One look at Strava leaderboards on some of the toughest climbs in the U.S. cycling hub of Boulder, Colorado, reveals a relatively unknown name.
On several significant climbs, the first name to follow Tom Danielson’s is that of Sepp Kuss, a 22-year-old from Durango.
Kuss is far from unknown — he’s a three-time national collegiate mountain-bike champion, racing for the University of Colorado, and has twice been on the podium of the national under-23 cross-country championships. But it’s fair to say that his is not a household name among race fans.
On Magnolia Road, the hardest climb in Boulder, with a 9% average gradient over 4.4 miles, Kuss sits second, 80 seconds behind Danielson’s leading time of 25:13, but ahead of notable riders such as Peter Stetina, Luis Lemus, and Rob Britton.
On that effort, recorded October 2014, Kuss averaged 341 watts over 26 minutes, with a VAM of almost 1500 meters/hour. (Kuss stands 5-foot-11, and weighs 132 pounds.)
Strava, of course, is not racing. But the Redlands Bicycle Classic is, and on Thursday, Kuss surprised former WorldTour riders Lachlan Morton and Janier Acevedo to take the biggest win of his young career. While their jerseys reflected longtime Continental pro teams of Jelly Belly-Maxxis and Jamis-Sutter Home, Kuss was sporting the colors of the St. Louis-based Gateway-Harley Davidson U25 development team.
“I think I benefited from people not really knowing who I am,” Kuss said. “I’m just over the moon.”
Kuss hails from Durango, a mountain town in the southwest corner of the state known for its deep roots in mountain biking. His background is in Nordic skiing; his father, Dolph, was a U.S. ski team coach during the 1960s and 70s, including two Olympic Games — Innsbruck, Austria (1964) and Sapporo, Japan (1972). He went on to coach at Fort Lewis College, in Durango.
As a junior in high school, Kuss began mountain biking. He credits Chad Cheeney and Sara Tescher of the Durango Devo program as being instrumental in getting him excited about the sport.
“Chad Cheeney taught me everything I know about cycling, really,” Kuss said.
In Durango, Kuss had not shortage of mentors — mountain-bike legends such as Ned Overend, Travis Brown, and Todd Wells can regularly be found ripping around local trails, as well as 2015 national cross-country champion Howard Grotts.
The 2015 season was the first time Kuss raced on the road — “I dabbled,” he says — and the results were promising. He held his own in the UCI race at the Tour of the Gila, as well as at the Cascade Classic, with a top-15 finish on the first stage of Cascade.
“Gila was my first real road race, and there was lot of learning involved — when to eat, when to move up, everything,” Kuss said. “I felt pretty comfortable in the pack, just based on having mountain-bike skills. It was a new motivation for me, just because everything was so different and new, compared to mountain biking.
“I thought I knew what I was doing, but looking back, there were probably a lot of things I could have done better. I could have used my energy in a different way, but every race, every stage of the race, I was getting a little better.”
Kuss also won the 2015 Sunshine Canyon Hill Climb, in Boulder.
A focus on being well-rounded
With his win at Redlands, Kuss may no longer be able to hide under the radar. But how far he intends to take bike racing remains to be seen.
He’s currently a junior at CU Boulder, studying advertising. He graduates in May 2017, and given his talent, it may come as a surprise to some that he’s not committed to pursuing a professional racing career.
“The way I look at it, [racing] is something to do, and enjoy, and get the most out of, while you’re young,” Kuss said. “At the same time, I really value my education, and I think it’s important to have a job in the real world. I don’t see [cycling] as an end-all, be-all, career wise. If there are good opportunities for me, I’ll take them, but it’s not something I’m fully set on.
“Right now I just want to be well-rounded, and give cycling the best shot, the best effort that I have. I am definitely going to finish school. That’s the priority right now.”
Asked how long he might allow himself to pursue a racing career after graduation, Kuss was noncommittal.
“I haven’t given myself a timeline,” he said. “I think a lot of it depends on what kind of job options there are when I graduate, and while I’m still in school, internship-wise, job-wise. I’m still really passionate about cycling, and racing, and I could see continuing after school. But there’s no timeline, really. As long as it’s still fun for me, and I have enough time to do it.”
Whether Kuss might gravitate towards mountain-bike or road racing is also still an unknown. Mountain biking is his first love, but also has a more challenging path to a professional career.
“It’s hard to say. The climate in mountain biking right now is pretty interesting,” he said. “In the U.S. there are a lot of high-level races, but the problem is there are a lot of teams folding. There are a lot of self-supported types, privateer teams. It’s kind of a hard egg to crack, on the mountain bike.
“The road schedule is much more clear cut. With the MTB schedule, you have so many races, so many different levels of UCI points, and it’s all kind of going into the World Cup start order. So it’s a big points hunt, aimed at start position. On the road it’s much more dynamic. You can make the race for yourself. You can make your own results.”
Outside of his spot on the Gateway-Harley Davidson squad, Kuss said he hasn’t been contacted by any WorldTour team directors, or sports physiologists, to discuss his potential in the sport.
“I’m pretty under the radar,” he said. “I do it more for myself — riding, racing, it’s just fun to be competitive, and push yourself. The social media aspect, the self-promotion, is a huge part of making a career out of cycling, and just being marketable. I just have a very wholistic approach to it. I just like to go ride, and that’s about all there is to it, for me.”
And if Kuss never makes it as a pro cyclist, he says that’ll be okay. It’’s all about striking the right balance.
“In college, I’ve kind of realized that, for my own mental state, it’s better to have a life outside of cycling,” he said. “That means having friends that don’t know anything about cycling, which I’ve found is great, so that you don’t always have to talk about bikes.
“Obviously, at the WorldTour level, there are huge sacrifices you need to make. I think I’ve seen a bit of that, already, just being a student and being a competitive cyclist as well. You really have to find what you value, and for me it’s huge to have a life. I don’t think I would be as fast if I fully devoted my mind to cycling. I want to be a normal college kid for a little while. You only have that opportunity once in your life.”