?

SK: Now with the gravel scene, I think overall I follow it mostly because I have friends that are doing the races. Over the past few years, most of that group has shifted from the XC scene to the gravel scene. During Leadville I’m more in tune with everything.

It’s fun to follow along in the gravel races. I don’t know what’s going on in the [Life Time Grand Prix] series, it seems a bit complicated to me from afar, but I guess it’s a nice check at the end of the day so that’s probably why they made it. It’s fun because there’s a nice story to every race and you combine the mountain biking with the gravel and introduce a bit of different skillsets, which is a nice concept. With a lot of people coming from the road, maybe they have the upper hand in one arena and the mountain biker can have an advantage in the MTB race, so that’s interesting.

VN: And, there is drama!

SK: Something without clear-cut rules, then there’s always drama. But at the end of the day if there’s not a rule for it, then it’s a race. And that’s also the spirit of it, to go for it in whatever manner you see fit.

The drama is always fun. In the US scene, it seems like there’s always drama, whether it’s a crit or a gravel race. People act like they don’t care, but they apparently care too much.

VN: Well on that topic, how well do you know Keegan Swenson?

SK: I know Keegan, of course. I can’t remember when we started racing with each other. We were pretty young, like 16-17. He was coming from Utah and he would do a lot of the Mountain States Cup series we had in Colorado.

I remember then, he was in his own league above everybody else. He was also kinda the first guy in the US around our age range to start going to World Cups and riding for a big MTB team, I think it was Cannondale at that time. So he was always the reference point, I guess. He’s always been incredibly talented. When we were just juniors, he was always untouchable in the races. You can see it now, it didn’t come out of nowhere.

VN: There’s a lot of hype around him at the moment, and one thing I see a lot on social media, or even hear from other riders, is this notion that he could pivot to the WorldTour. Is that crazy?

SK: Honestly, I’m surprised that no one tried to pick him up a year ago even. [The US gravel scene] is kinda the gold mine for talent now. In this generation there’s always the 18- 19-year-old that has the power numbers to become a pro and yada yada, but half the time that doesn’t work out. Half the teams go that way, but the other half go, ‘OK here’s this guy that’s 25, 28, just needs a bit of experience and adjusting to the life and then they’re a good racer.’

From my perspective, that’s the better area to shoot for someone. In Keegan’s case, he’s been racing gravel, a gravel race is really similar to a hard one-day race in the WorldTour. Of course, you can’t replicate the positioning and everything that you see in a European race, but for sure he has the talent. Of course, the talent only gets you so far, but he can learn how to be a bike racer on the road.

Just looking at my teammate Milan who came from MTB as well, more on the pure XC side, at the beginning of the season I thought, ‘OK it’s gonna be a pretty hard learning curve,’ I know how long it took me to learn. Already in his first races, he was with the best 20 guys in the race. I did a few races with him, he was really good already. Of course, he has the power, but in the WorldTour, you need to be able to navigate the racing.

VN: But, is 28 too old?

SK: Technically he’s too old, but if someone’s good enough then age is not … it’s just a matter of how much you can progress from the point you enter at. Age is one factor, but also the skills, and the experience, are another factor. It’s the same but different in my case, I was 22, but I had zero experience. You can be older but have skills and experience.

Wherever you fall in that axis, it would be foolish for a team not to at least try because it’s a drop in the ocean for a team’s budget to try something, and it could end up not being anything or being the best thing.

VN: Would you consider yourself a crossover, from MTB to the road?

SK: A little bit. In mountain biking, I was never that good. I was good, but it was never ‘OK, he’s done everything he can here so it’s time to move on to the next step.’ I was more in a time in my life or sporting career where I said, ‘OK, I don’t know what to do so let’s try this.’ It wasn’t the classic case where this guy has won the world champs and now he’s onto his next challenge. It’s not like Tom Pidcock, ‘OK I won the Olympics so what’s next.’

For me, it was just discovering who I was as a cyclist and finding what I liked most about riding my bike. I still did a lot with mountain biking and other disciplines in general but I wouldn’t say I’m the classic crossover.

VN: What do you give up and what do you gain making a transition to racing on the road in Europe?

SK: The lifestyle of course. For me, when I came over, I was just finishing university. I have family in the US, but not a big family, and my parents love to travel so there was nothing really tying me to the US. A lot of guys, their life is set up in the US, their wife, their kids live there. That’s really hard because you can’t make the most of your time in Europe because half the year your mind is at home, which is really far away.

That’s one factor, just deciding where you are in your life, whether that’s a viable life change.

It also depends on the team too, some teams could give you the freedom to do a bit of MTB racing, this and that, others might say ‘now you’re on a road team you have to concentrate on that.’

To make the most out of your career, you have to be living in Europe most of the year and be comfortable there. I’m very comfortable where I live, culturally and language-wise, and that makes all of the difference. I feel like I’m at home now. Of course, my home is always in Colorado, but if everytime you go to a race you’re thinking, ‘I can’t wait to go home,’ you’ve already lost a bit.

For Keegan, it depends on him, what he wants to do. It’s a big lifestyle change. If you want to race in the WorldTour and do it the best way possible, you have to move your life to Europe and more or less do things differently than you’ve been doing. In terms of the races and everything else. But I think for him it’s a nice challenge because at this point he’s won everything there is to win in the US and by a large margin, so why not give it a try?

VN: If this racing scene had existed in the US five years ago, do you think you would have considered it?

SK: I definitely would have considered it. From the outside, it seems like it blends a lot of things that I like about cycling. It’s cool races; there’s a bit of everything for everyone. Leadville has super high altitude and climbing, there are some races that are more technical, there are flatter races, a bit of everything.

So I think that’s similar to what you have in road cycling as well, there’s something that fits everybody, and it’s not just one guy winning all the time. Unless if you’re the strongest like Keegan, then you win all the time.

VN: Anything about it not that appealing?

SK: In the US, from my perspective, it seems like you have to do a lot of your own marketing. You have to sell yourself and work on your sponsors every year. In Europe you have to ride for a team, you’re paid a salary to ride your bike as best you can, and that’s all you have to worry about, really.

For me doing one post on Instagram is harder than doing the hardest training day. If I can do one post on Instagram during a race, it’s a victory. It takes like five people to remind me to put something on there.

Some people are better at it than others.