In-SEPP-tion Part I: Durango to Tour of Utah Glory

Written by Joseph Bonacci, on February 12, 2024

Note from the author: On an early morning in January, Ryan and I had the opportunity to hop on a Zoom call with the reigning Vuelta Champion Sepp Kuss. Kuss was in the south of Spain at the Team Visma | Lease A Bike team camp and graciously sat down with us after a long day at camp.  Needless to say, I was super nervous to sit down with Sepp. He could probably tell as I was stumbling over my words in the first few questions. However with Kuss’ easy-going attitude, it quickly became obvious he is just like every one of us; just someone who loves riding their bike.

Thanks to our friends at Cervelo, we are incredibly appreciative of being able to pick his brain about everything from his youth days to grand tour glory and even his favorite bike gear. This is the first in a three-part series on our interview with Sepp.

In 2018 a newly signed 23-year-old American rider named Sepp Kuss on Team LottoNL-Jumbo impressed the world on Stage Two of the Tour of Utah with a 52km solo attack to win the stage and take the leader's jersey. Up to this point, he had only one UCI Road Race win. When he bested the field, he made sure we remembered his name. A lot has changed since the Tour of Utah with Sepp becoming the top lieutenant of the team for six grand tour wins for the Visma | Lease a Bike pro team which culminated with an overall victory in La Vuelta a España this past fall. 

Sepp Kuss smiling and waving at the Tour de France

Days in Durango

Long before Kuss’ run at the Vuelta and even his glory in the Tour of Utah, Kuss was just another kid who loved riding his bike. Born in Durango, Sepp practically grew up on the bike, riding with his parents, friends, and teammates on Durango Devo, Durango’s youth development program. Durango helped shape Sepp’s career, “I was lucky enough to grow up in Durango and there's a good outdoor sports scene and a lot of mountain sports, skiing, riding.” he told us, “So it was very natural to go into cycling,”

Durango Devo takes an unconventional approach to its youth programs, encouraging the kids to ride their bikes as much as they can, rather than focusing on specific training plans to make each athlete as fast as possible. This training helped Kuss reach where he is today, teaching him the fundamentals of cycling. 

As Kuss puts it, “For me, the key to riding is the enjoyment and the feeling of cycling being a sport I'll have for the rest of my life. That brings me a lot of joy because it's a tough sport and you have to enjoy it.”

“You have to enjoy every day you're on the bike. And of course to me that's something intrinsic, but something that Devo showed me was just what you can do with the bike: the adventures, the relationships, the simplicity, and the fun of it. So that helps me not take it too, too seriously.” He continued, “Especially in a world where it's pretty serious, pretty calculated, and nowadays there's a lot of riders coming in that are younger and younger and maybe they don't have that same kind of upbringing in cycling or appreciation for cycling in that way. But I was lucky I think with having Devo to teach that love.” 

During his time in high school, Kuss would train by setting out for hours on the bike, trying to bag as many passes and peaks before having to head home. Sepp joined the Colorado NICA League during his senior year of high school. That year, Sepp did Sepp things and won the varsity state championship with a margin of almost three minutes and the series points overall. 

Sepp Kuss in the Peloton at the Giro D'italia

Journey to the Peloton

As Kuss grew, his cycling career started to take off when he went to college at the University of Colorado Boulder. Still on the mountain bike, Kuss would go on to win three collegiate national championships in XCO and Short Track, but Kuss still had his sights out for more. 

“Road racing was always something that was a big interest of mine, but I never had the opportunities or the tools to make Road Cycling easy to try.” Kuss explained, “And at the time I was always on non-bike teams and it didn’t make sense to split the schedule between road races.” 

“But then when I went to Boulder for school, there was a bit more of a road racing scene, so there were more teams and opportunities to enter the road world. It is always the style of riding I gravitate towards, more and more longer climbs as opposed to the short, explosive style of mountain biking.” 

Initially, Kuss started his road career with the Gateway Harley-Davidson/Trek team, but shortly after he won the Redlands Classic. He impressed in the Tour of Gila which earned him a chance to ride with Rally Cycling. Kuss then road with Rally from 2016 to 2017 racing many stage races around the United States. As his form and ride quality started to show for itself, Sepp began attracting the attention of the European Teams. One team decided to give the young American a shot; LottoNL Jumbo signed him to a two-year deal.

Sepp Kuss winning at the Tour of Utah

Tour of Utah 

To give him a taste of the big leagues, Jumbo had Kuss focus on a few European stage races but mostly the significant American ones to grow his cycling ability. Even though these stage races never quite got as much publicity as their European counterparts, they were great races nonetheless. While you cannot directly compare difficulty, these races have factors that can make it just as hard as the European events. 

“I think it is hard to compare a race in the U.S. to a race in Europe just because the roads and everything else is pretty different, but these races in Utah and Colorado are really, really tough, with super hard climbs at altitude.”

“You have the climate in Utah, really hot in the summer, and the Tour of Utah would always have a really good start list. You had guys coming off the Tour, you’d have a lot of top riders coming in, so the competition level was really high. And for me, being able to do races like the Tours of California and Utah was the first time to race against guys racing most of the time in Europe and get noticed by the bigger teams."

“For me that was important. I don’t think I would be where I am now without having those kinds of races to showcase what I could do. I think it’s something the U.S. has, they have the terrain, the hard mountains, the altitude, everything. You could make the race just as hard or harder than you see in Europe, it is just a matter of bringing the competition and sponsors over for our Utah audience.”

So in 2018, Kuss fully stepped into the spotlight with his performance in the Tour of Utah. Before this, he had made waves as a pro but this was his first truly dominating performance. After the opening prologue stage, Stage One saw the first real mountains but the group stayed together with Kuss lossing no time. Stage Two was a different story, the stage started and ended in Payson, UT, and featured a hard 20km climb up Mt. Nebo summiting only 35km from the finish. Kuss set out to impress the world on this stage, attacking and going solo with 52 km to go. Charging up the climb, Kuss dropped the rest of the competition, padding his lead enough to hold the group off as they headed back to Payson. This performance earned Kuss his first leader’s jersey, a premonition of things to come.

“On the stage that finished in Payson, I remember going solo on Mount Nebo with maybe 50k to go.  It was really cool for my first professional win to be such a long attack and that was kind of the first moment that I was like, ‘Oh Wow! I think I could do something here.’”

Two days later, the Queen stage was Kuss’ first real test with the pressure of the cycling world watching. Finishing on the legendary Snowbird Climb, the stage would wind its way through Park City, ascending Guardsman pass via Marsac Avenue before descending to the Salt Lake Valley to turn towards Snowbird. The Snowbird climb is a doozy for those who are not familiar, climbing almost 1000m in 15.6km and averaging 6%, making it one of the most difficult climbs in Utah and earning the Hors Catégorie difficulty rating.  

Sepp told us, “I felt so good at the bottom, I was thinking to myself, ‘When is too early to go?’ because I just wanted to go. I went on the attack from the very bottom, and just saw what happened.” 

Now if you watched this stage, you’ll remember the Eagle of Durango smiling and spinning with apparent ease up the climb, with the rest of the field just watching him go. Ryan asked him about it and he humbly deflected and said, “It was pretty cool just to win the stage, and to do it in the leader’s jersey made me feel on top of the World.” To put this in perspective, to this day only two people in Strava history are within a minute of Sepp's time up to Snowbird.

The next day and the last stage of the Tour of Utah, Kuss went out with one goal in mind: to secure the overall for himself and his team. The last stage climbed up Empire Pass, from the Pine Canyon side (another absolutely brutal road climb), before descending down into Park City for the final finish. Putting in another Grand Tour level performance, Kuss distanced his competitors on the climb to secure his third stage win of the week, but more importantly secured his first major victory and established himself as a force to be reckoned with. 

Sepp Kuss finishing the Tour de France

More to Come

These results and his dedication to the craft, earned Kuss the opportunity to step up to the Vuelta a España just three weeks later. His legendary performances in Grand Tours have brought him into the limelight in the past couple of years but there was a lot Kuss went through even on the World Tour to get there. Stay tuned for the next part of our In-SEPP-tion series where Sepp tells us about never before seen details on his career in Europe and insight into his winning performance in the Vuelta. 


5 comments

  • Great interview! Thank you for sharing. To see an American have such success in Europe is a real gift. Sepp is the real deal!

    Bob Read on

  • Excellent, he has been so fun to watch!

    Kelly Perkins on

  • Great article and looking forward to reading series II.

    Sloan Christensen on

  • Wow—thanks so much for putting this together. Sepp is a truly inspirational figure and an unbelievably down-to-earth guy given his incredible palmares. Great questions for the athlete.

    Aaron on

  • Thanks for this awesome interview! My son and I watched as Sepp rode by us on one of the steeper sections of Little Cottonwood canyon and he has indeed smiling as he flew past us. We were able to get a picture with Sepp after the final stage which my relatives in the Netherlands thought was so cool. What a class act!

    John Pos on

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