Three years to stardom: Sepp Kuss has arrived

Three years ago Sepp Kuss was a struggling neo-pro. Now he's a Tour de France stage winner.

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Sepp Kuss was an athlete emptied, just a puddle of lycra sitting on the rough pavement of a California parking lot. A thousand-yard stare, the sort with no focal point. 

He sat on the ground, pulled a salt-crusted helmet off, and tried, as best he could, to answer questions he didn’t have the answers to. It was day six of the 2018 Tour of California, five months into his first season in the WorldTour, his first with the team that is now Jumbo-Visma, back in the US for the first time since shipping off for team training camps the previous fall. The race to Tahoe had been a struggle. He’d just lost five minutes. 

Was the WorldTour transition difficult? Yes. How had the move to Europe gone? Poorly. Did he know why he couldn’t find the form that put him on this team to begin with? No, and it was frustrating. At the end of each short answer he’d catch himself, spin it to the positive, look ahead with some sort of confidence that this wasn’t the top for him. It couldn’t be. 

I don’t need to tell you what he did on Sunday, just over three years later. The stacked breakaway, a steep final climb, no Primoz Roglič to anchor him to the GC favorites. A chance to run free. Dropping Valverde, Quintana, Poels, Nibali.

Kuss has days, sometimes, where he looks down and thinks his power meter is broken because it’s reading so high. Wouldn’t that be nice? Sunday was one of them. Watts piled on watts and a daredevil descent, chucking his glasses into the crowd so his hands were free to punch the air. Days like that will change a man.

I couldn’t see Kuss when he picked up the phone on Monday’s rest day. He sounded like he was just laughing as he hit accept on the call. Probably some other teammates around. He’s not doing anything, he says. Just sitting around, looking at the mountains, “trying to make the day go as long as possible,” because rest days always go by faster than you want.

He’s buzzing. Why wouldn’t he be? His phone has been on fire with notifications since yesterday. The whole world wants to congratulate him. He’s normally quite careful in his answers, or at least measured. Today he sounds like he’s been snapped out of a trance, or pulled his head up above water for the first time in two weeks. Like he’s come alive. “You try and treat it as any other day or any other win,” he says. “But then when you look at it in the scope of everything.” He pauses. “It’s a really big deal to win a stage in the Tour.”

It is.

I don’t know what it’s like, but I do know the Tour de France grabs and holds the entirety of a rider. For three weeks, there’s nothing left of them, not a scrap, to be used for any other purpose. Except when they win. Then the fatigue is gone. Tired eyes light up, they bound up the stairs to the podium. “You’re so wrapped up in the race, focusing not even on one stage at a time, just one moment of the race at a time,” Kuss says. “The start, or a windy section, or a certain mountain. You’re so used to being in that rhythm. Then when you win a stage it’s like, ‘OK … what is this?'”

The day before the rest day is probably the best day to win a Tour stage, isn’t it? A whole day to enjoy it.

“It’s not something you can ever really plan,” Kuss says. “You can dream of it, but you don’t want to think about it too much because you’re more disappointed when it doesn’t happen.”

It almost didn’t. Kuss almost didn’t join the WorldTour back in 2018. “I was just so inexperienced,” he said. “I didn’t want to go there and get killed and hate bike racing.” 

That’s exactly what happened. He went there and got killed. By the time he sat on the tarmac in California three years ago it’d nearly broken him. Behind that thousand-yard stare was a young man deeply unsure of the direction he’d chosen, whether it was rational, feasible, a dream realizable or impossible. 

“I was thinking, ‘Oh shit, this is just too much for me right now,’” he said. “It’s not nice to start every day wondering how you’re going to survive the day.”

It wasn’t pessimism, he says. It just sucked in the moment. “I knew I had a lot to learn and that I would improve. I didn’t arrive with any expectations that I was going to hit the ground running and win, I knew it would be super hard. I could feel I was getting better, and that gave me the confidence to trust myself and enjoy training and riding and know eventually it would get easier.”

Loving bike racing is important to Kuss. Loving bike racing is easier when bike racing is loving you back, though.

There are so many poetic little circles in cycling. Let’s finish with this one: The very first race Kuss entered with his new LottoNL-Jumbo team was the Volta Valenciana in February, 2018. A fresh-faced neo-pro, Kuss didn’t finish the final stage, the first of three stage race DNFs he’d rack up that spring on his way to that difficult Tour of California. The winner that day? Alejandro Valverde. The same Valverde who tipped his hat and offered a fist bump to a “just better” Kuss on Sunday after chasing, chasing, chasing, and never catching.

What a difference three years makes. 

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