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It was at the 2016 Redlands Cycling Classic that Americans Sepp Kuss and Neilson Powless first made their presence known at the elite level of road racing. It was there, in Southern California’s Inland Empire, that Kuss won the queen stage on Oak Glen, while Powless won the time trial and finished second overall.
Forty-one months later, they’re riding together on the Dutch squad Jumbo-Visma in support of a Slovenian GC leader at the Vuelta a España.
After 16 stages of the final Grand Tour of the 2019 season, Primoz Roglic leads world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) by 2:48, and Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates) by 3:42. Roglic is riding with the support of established pros like Robert Gesink, George Bennett, and Tony Martin as well as relatively inexperienced Americans Kuss and Powless — the latter in his Grand Tour debut.
Separated by almost exactly two years in age — Kuss turns 25 on Friday, Powless celebrated his 23rd birthday last week — these rising stars of the WorldTour have come a long way in a short period of time, taking different but parallel paths to the sport’s highest level.
Kuss, who hails from Durango, Colorado, was a three-time collegiate mountain-bike national champion, graduating from the University of Colorado in May 2017. Powless, who comes from Roseville, California, just outside of Sacramento, was a national triathlon champion who transitioned to mountain-bike and then road racing, and is a product of USA Cycling’s national team program.
At the 2014 UCI mountain-bike world championships in Norway, Kuss rode as part of the U23 national team while Powless rode on the junior squad. In 2016, they rode as teammates at the Tour de l’Avenir, where Powless won the final stage and compatriot Adrien Costa finished third overall. At the 2018 UCI road world championships in Innsbruck, Austria, Kuss rode on the elite men’s team while Powless rode on the U23 squad.
Both riders hail from a lineage of endurance athletes. Kuss’s father, Dolph, is an accomplished Nordic skier and coach; he coached the US Ski Team from 1963 through 1972, and ran the ski program at Fort Lewis College in Durango for decades. Powless’ mother, Jeanette Allred-Powless, competed in the 1992 Olympic marathon for Guam and is the head track and field coach at America River College. She qualified for the 1996 Olympics as well, but was pregnant with her son, so she worked as a volunteer at the Atlanta Games instead. Powless’ father, Jack, is an accomplished Ironman triathlete, and his older sister, Shayna, races for the Sho-Air TWENTY20 women’s road team.
The 2016 season was a breakthrough for both young riders. Soon after his climbing stage win at Redlands, winning ahead of Lachlan Morton, Kuss left his amateur team to sign with the Rally Cycling squad managed by former pro Jonas Carney. Within a few months he went on to win atop Mont-Mégantic, the queen stage of the Tour de Beauce, a UCI 2.2 stage race in Quebec.
Powless, riding with the Axeon Hagens Berman development squad managed by Axel Merckx, won the overall at the 2016 Joe Martin Stage Race and finished ninth overall, and best young rider, at the Amgen Tour of California. He also won a stage at the Tour de Beauce — the Stage 3 time trial — one day after Kuss’s mountaintop victory.
While Kuss is a pure climber — all of his victories have come on mountain stages — Powless is much more of an all-rounder, strong against the clock with a decent sprint, and more than capable of holding his own in the mountains. In addition to Redlands and Beauce, Powless has won time trials at the Tour de l’Avenir and Triptyque des Monts et Chateaux, and has twice stood on the podium at the US national TT championships.
Powless was second at the US national time trial championship, and was well on his way to a medal at the 2017 U23 world time-trial championship, clocking the second-fastest time at the penultimate checkpoint, before he dropped his chain and hit a roadside barrier, crashing heavily. He eventually finished ninth behind compatriot Brandon McNulty. (Side note: McNulty, who rode alongside Kuss at Rally Cycling in 2017, will leave his team of three years to ride for UAE-Team Emirates in 2020; compatriot Joe Dombrowski has also signed with UAE.)
And while Powless has been on a clear path to a career in pro cycling since he was a teenager, Kuss has had a more flexible approach. Prior to the 2016 season, he told me he wasn’t fully committed to turning pro, and he hadn’t made a decision whether he would pursue road or mountain-bike racing.
“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 in late 2015. “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… In college, I’ve kind of realized that, for my own mental state, it’s better to have a life outside of cycling.”
Both riders signed with the Dutch team, then called LottoNL-Jumbo, at the end of the 2017 season; their two-year contracts were announced 10 days apart. Kuss was 23, Powless was 21. Neither rider had ridden for a WorldTour team, let alone a foreign team. For the 2017 season, they would share an apartment together in Girona, Spain.
“I wouldn’t say we were very close at all until we signed for this team, and then we started to get to know each other a lot more,” Powless said. “I was really excited to hear that Sepp also signed for the team, because it was not something we had talked about, or planned, it just so happened we signed for the team at the same time. I think it was actually pretty crucial for our first season in the WorldTour to be able to have that one constant that felt a little bit familiar, both being American and knowing more or less where we’ve each come from. It was just a reassurance, coming to a team that is primarily Dutch and very different from any environment where we have come from before.
“We lived together last year in Girona, and spent quite a bit of time together there. We had a similar racing program, and I think that was one of the targets of the team, to keep us more or less together in the first year, to have something familiar or constant throughout the year. I think that helped us both in the first year.”
Early 2018 races for Kuss included Volta Valenciana, Volta ao Algarve, Strade Bianche, Itzulia Basque Country, and Tour of the Alps. By the time I spoke with him at the 2018 Amgen Tour of California, he was down and out. He looked tired. His morale was low. I left the conversation wondering if he was reconsidering his decision to pursue a career in the WorldTour.
He bounced back at the Tour of Utah in August, winning three stages and the overall; Powless rode in support, and finished second behind Kuss on the first of those three stage wins. Soon after, Kuss got the surprise call up to make his Grand Tour debut at the 2018 Vuelta, riding in support of Steven Kruijswijk, who finished fourth overall.
And though he showed his potential in the opening week, by the end of three weeks Kuss was unable to do much more than finish the Vuelta. His adaptation to a WorldTour team after only three seasons racing on the road was not yet complete.
“It was a big life adjustment, moving to Europe, being on a foreign team, a whole new way of working, all those minor adjustments” Kuss said by phone Monday. “Maybe I didn’t take things as seriously as I should have. I put on a lot of weight. I always trained hard, but all those little things I never paid attention to in the past, you can’t get away with that riding with the big boys. I had to focus a bit more, and have better contact with the trainers on the team.
“Everyone’s physiology is different, and it just took a little while for the team to realize what training I responded to, what kind of person I was, how I handle pressure, expectations, bias, all that stuff. For some guys it’s immediate, and for some people it doesn’t happen so automatically. I guess it’s just a matter of growing into that totally new situation.”
In May, Kuss was called off a planned leadership role at the Amgen Tour of California after Gesink broke his pelvis at Liège-Bastogne-Liège; he would ride in support of Roglic at the Giro d’Italia instead. And though he was not always at his best, the American helped deliver Roglic to a third-place finish after winning two stages and spending five days in the maglia rosa.
Powless has shown steady improvements during his time with Jumbo-Visma. The 2017 season was a demanding one, with no standout results other than a few top-10 finishes; seventh overall at the Tour of Britain among them. His results this year — seventh-overall at the Volta ao Algarve in February, and second place on the final stage of the Tour of Poland — have confirmed his potential. He also stood on the podium of both the US road and time trial championships.
“In general, the last two years have had ups and downs,” Powless said. “I came into the season last year pretty good, but I spent the majority of last year underperforming. I had a pretty nasty chest infection for quite a while, that took me out physically for a little while, but mentally it held me down as well. It was pretty hard to come back to where I was pre-illness. Toward the end of the year I started to come around and was performing super well.
“This year I changed up quite a bit with my winter training, with the team coaches,” he continued. “I tired a new approach, and it didn’t quite pan out. I got a pretty nasty stomach virus for a few days, and lost a bunch of weight, I wasn’t eating or sleeping well. That hurt the first few races of the year, but from Romandie and California and the Dauphine to nationals and now, I’ve been on a pretty steady progression of fitness. Now I think I’m in a place where I am better than I’ve ever been before.”
DEFENDING THE RED JERSEY
This Vuelta didn’t begin on a strong note for either American rider. During the opening team time trial in Torrevieja, Powless crashed along with Roglic, Kruijswijk, and Lennard Hofstede due to an unexpected patch of wet road after a child’s inflatable pool came apart and flooded the course; Kuss had a mechanical problem early on the stage and had to be left behind soon after the start.
Since then, however, it’s been a nearly perfect race for the Dutch team, but not without a few hiccups. Kruijswijk was forced to abandon on Stage 4 due to a knee injury sustained in the team time trial. Powless, Martin, and Bennett went down on Stage 6, in the mass pileup that saw Rigoberto Uran. Hugh Carthy, Victor de la Parte, and former race leader Nicolas Roche abandon the race.
“I crashed into this mess of riders and bikes, but I landed on Gu packets and Cokes in my pocket,” Powless said. “I had zero road rash, just a really sticky butt, but I jacked up my quad pretty hard.”
Roglic was again on the ground on the gravel section of the hailstorm-marred Stage 9 finish at Cortals d’Encamp due to a motorbike positioned in the middle of the road after a bend; he still managed to finishing third on the stage and move from fourth to second overall. He’s been in the red leader’s jersey since winning the Stage 10 time trial in Pau, and his GC lead has only increased since then as his rivals have been unable to crack him.
So confident is the Jumbo-Visma team in Roglic’s GC lead that Kuss was given the freedom to follow the 17-rider breakaway across the Asturian mountains on Stage 15. With Ion Izaguirre (Astana) and Marc Soler (Movistar) in the move, Kuss patrolled the break, sitting on without contribution, fully intent on dropping back to help Roglic when needed.
That call never came over the radio, however, and with 6.7km remaining on the final climb to Santuario del Acebo, Kuss caught and passed Sergio Samitier (Euskadi Basque Country-Murias) to solo to victory, 39 seconds ahead of Ruben Guerreiro (Katusha Alpecin) and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos). Kuss opened up a large enough gap to slap high fives with the fans lining the final 300 meters of the course. On the podium, he downed a ceremonial sponsor beer and soaked it all in.
“That was a bit unexpected, honestly,” Kuss told me. “I was originally in that break just covering moves, so that we would have somebody present. My mind didn’t really shift to ‘stage win, killer instinct-mode’ until pretty late on in the day. It was kind of a wild ride.”
Prior to his Vuelta stage win, Kuss had already renewed his contract with Jumbo-Visma through 2021. Powless, whose contract is up at the end of the season, has not made any announcements about his future. “There should be some information coming out within the next two weeks about my contract situation,” he told me. “I can’t quite talk about it yet.”
And though he hasn’t had the opportunity to ride for his own result at this Vuelta, given his performance throughout the first 16 stages, it’s hard to imagine Powless will struggle finding a spot. Heading into the second rest day he said his energy level was good, and that he believes he’s getting stronger throughout the race.
“[Stage 16] was the first day I was really starting to feel some fatigue,” Powless said, “but it’s pretty crazy, the body still goes, when you really ask it to perform, and to suffer it out, it just keeps chugging along. When you first get on the bike in the morning, you feel some fatigue, but as soon as you start to really race, all those feelings take a back seat, and you just stuck in the moment, and perform, and do what you need to do to carry out the team plan and keep your team leader in red.
“It’s been pretty incredible, and with technology nowadays you can dive into the analytics looking at what your body is doing. My power numbers are pretty much the best they have been in the past two years, and it was on Stage 13, 14, and 15 that I am putting out better power numbers than in the past two years. It’s been a really strange feeling, because you feel some fatigue, but your body has an incredible response to the stress you are putting it under.”
Whether Powless might have the opportunity to develop as a GC rider on a 2020 Jumbo-Visma roster that will include Roglic, Kruijswijk, Bennett, Gesink, Kuss, and new signing Tom Dumoulin, is another question altogether. In August Dumoulin signed a three-year deal, and on Tuesday the team announced that Roglic had extended his contract through the 2023 season.
It’s a situation Bennett is well familiar with; he was slated to lead the team at the Vuelta, as Roglic was originally meant to race the Giro and the Tour de France. After Roglic finished the Giro on his knees, team management made the call to bench the Slovenian for the Tour and send him to Spain, slotting Bennett into a support role.
“This team will most certainly be a strong force in the coming years, especially now with Dumolin coming,” Powless said. “But from my experience, having a lot of strong guys around you is only a good thing. It pushes everyone to be better, and get the most out of each other.”
The team’s top-heavy roster of established GC riders is something Kuss is aware of as well, though he also doesn’t appear too bothered by it. Asked about his future goals, such as riding the Tour de France next year, he answered, “I really haven’t though that far in advance.”
“Obviously we’ve got Tom Dumoulin coming to the team, so we’ve got a lot of firepower, a lot of top-quality guys to ride for,” Kuss said. “It’s certainly going to be competitive to make the roster for certain races. But for me there’s not any specific goals, necessarily. It would be nice to do California or something like that, some one-week climbing races like Catalunya, Dauphine, Suisse, something like that, and try for some results. And then the Olympics in Tokyo is a pretty hard climbing course, so if I can show my worth, that’d be good.”
The Tokyo Games are clearly on Powless’s radar as well. “The Olympics has always been a dream of mine, as it is with most athletes,” he said. “I’ll certainly be gunning for a start in Tokyo. I think it’s more realistic for me to go for a spot in the road race over the time trial, although a start in both would be incredible.”
As for the remainder of the season, Powless has earned a spot on the US national team for the road world championships in Yorkshire. Kuss, however, has already ruled out racing at worlds. Instead, he’ll focus on the season-ending spate of hilly Italian one-day races, culminating in Il Lombardia.
“I didn’t put my name in the hat for worlds team selection, we’ve got other strong guys for that type of course, and it’s not really a race for me at this point in the season,” Kuss said. “At this point in season, I wouldn’t want to take a spot from somebody else who has a better chance for a result, or to help the team. I think I’m on for Lombardia and the other Italian one-day races before that. That’s a nice way to end the season — in Italy, eating good pasta, enjoying the scenery. But they are hard races, so you have to be pretty switched on at the same time.”
First, of course, there are five stages remaining at the Vuelta, including two mountain stages, before the podium ceremony in Madrid. However given the way Roglic and his team are performing, and his very comfortable GC lead, it’s growing ever likely that Jumbo-Visma will take its first Grand Tour victory — and third Grand Tour podium in 2019.
For Kuss and Powless, a victory celebration in Madrid would be another step on a trajectory that began together not long ago, and has risen quickly.