ONTARIO, California (VN) — The exclusive group of climbers that raced along the final kilometers of Thursday’s fifth stage of the Amgen Tour of California contained grand tour contenders, WorldTour veterans, and young talents with international palmares.
It also contained Sepp Kuss.
Kuss is in just his second full season of professional road racing, having transitioned from pro mountain bike racing in the spring of 2016. His youthful enthusiasm showed itself on the Mt. Baldy climb. Inside the final five kilometers Kuss rode cautiously at first, swinging off to the side of the group on several occasions to take stock of the other riders. He then helped shut down an acceleration by eventual stage winner Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac).
Kuss paid for the effort, and eventually slipped of the back. He never cracked. Instead, he held on to the finish, crossing the line in 10th place, just 53 seconds back.
“I knew I didn’t have the legs for the final 3km so I thought why not just follow the moves and get ahead of the group?” Kuss said at the finish line. “I paid for it later but I’m really satisfied with my ride.”
Kuss’s trial-and-error tactics on Mount Baldy underscore his talent as an endurance athlete. He is a product of the mountain biking community in Durango, Colorado. Kuss grew up racing within the Durango Devo mountain bike team. He was also a skier and developed a sizable aerobic engine at a young age, as the son of an Olympic cross-country ski coach.
Kuss raced in the U.S. mountain bike scene, occasionally dabbling in road cycling with the U.S. national team. In one of his first road races in 2015, Kuss crashed and broke his bicycle. Rather than wait for assistance, he tried to repair the broken rig himself.
“I thought it was like mountain biking, you fix your bike,” Kuss said. “I didn’t know you had to wait for the team car or wait for the medical car.”
What Kuss lacked in racing knowledge he made up for with his climbing. In 2016 he jumped in the Redlands Bicycle Classic and won the iconic climb to Oak Glen. Rally scooped Kuss up after the impressive performance. Two months later he again showcased his climbing skills during the Tour de Beauce. There, he won the race’s queen stage on the slopes of Mount Megantic.
Since then, Kuss has dazzled his competitors and his teammates with his strength on long, steep climbs.
“We did a little training camp near where I live, and [Kuss] just smashed all my Strava KOMs on the climbs,” said teammate Evan Huffman. “He’s definitely a really really talented rider. Obviously he’s a little bit new to the sport and he’s a little young. So he needs to keep working on his time trialing, general endurance, all that kind of stuff. But he’s a lot stronger this year than he was last year.”
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Huffman described Kuss as “a chill guy” who bucks the trend of climbing specialists who obsess about their weight and training. “I think a lot of guys his age who are really strong climbers are a bit over the top neurotic about their diet and training and stuff,” Huffman said. “He’s just a lot more relaxed with life.”
This season, Kuss has ridden predominantly as domestique. He supported teammate Rob Britton at the Joe Martin Stage Race. Then he rode for Huffman, who won New Mexico’s Tour of the Gila. Thursday’s stage to Mount Baldy was the first time this season that Kuss has been let off the leash on a climb of this size.
Kuss said he felt fairly comfortable racing riders with more experience and better palmares. After all, that’s how he plans to learn more about road cycling.
“It’s obvious these guys are on a high level,” he said. “A lot of it is experience, and you can gather a lot watching the other riders and cueing off of what they are doing. I can take that into every race.”