By David Hunter
Stage 5 of the 2017 Tour of California is when I first stumbled across Sepp Kuss. The stage ended with the climb of Mount Baldy, an absolute brut, and he managed to finish in 10th place. It’s no surprise that I wasn’t the only one to sit up and take note.
“Jumbo first noticed me at the Tour of California in 2017. I remember talking to the DS, Grischa, at the after party at the hotel bar, and from there we were in contact and I did a lactate and Vo2 test. A few months later I signed with the team.
It was a really different experience for me moving from a US team to the World Tour. Before, cycling felt like more of a hobby, and I never thought of all the details like watching what I ate or living a ‘professional’ life. When I started in the World Tour, I still thought I could get away without worrying about living the life of a professional cyclist. It didn’t take me long to realise that racing in Europe and being on a WT team was a totally different playing field and responsibility, but it still took me a while to figure out what I wanted to get out of cycling. I had to decide if being a pro was a cool ‘adventure,’ or something I wanted to pursue as a job and way of life.”
Later in 2017 Sepp finished in the top 10 in Utah, Colorado and Alberta before packing his bags and heading to Europe for the 2018 season and a contract with Jumbo.
“Moving to Europe wasn’t too much of a problem for me. When I was younger, my parents and I would travel around Europe for long periods of time, hiking in the Alps, Dolomites, etc. and just car camping or traveling by train the whole trip, so I was definitely used to being out of my comfort zone in a foreign country. I think the biggest thing I struggled with was moving to Europe for cycling and always being around cyclists. At that time, I still missed living with and having fun with my friends from University.”
I’ve interviewed many young cyclists and they always speak about the shock of their first professional races, especially their first world tour race. For Sepp his first was the Tour of the Basque Country.
“I really struggled in the spring races in 2018. I wasn’t in the best physical condition. I think I was about 5-6kg overweight and was struggling with just about everything- positioning, climbing, recovery, etc. I will always remember my first Basque Country. I think I was dropped on every single climb, or even highway overpass. One stage I went back for bottles, but then we started going a bit up again and I was dangling off the back with a jersey full of bidons. A couple directors from other teams had to give me sticky bottles just to stay in the cars, haha. I definitely doubted my abilities a bit. I was so stressed with handling the races and the responsibility of being a professional that I just never felt like myself. I knew it would take a while to figure out considering I had almost zero experience, so I stayed optimistic.”
And don’t even mention the Volta Limburg Classic.
“Haha! Thanks to that race, I don’t think I will ever want to do Amstel Gold Race in my life! It was one of my first one day races I did, and I was so bad at positioning that every little climb and corner, I was just getting shot out the back. I felt like I was lost in the Netherlands the whole race.”
The suffering didn’t last too long, by August Sepp was back at the Tour of Utah and wiping the floor with everyone. He won all three mountain stages and took the overall title by over two minutes. The Sepp Kuss that we all know now was born.
“It was definitely a confidence boost. It was a climbing race at altitude, so it was perfect for me. I still knew I needed to figure out how to do that kind of performance in Europe. The process to get to that level in Utah also helped me figure out how to balance my life with cycling. I did crazy training back home in Colorado, but aside from that, I could live with my university friends again, have barbecues, ride my mountain bike. There was no stress or pressure, and I was riding because I loved it.”
Sepp has recently completed his third year with Jumbo-Visma, and 2020 was a beauty. He consolidated his place at the top table of cycling, without doubt he is the best climbing domestique in the world. In both the Tour de France and Vuelta España, he was the man controlling the closing stages of the final climb. When other riders were all out of teammates, he was still beside Roglič, and was a big part of his successful red jersey defence. These performances have led for calls for him to move into a leadership role in the team.
“I think the time is right to have a few opportunities. We’ll see how I handle the pressure, but I think for me, it’s a matter of having past experiences to lean on in order not to feel as much pressure in those tough moments. Riding the Tour and the Vuelta at the front of the race, seeing how the finals play out in the mountain stages, learning from mistakes I’ve made, all give me more confidence.”
Pressure is something I always like to talk about. Some might think that Sepp’s current role is without stress, but he is Primož’s last man, and much is expected from him.
“There’s a bit more expectation, for sure, but I actually don’t feel too much pressure in this role. I know what I can do, and when I’m riding for someone like Primož, I can always get a bit more out of myself. Whenever I can even play a small part in helping Primož win, it feels like a victory for myself honestly. It’s really fun.”
2020 was some season from the Jumbo Bees. They dominated every race when the season restarted, obliterating their rivals in the high mountains. A regular sight in the final group of elite climbers was four Jumbo riders, their level was bordering on the ridiculous and must have been soul destroying for their rivals.
“It’s a nice feeling. Everything feels a bit more in control and there’s no worry of the race getting out of hand. The suffering is different because having the team with you is like a ‘safety blanket’.”
When on the final climb of the day you can usually spot Sepp drift back and have a little chat with Primož, I wondered what he usually says to him.
“Usually just to see how he wants to ride the climb or crack a joke.”
I love the thought of everyone on their limit feeling the pain and there’s Sepp delivering his best stand-up material for Roglič! Sepp did have a couple of opportunities to chase personal glory in 2020, the first of these was in Vuelta a Burgos, which was his first race after the restart and the word on the street was that he was flying, but it didn’t happen for him.
“It wasn’t too disappointing. In a way, I knew it would take a bit to get back into racing rhythm, so I didn’t have any expectations. On the first summit finish, I really cooked myself in the crosswinds before the climb and then was absolutely dying in the heat. I think my average heart rate was higher than my average power on Picon Blanco.”
The next chance came at the Dauphiné. The race started as expected, with Roglič in control of the yellow jersey, but he had to abandon before the final stage, which released Sepp from domestique duties and allowed him to go for it. The stage was a beauty, one of the best of the whole season. The shit hit the fan early on, with the front group featuring the GC riders, before Alaphilippe and Sivakov eventually got away. FDJ and UAE managed to just about chase them down, before a strong group featuring Sepp, Martínez, Pogačar and López bridged across. Sepp played his cards perfectly and walked away with a very impressive victory.
“It was a crazy hard stage right from beginning. In the final, I realised everyone was pretty close to the limit. It had been such a hard stage, and no-one had been saving anything, so I knew the right moment to go would be when everyone had used up their last acceleration. López attacked like a rocket on a flatter section and everyone was a bit late to the wheel, but I was right on Pogačar, so I could save a little. Then we hit a steep section and Sivakov accelerated. I could feel everyone was swinging a bit, so I attacked with everything I had over the steep section into a slight downhill. I figured if they couldn’t close it there on the flatter section then I could keep my momentum and stay away.”
Jumbo-Visma are clearly getting the best out of Sepp, and most of their other riders. What is it about the team that helps maximise the potential of their riders?
“From nutrition to training, everything is really dialed-in, but this kind of structure extends to the whole team, not just a select few riders on big contracts. Everyone gets the attention; they try to look into everyone and improve them. I think the team is also really fair and smart with young riders. Even in my first year when I was barely finishing races, they still genuinely believed in me and didn’t just switch me to a shit racing program because I didn’t show anything. They have confidence in everyone.”
Sepp has now been living in Europe for three years, but what is it like being an American on this side of the pond?
“It’s interesting! Sometimes I almost feel like I need to apologise on behalf of my country, given the current political climate. I love the US, it’s great living, but I also love Europe and trying to embrace the culture. At least in Catalunya, the culture is so fun for me. I love the food, the people, and the way of life. They always have something to celebrate and they really appreciate the little things.”
When I think back to when I first noticed Sepp, I’m amazed at the speed of his progression. In just three years he’s reached the very top level and is now about to start out in the land of being a team leader.
“It’s been a surprising progression, honestly! I never would have imagined racing on a road bike, much less riding the Tour de France. That’s the nice thing about it though- nothing ever fits into some predetermined timeline or development. I can already look back three years and think, “whoa, that was crazy.” I can be happy with how things have progressed, but it also gives me motivation to shoot for more and have a bit more confidence in myself.”
Get ready people, Sepp Kuss is ready to make the next step in his career.
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