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Kuss surrenders California leadership for Giro d’Italia debut

Sepp Kuss is relishing his opportunity to race the Giro d'Italia with Jumbo-Visma

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It was an offer Sepp Kuss couldn’t refuse.

Last week Jumbo-Visma directors called Kuss with news that teammate Robert Gesink was unable to race the Giro d’Italia after fracturing his pelvis in a crash at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Management tapped Kuss to replace Gesink on the team’s Giro squad.

Racing the Giro, however, means bypassing the Amgen Tour of California, where Kuss was slated to have co-leadership duties alongside George Bennett. Giro or California? Kuss jumped at a chance to race the Giro, just his second grand tour.

“I think going into the season California was a goal for the team and for myself,” Kuss told VeloNews. “At this point if I’m thinking long-term, it’s going to be better for me to do races like the Giro as opposed to a race like the Tour of California.”

On paper the Amgen Tour of California was custom fit for Kuss, who in 2018 established himself as the most fearsome climber in American cycling. Kuss dominated the 2018 Tour of Utah, winning three stages and taking the overall by nearly two minutes.

He was unstoppable on the race’s long, grinding climbs, some of which resemble the marquee feature of this year’s California race. The focal point of the 2019 Amgen Tour of California is the 4,500-foot climb up Mt. Baldy. Organizers have removed the individual time trial, instead allowing the race to be decided on the uphills.

The course seems perfect for pure climbers like Kuss.

“Yeah, maybe,” Kuss said when asked if he could have raced for the win at the California event.

“It would be great to do a big ride in California, but the Giro is going to serve me a lot better, and I’m going to learn a ton more,” Kuss said. “It’s not necessarily a missed opportunity. At the Giro there are three weeks of opportunities to learn.”

Indeed, Kuss hopes to put in a more consistent ride throughout the three-week race. Last year he made his grand tour debut at the Vuelta a España, where he rode in service of Bennett and Steven Kruijswijk. Kuss showed flashes of brilliance in the race’s opening week, setting the tempo on the uphill finishes on stages four and five.

Those early efforts doomed Kuss’s legs in the race’s second half, he said. His goal for the Giro d’Italia is to measure his efforts through the first half of the race.

“Last year in the Vuelta in the second and third weeks I was barely alive,” Kuss said. “Hopefully I can turn that around this year.”

The strategy fits well for the Giro’s mountainous course. The opening week of the Giro includes flat and hilly terrain, but no true mountainous stages. The high mountains appear on stage 13, from Pinerolo to Lago Serru, and do not let up. Six of the final nine stages will feature soaring climbs in the mountains.

Kuss’s climbing prowess may help him play a major role for Jumbo-Visma. The Dutch team heads into the race with one of the top favorites to win in Primoz Roglic. Jumbo-Visma has assembled an all-star lineup to help Roglic, including climbers Laurens De Plus, Koen Bouwman, and Antwan Tolhoek, and time trialists Jos van Emden, Tom Leezer, and Paul Martens.

Kuss said he’s excited to ride in the service of Roglic, who last week won the Tour de Romandie for the second consecutive year. Roglic is a heavy favorite to win his first grand tour at the Giro, due to his well-rounded skillset of time trialing and climbing.

Kuss raced alongside Roglic in 2018 at the Tour of the Basque Country, which Roglic won. Kuss said Roglic races with a calm sense of confidence that overcomes the pressure cooker-like environment in pro cycling.

“It doesn’t seem like [Roglic] feels much pressure,” Kuss said. “I think a lot of that is because he’s so freakishly strong. He knows he can dig himself out of a lot of situations.”