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2020 was a big season for Coloradan climbing sensation Sepp Kuss, and 2021 is set to be even bigger as he climbs higher within the Jumbo-Visma team hierarchy.
But if there’s pressure or growing media hype on the 26-year-old’s shoulders, he’s not feeling it.
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“I don’t really feel more expectation or pressure,” Kuss told VeloNews. “It’s just more of a mental change for me after last year, knowing that I can be there with the best and that I’m capable of doing that. It makes it easier in a way, as it feels there’s nothing to prove really. I don’t really feel any pressure for the season so much.”
Kuss spoke with VeloNews on Thursday after landing in Dubai ahead of making his season debut at the UAE Tour on Sunday. The Emirati race will mark his first step into a larger role within Jumbo-Visma after management handed him leadership duties for the WorldTour opener along with captaincy at next month’s Volta a Catalunya. The expanded responsibility will make for a preview ahead of Kuss’ landmark co-leadership slot at the Vuelta a España.
After riding at the front of last year’s Vuelta and Tour de France with the best racers in the world, the Durango native proved to his Dutch team that he has the legs to go to the very top of a grand tour. Perhaps more importantly, he proved it to himself.
“It feels nice to be handed a bigger role, I feel ready for that step up,” he said. “It’s exciting for me and not too daunting. For me, it’s the right time to start doing that. But I think the team has more confidence in me and I have confidence in myself, and there’s more and more races that I can go into and be more in the leader role. I feel ready for it now.”
Having long been earmarked as the “next big thing” in stage racing, Kuss found his early seasons in the WorldTour plagued by rollercoaster form and slow starts to the season.
Last year, the Coloradan put any doubts about his consistency to bed, taking a stage win at the Critérium du Dauphiné before hauling team leader Primož Roglič through the mountains of the Tour and the Vuelta in an intense three-month block that marked Jumbo-Visma as the new powerhouse of the peloton.
Kuss said that his new-found consistency has unlocked a similarly fresh wave of confidence.
“I really learned what it takes to be there day-in, day-out with the best guys last year. It makes a lot of a difference from being there every now and then,” Kuss said in the call Thursday. “To go from the Dauphiné, a really good race for me, and then be in all the hard finishes at the Tour where it was a really high level, and then quickly go to the Vuelta and still feel really good – that consistency was really nice.
“For me, knowing that I’m capable of doing that is something good to have going into this year.”
Kuss was no anonymous workhorse last season. Were he not tied to Roglič’s wheel, the thoroughbred mountain man looked to have the legs to win the year’s two hardest stages: the Col de la Loze finale of the Tour and the leg-breaking Angliru summit finish in Spain.
Shadowing Roglič as the likes of Tadej Pogačar, Richard Carapaz, and Richie Porte threw haymakers their way served to both boost Kuss’ self-confidence and gave him valuable insight into race dynamics – something he will draw on as he steps into team leadership in 2021.
“Being there with the best riders on every hard stage, that’s nice to progress to,” he said. “Just seeing how the finals are ridden in the last 2km of climbs and everything, for me it’s a good experience when I’m more in a position to race for the win. It’s good to understand the racing more.”
With leadership roles on the horizon and the likelihood of increased responsibility in Roglič’s yellow jersey ambitions due to the uncertainty over Tom Dumoulin’s future, Kuss is inching his way toward the center of Jumbo-Visma’s galaxy.
But the cool-as-a-cucumber Coloradan isn’t blinded by the media glare that comes with his billing as the great new hope of North American racing and the new GC option for his powerful Dutch team.
“There’s maybe more media speculation and interest or whatever, but it doesn’t really approach the way I train or race,” he said. “There may be more pressure coming down, but it doesn’t change anything for me really.”
If Kuss continues to let his legs do that talking, he’ll do just fine.