Although Jumbo-Visma ultimately came up just short at the Tour de France in their quest to capture the yellow jersey as a consequence of Tadej Pogačar’s astonishing coup in the La Planche des Belles Filles time trial, no one could question the Dutch team’s dominance in almost every other phase of the race. Their supremacy was particularly evident in the mountains, where team leader Primoz Roglič and his cohort of domestiques were in control throughout, with Wout van Aert and Sepp Kuss indisputably their star performers.
Three-time world cyclo-cross champion and winner this year of Milan-Sanremo, Van Aert needs little introduction. Kuss, though, is not as well known. Four years ago, the American, was studying advertising at the University of Colorado in Boulder and was primarily a mountain biker. Yet, over the course of a season and a half with the Rally Cycling team and three more with Jumbo-Visma, the 26-year old has emerged as one of the pre-eminent climbers in the sport. His talent in the mountains is so impressive that several rival teams are rumoured to be interested in securing his services when his current deal runs out at the end of next season.
Winner of the final stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné, where he was arguably the strongest climber, and 15th overall in a support role at the Tour, where his commitment to Roglič was strikingly unflagging, Kuss is laidback and engaging. He is, according to his former teammates at Rally and current colleagues at Jumbo, upbeat and confident. “He has a positive attitude that’s infectious,” says Rally directeur sportif Jonas Carney. “It’s hard to describe, but he’s just one of those guys that brings a lot of positive energy to a team.”
Kuss first came to Rally’s attention in the early part of the 2016 season, when he was beginning to focus a little more on road racing. “He had some great results, including a win on Oak Glenn, a mountain top finish at the Redlands Classic,” Carney explains. “I found out about Sepp’s mountain bike background and his roots in Durango, where some mutual friends gave him great references. So we added him to our team mid-season.”
Gifted with good bike handling skills thanks to his mountain biking, Kuss quickly fitted in at Rally, winning the Mont Mégantic stage at the Tour de Beauce, his first stage race in the continental team’s colours. “He’s a smart kid and really wanted to learn, so he progressed quickly across the board. His understanding of how the races would unfold improved a ton in a short time,” Carney explains. “I don’t remember him making any big mistakes. He just wasn’t conserving energy as much as he should.”
Rally quickly became convinced that Kuss would step up to the WorldTour, especially after his first race at that level in 2017, the Tour of California. The highlight was the fourth stage into Santa Clarita, where Kuss helped set up a 1-2 finish for the continental team against some of the sport’s leading racers. “We already had Rob Britton and Evan Huffman in the break. Tons of guys were trying to go across as the gap wasn’t big. Then Sepp went, dropped the WorldTour guy who tried to go with him, and made it across. We had three in the break and that’s likely why we won the stage with Huffman,” Carney recalls.
Ninth at the Tour of Utah, sixth at the Colorado Classic and then second at the Tour of Alberta behind teammate Huffman, Kuss was on the radar of a number of WorldTour teams, and opted to sign a two-year deal with what was then LottoNL-Jumbo towards the end of the 2017 season. “Kuss attracted our attention during the Tour of California. Since then, we have been following him and we tested him intensively,” said DS Merijn Zeeman. “He still has plenty of room for development and we will give him the time to do so.”
Carney says that he fully expected Kuss to make a big leap forwards with his new team because the former mountain biker had so much untapped potential. “He’s a big talent that got a late start in road cycling. For that reason he’s got a lot more upside than most guys his age. As a result, it’s not surprising that he’s established himself as a super-domestique in the mountains. However, I am a bit surprised that he has done it so quickly,” he admits.
Winner of three stages and the overall at the Tour of Utah in the summer of 2018, he made his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a España a month later, riding in support of Steven Kruiswijk, who finished fourth on GC. Last year, Jumbo-Visma pushed Kuss on even further, giving him a prominent support role to Roglič at both the Giro d’Italia, where the Slovenian was third, and the Vuelta, which he won. In the latter, Kuss grabbed an opportunity to show the extent of his progression, winning at the Santuario de Acebo summit finish.
This season, his rise has continued, Roglič benefiting hugely from the American’s pace-making in the mountains on several occasions at the Dauphiné and the Tour, often opting to come off Kuss’s wheel only when the finish line is almost within sight. This suggests that Kuss has potential as a Grand Tour leader, but the American plays down this prospect. “In a ‘standard’ Tour de France, I’d rather try to win stages than finish in the top 5,” Kuss said in the final days of this year’s race. “That’s too much pressure for me.”
He insists he prefers to play a support role and chase opportunities when he’s given the chance, and will stick to that task for now. But if Kuss keeps on demonstrating that he’s one of the strongest riders in the peloton when the Grand Tours hit the mountains, Jumbo will surely want to see just how far he can go.
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.