So, at age 25, perhaps nobody is more surprised the American cycling star from Durango is set to make his Tour de France debut Saturday than Kuss himself.
“I wouldn’t have expected this at all,” Kuss said Wednesday in a phone interview with The Durango Herald on the eve of team presentations in Nice, France. “I also think that’s the nice thing about it. None of this was ever in the crosshairs for me. Every year, it is something new and always a surprise when I do well and I am racing in a Giro or Vuelta or, now, a Tour de France. It’s been special in that way. I have always worked hard and shot for the best, but it’s a bit surreal at times being in these kind of positions.”
Now considered the best American climber of his generation, few in the road cycling world knew Kuss’ name before his breakthrough performance at the 2018 Tour of Utah. As a rookie prospect, he won three stages and the overall title in his first year with Team Jumbo-Visma, the Dutch squad that signed him after he climbed to a 10th-place finish atop Mount Baldy during a stage at the Tour of California days after he graduated from the University of Colorado.
Jumbo-Visma team bosses liked what they saw, gave the 22-year-old a physiology test and signed him to his first WorldTour contract away from American continental team Rally Cycling four months later.
“As a family, we are all still learning the ways of road bike racing and the way things are organized and how one moves from one level to another,” said Kuss’ father, Dolph. “But, three years later, I guess we really aren’t that surprised that Sepp was picked to do the Tour because of the way his team manages their riders and monitors them. They know more about them than sometimes they know about themselves. They’ve really been bringing Sepp along.”
Three years into his WorldTour career, Kuss has remained with Jumbo-Visma and completed two Vuelta a España races and last year’s Giro d’Italia, leaving the Tour de France as the only one of the three Grand Tours in which he has yet to compete. That all will change Saturday when he sets out on the 21-day race that will cover 2,165 milesand pass through all five of France’s mountain ranges: the Alps, the Massif Central, the Pyrénées, the Jura and the Vosges.
Kuss will have one of the most important roles at the 107th edition of the Tour de France. Jumbo-Visma has two riders, Slovenia’s Primož Roglic and Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands, who are among the top-three betting favorites to wear the leader’s yellow jersey to the finish line Sept. 20 on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Kuss is one of the top climbers on the WorldTour, and he will look to help pull Roglic and Dumoulin along a route that features eight summit finishes among double-digit brutal climbing days. The Jumbo-Visma goal is to dethrone defending champion Egan Bernal of Colombia and end the reign of the Ineos Grenadiers, formerly Team Sky, which has won seven of the last eight Tour de France titles with Bradley Wiggins (2012), Chris Froome (2013, 15, 16, 17), Geraint Thomas (2018) and Bernal (2019).
“I think the route suits me really well,” Kuss said. “It’s hard to say as a support rider what to expect. I know this race is hard in the beginning, hard in the middle and hard at the end. I have to distribute myself in a smart way for the whole race. The third week will be so decisive, and I want to be there in the end for Primož and Tom.
“A lot will come down to the uphill individual time trial on Stage 20 if there aren’t big gaps before that. It’s tough, and a lot of it is in the mountains, and that makes for a really hard Tour. You might lose some time here and there, but in the end, I think we have some of the strongest riders for that third week. Everything is going in the right direction. I hope to have good luck, good health and come into that third week really strong.”
‘Let Sepp be Sepp’Kuss has remained as calm and cool as ever in the week leading up to the Tour. His usual smile and easy-going nature hasn’t been overtaken by nerves or pressure that are inherent when an athlete reaches the pinnacle of their sport.
“That’s just our little Seppy,” his mother, Sabina, said. “He’s the same guy he has been all his life, and his personality never went through different stages in life. He has this real gentlemanly, elegant approach to things. I think that composure stays with him in all of his actions. He never set out to be an Olympian or WorldTour racer, none of that. He has gotten there with total personality and because he just loves riding his bike. He loves what he does.”
Kuss’ foundation comes from his family. Dolph was a famed coach for U.S. Ski Team from 1963 to 1972. Kuss was named to the USA Cycling Olympic long team for the 2020 – now 2021 – Olympics in Tokyo. If he is selected, which is nearly a guarantee, it won’t be the first Olympics for his immediate family. Dolph coached the U.S. at the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, and the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.
Dolph also coached at Fort Lewis College from 1965-76 and was an organizer for the 1975 NCAA Championships held at Purgatory Resort, which he helped develop along with Chapman Hill ski area in Durango. Dolph was inducted in the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 1990, and his contributions have laid a foundation for generations of Durango athletes.
Dolph admits he didn’t have the same calm demeanor as his son when it came to competing and coaching. He said his son has come by his unwavering positive attitude naturally.
“Sepp’s dad was such an elite coach, but he let Sepp be Sepp,” Cheeney said. “They are such a Nordic family, and Sepp was really into skiing when I met him. But they let him do whatever he kind of wanted to do, whether it was mountain biking or hockey, which he played forever. They fostered his passion whichever way he took it.”
‘Love for bikes at an early age’