Somewhere in a nameless country road in central Andalucia last week, Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) wheeled to a halt after completing his first time trial of 2019, his face shining with sweat and breathing heavily from a last, punishing uphill effort to the finish line.
However, as soon as he had caught his breath and eased up, a smile was back on his face, and he was happily cracking jokes with the team soigneur and greeting other riders as they went past, their time trial also done.
Cycling-wise, life is looking up for Kuss, both in the short-term, with a recent minor injury now behind him, and in the mid-term, given that mentally he feels on a much more even keel than at this point last year. Long-term, only time and the race results will tell.
"I'm happy with what I'm doing, given a few weeks ago I hurt my hamstring so I couldn't pedal so well. Little things like that, I've got over, so it's good," Kuss told Cyclingnews during the Vuelta a Andalucia.
His winter training went well, with a longish spell back home in Colorado with friends and family.
"I did a little skiing, a little fat biking. I always enjoy there being a real winter because it makes you appreciate the sun and nice weather a bit more," he said.
"But the biggest difference was more mental. I'm much happier this year, and when you're mentally in a good place, training doesn't feel like training. Comparing this year to last year, I'm much more relaxed."
Kuss' more upbeat, broader perspective on his career is logical. The 24-year-old recognises he now knows what to expect at Jumbo-Visma, where he's starting his second year after making the jump into the WorldTour from American racing to European scene at the start of 2018.
After his strong 2018 'rookie' year at WorldTour level, he's feeling a lot more confident about being up there with the big-name players.
"I'm not like a tense person, I'm generally really relaxed anyways. But yes, last year, when you're on a big team and when you haven't been doing it for that long, all of a sudden you're in a huge professional environment. It's really overwhelming at times," he admits.
"Now I've settled in a bit and I know that I actually deserve to be in a WorldTour team and things like that, it's a lot easier."
California and Vuelta but no Utah
Kuss' main goal late this spring, after riding a succession of week-long races, is the Tour of California, and there will be a drop both in the number of one-day races and total race days throughout the season. California is not only attractive in its own right, but this year it has no time trial, which is a bonus for an out-and-out climber like Kuss. All things being equal, he and former winner George Bennett will be amongst the Dutch team's line-up come May 12th in Sacramento.
"George won it two years ago, but George and I get along really well. I'll think it'll be good to have both of us shoot for that one," he reflects. "As far as the earlier part of the spring goes it'll be Catalonia, Basque Country, really focussing on each race and good training in between.
"Then after California I'll go back to the Dauphiné, and after that, it'll be a similar program to last year, I'll have some time at home, do some altitude training and then get ready for the Vuelta a España."
He is not upset at missing the Tour de France this year. "I'm not picky, I'm happy to do any race so long as it's not on cobblestones," Kuss points out with a laugh.
Also missing will be the race where he had a major breakthrough last year, the Tour of Utah. Jumbo-Visma, he says, will not be taking part in 2019: "It's a shame but in the US there's not too many races, so it's hard to [justify]," Kuss says.
In the bigger picture again, Kuss does not have any specific dream results for 2019, preferring to have a steady series of good performances rather than "a lot of peaks and valleys, like last year".
"If this year's just consistent, I'd be really happy with that," he says. "But I'm on a good track so far."