Seeing Sepp Kuss’ sensational climbing performances in a pandemic-shortened season, it was easy to understand why he was able to win stages on mountaintop finishes at the 2019 Vuelta a España and 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné. The lanky 26-year-old from Durango, Colorado, demonstrated that when the smack goes down, he could respond either at the front setting tempo for his Jumbo-Visma team leader Primoź Roglič or off the front in search of a stage win. It’s an exciting time for Kuss as his possibilities have rapidly been revealed. We caught up with the American climber in Spain just after he finished backto-back grand tours, the Tour de France and the Vuelta, helping Roglič place second at the Tour and then win the Spanish grand tour for the second year in succession.
You won the final stage of the Dauphiné when Roglič was a DNS. By winning that mountain stage ahead of eventual race winner Daniel Martínez and Tadej Pogačar, what did you learn? It gave me the confidence that I can be up there with the best riders. That final stage was super-hard from the beginning and felt like a one-day race, so to come out on top at the end of a hard day like that showed me that even if I’m suffering a lot, the other guys probably are too. Just knowing that helps in the difficult moments when you want to ease off.
The next race was your debut Tour—what expectations did you have and were there any surprises? I didn’t have any expectations in particular—just to give my best. I was feeling strong and confident, but there’s a lot of ups and downs in a three-week race, so it’s hard to have any precise expectations. There were more steep, irregular climbs than I expected. Usually, when you think of the Tour, you imagine long, steady alpine climbs, but this year there were climbs like the Col de la Loze, Plateau des Glières, Grand Colombier and Mont Aigoual that were really steep and harder to control.
How do you rate your performance at the Tour? I was happy with my performance. I didn’t feel super in the first week, but I stayed focused and really felt great after the second half of the race, so that was encouraging. Honestly, there were a lot of stages, even some of the really tough mountain stages, where I didn’t have to do so much work because the rest of the team was so strong! I usually put low points (even high points) during a race behind me pretty quickly, so mentally I stay positive and calm and know that there is always another chance.
What was the biggest thing you learned about the Tour compared with the other grand tours you’d raced? It was interesting to see the different racing dynamic of the Tour compared to the Vuelta or the Giro. The racing at the Tour was at a super-high level, but that also makes it more controlled than the other grand tours. There’s a lot of stress, but it’s also a different kind of stress or craziness than other races. Now that I’ve done the three grand tours, it’s easier to see how my characteristics fit into each race.
In 2019, you won a stage at the Vuelta. Was that in the cards again? Or what was your role this time? Going into the Vuelta we had Primoź and Tom [Dumoulin] as the main leaders, but with a lot of tough stages to start with we wanted to see how everyone was feeling and keep George [Bennett] and me close on GC as well. That gave me a bit more of an opportunity to race aggressively, and maybe if there was a perfect opportunity I could try for a stage, but the primary goal was to win the GC with Primoź. At the Tour, we took responsibility and controlled the race to our team strengths, but one rider was faster in the end. The Vuelta had a different racing dynamic, so we could afford to be a bit more aggressive and put others on the back foot rather than control the race.
On the decisive stage 12 to the Alto de l’Angliru, the steepest climb in the race, it appeared that you were stronger than Primoź when the attacks started happening. How were you trying to help him or is this climb just so steep, with some 28-percent pitches, that it was hard to be of much help? It’s always good to have a wheel to follow just to keep your momentum. The top of the Angliru was really windy and it flattens out in the last kilometers, so if Primoź was alone there it would have been harder to limit his losses. I think the windy, flat plateau to the finish was where I was able to help him the most.
You ended up in several breakaways in the mountains. What was the team strategy there? In the early parts of the Vuelta, when George and I were higher on GC, we could go in certain breakaways to put pressure on other teams. For me, a lot of the breaks I was in actually weren’t intentional. I was just covering some moves at harder moments and then all of a sudden….
The team burned almost the whole squad when Primoź was dropped on the rainy and cold stage 6 to Formigal. What happened and how did that play out for you? There were a few of us that took too long to put fresh jackets on coming to the top of the penultimate climb. Other teams put the pressure on during the descent and by that time we were already near the back of the peloton. Once we were at the bottom, there was a big gap, and the rest of the guys came back to Primoź and me to close it. Primoź could go across with them, but I was so cold and just couldn’t handle the pace to bridge that gap.
The whole raincoat issue—should teams have special rain jackets which are easier to get on for difficult situations or is this just a skill that pros need to learn? It’s usually easy to put on the jackets if the wind is calm and your fingers aren’t frozen, but if you add in those elements it can be a bit tricky. I think we have four different varieties of rain jackets, some harder to put on than others, but I think it’s more an issue of timing and planning rather than the jacket itself.
It seemed at the Vuelta that a lot of time gaps opened up on descents. That seems unusual for how stages races are usually ridden. What was up with that? In almost every race there are big splits on descents. There’s definitely teams and riders that use technical descents to their advantage. It also depends if the downhill is near the finish or at a crucial moment for the gaps to be noticeable or lasting.
The Tour and Vuelta were only a month apart. How did that affect you at the Vuelta and was it a problem? For me, it wasn’t too much of a problem. In the Tour I didn’t have to go deep every day like the GC riders, so I actually came out of it in good shape and not tired. I also skipped the Ardennes classics in between the Tour and the Vuelta because they are quite explosive and fatiguing. Overall, I think I came into the Vuelta really fresh and motivated.
You have now ridden all three grand tours. How do they compare? Do you have a favorite grand tour and why? I think all the grand tours are similar in that the third week is the decider for the overall, but each race has a different “run-in” to the decisive stages. The Giro is a bit of a slow burn. Lots of long sprint stages, transition stages until the middle of the race and then you have a bunch of back-to-back, over-200-kilometer stages in the mountains (usually in bad weather!), so it’s a real test of endurance and willpower. I think the Tour is similar, except in 2020 there were quite a few mountain stages from the beginning and not many long stages. The Vuelta on the other hand is really explosive. Shorter stages, steeper climbs, plenty of summit finishes throughout the three weeks.
I’m not a grand tour veteran by any means, so I probably need some more experience to better form an opinion, but my favorite grand tour would have to be the Vuelta. It’s a really open race. The way the stages are designed makes for pretty engaging racing and there’s usually so many mountain stages that it makes for a tough GC race and a lot of opportunities for breakaways. As the last GT of the season, there’s a bit less to lose compared to the Tour, for example, so it has a more relaxed feel. The Tour felt quite the opposite. Every rider and every team is at their top level, so the differences are quite small and the racing is very controlled. I would love to go back to the Giro. I don’t have too many fond memories of the race because I was suffering almost every single stage, but I remember it being such a beautiful race. It had a really historic feel.
To what do you attribute your rise in climbing ability over the past year? I can attribute my improvements each year to pretty simple things actually. The biggest factor is just staying consistent in training and trying to improve each day. Especially in 2020, with such a long period of uncertainty and no concrete racing goals, it was important to just keep working and not worry about things that were out of my control. Another factor is having more confidence in myself in races and training. After a few years with the same team, trainers, races, I’ve figured out how I react to certain situations and that helps keep me happy and calm, not only in training but also in races. If I’m happy and relaxed then I can get a lot out of myself.
What do you think is your biggest area for future improvement? Time trailing is an area where I need big improvements. I will never be an excellent TTer but if I can get to the point where I only lose one minute instead of three minutes, I will be happy. I also need to improve my positioning in the peloton, because sometimes I can be a bit too relaxed and miss splits or waste a lot of energy riding in a bad position.
When you are done taking your pull at the front on a climb what factors determine if you just pull the plug and go easy to the finish or if you still try to go hard all the way to the line? It depends on the situation. If it’s a climb and then downhill and flat to the finish and you’re the only teammate left, then you definitely have to do everything possible to stay with the group. If it’s still a ways to go to the finish and the team car has passed, then it’s fine to pedal easy to the finish.
What’s next for Sepp Kuss? I haven’t thought about it too much actually! I just like to ride my bike and don’t put too much pressure on myself. Of course, I’ll work hard for the opportunity to go for my own chances, but I’m also really happy helping the leaders out in the grand tours. I think it’s a nice balance.