Sepp Kuss was the first American for a decade to win a stage at the Tour de France when he soloed into his adopted European hometown of Andorra in July. It was a significant step up for the Colorado climber but one that was not unexpected after four ever-improving seasons at Jumbo-Visma.
Kuss followed up on his Tour de France win with eighth place overall at the Vuelta a España while helping Primož Roglič to victory. It was yet another rung on his Grand Tour career ladder and up the Grand Tour hierarchy at Jumbo-Visma.
Kuss, though, is not demanding a leadership role for a Grand Tour in 2022 and does not make bold predictions about his future. Instead, he pushes back against the expectations and the tag of being America's next big thing in the European peloton, perhaps being all too aware of the often painful history of American road racers in Europe.
Boyish, but already with a degree in advertising, Kuss appears far more grounded than many in the peloton, perhaps thanks to his upbringing in the great outdoors of Durango. He chooses his words carefully and keeps his racing, his career and his life, in perspective.
"It's important you go out every day and feel happy, and feel lucky to be doing this as a job," he told Cyclingnews.
"I think I enjoyed my 2021 season because I was enjoying being a bike racer. In all the races I was there more or less, not perhaps big results but always learning and being with the better guys, which is a big step up.
"Winning the stage at the Tour de France was incredible for me, as was riding well on other stages and helping Jonas Vingegaard get second overall, too. To then do a good ride at Vuelta, finish in the top ten and win with Primož was super cool, too."
A new generation of Americans winning at the Tour de France
Kuss captured Jumbo-Visma's attention at the 2017 Tour of California and confirmed his ability by blowing apart the 2018 Tour of Utah to seal the overall victory.
That performance secured him his first Grand Tour ride at the Vuelta and he has been on every Grand Tour team with Roglič ever since, completing the Tour and the Vuelta in both 2020 and 2021.
Along with friend and Donostia San Sebastian Klasikoa winner Neilson Powless (EF Education-Nippo), former Rally Cycling teammate Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates) and fellow Durango Devo alumnus Quinn Simmons (Trek–Segafredo), Kuss is leading a new generation of American riders who have created their own paths to success in Europe built on their personal ability. They are rebuilding the American professional peloton after the wreckage caused by the Lance Armstrong generation.
Kuss is one of the oldest of the generation, at 27, but his pure climber's physique and youthful smile make him appear several years younger. Yet his character and four years of constant racing in Europe give him a mature perspective.
When he talks about his Tour de France stage victory in Andorra his emotions emerge but his ambition never overwhelms him.
"For me, it was an incredible day out," he said.
"I wanted to be in the break that day but I didn't know if I'd be able to do anything. I didn't feel that good in the Tour until that point. But I kept pushing on and kept trying something and on that day I had really, really good legs. It all came together for me."
As an Andorra resident, Kuss knew the final Beixalis climb very well, to the point where he avoids it in training because he knows it is so hard. Yet he also knew when to attack to distance Alejandro Valverde, Wout Poels, Vincenzo Nibali and Powless, so he could ride solo to victory in the centre of La Vieille. He spontaneously threw his sunglasses away as he celebrated and savoured the biggest win of his career.
"It's a tough climb, really steep in the beginning," he recalled. "Sometimes it's good to know the climb, other times not too much but it helped me that day to have that home advantage."
Kuss' next step up came at the Vuelta, even if there was not with the same fanfare and headlines of the Tour de France.
One step at a time
At the start of the season, he and Steven Kruijswijk were expected to lead Jumbo-Visma in Spain in the third Grand Tour of the season. However, Roglič crashing out of the Tour de France changed all that and he returned for a third consecutive victory.
"For me, it was actually better that Primož was there because realistically I'm not up there fighting for the podium yet," Kuss says.
"A top ten would have been a big step up for me and so finishing eighth was even better. I had some good days and some lesser days, too, but it was one of my most consistent Grand Tours, so that's a step up. In the future, I hope to be even better and maybe shoot for a podium. But I've got to take it step by step."
"At the moment I'd rather win a stage in a Grand Tour than finish fourth overall. Give me a super day and a stage win any time rather than hanging on. I have really good days but then can have really bad days. Figuring out all that is the key to my future."
Jumbo-Visma coach and directeur sportif Addy Engels sees a similar career trajectory for Kuss, pushing him to improve but also staying realistic about the team hierarchy, with Kuss below Roglič, Vingegaard, Kruijswijk and Tom Dumoulin.
"He's still developing and can get better," Engels tells Cyclingnews.
"I think that was actually good for Sepp that Primož came into the Vuelta as team leader. It meant he could ride in his shadow and learn from a team leader like Primož. Sepp had a job to do too but he was up there to make the top ten and learned so much in Spain.
"He made a big step up but there are more steps to make to become more consistent. Even at the Vuelta, he was with the best five climbers and then on another day he was not with the best 25 climbers. But he has time to make that step."
Kuss climbs lightly when dancing on the pedals in the mountains. If anything it is the sense of expectation that seems to weigh him down.
"When you get certain results, people expect more of you," Kuss says.
"I'm not talking about the team but of the wider public and people who follow the sport. I always give my best but then perhaps don't win. That makes some people confused. But this sport is not easy, there are so many guys in every race."
Kuss ended the 2021 season with 73 days of racing and hundreds of hours of training rides in Andorra and Alpine training camps in his legs.
Settled in Andorra with former rider Noemi Ferré, Kuss recently showed off his ever-improving Spanish when talking live on the La Vuelta Twitch chat. He opted to stay in Europe for his offseason, with family visiting him in Andorra, before a trip to the USA for the holidays at the end of the year.
He does not yet know his race programme for 2022 and if he will step up into a leadership role at the Giro d'Italia or Vuelta a España or play an important team role for Roglič at the Tour de France.
"The Tour is always a big focus for the team but I don't yet know if I fit into that plan or will go for other races," he said without pretence.
"For me, I like to do new races and test myself, so I'd like to give the week-long in the spring a good shot too. But most of all I just want to keep on building and keep on improving."
One step at a time.
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