Just two years after taking up road racing full time, former mountain biker Sepp Kuss is heading to the WorldTour with LottoNL-Jumbo on a two-year deal announced last month. It's a scenario that seemed improbable even to Kuss not too many months ago.
The 23-year-old American sprung onto the US domestic radar in 2016 at the Redlands Bicycle Classic in April, winning the Queen stage as an unknown from an amateur team in front of former Garmin-Sharp riders Lachlan Morton and Janier Acevedo.
He followed Redlands with a solid ride among the best climbers at the Tour of the Gila, and Rally Cycling signed him soon after. Since then, the three-time US Collegiate Mountain Bike Champion, who graduated from Colorado University in Boulder this May with an advertising degree, has been on a rocket-ship ride to the sport's top level.
“If you had asked me last year or in 2015 if I'd be on a WorldTour team, I would think that would be kind of a crazy spot to be in. But here I am, so I'm ready to embrace it," he told Cyclingnews last week from his parents' home in Durango, Colorado, before heading to the Netherlands for a first meeting with the team this week.
Kuss went on in 2016 with Rally to win the Queen stage at the Tour de Beauce, an infamous test that ends with the multiple switchbacks up to Mont Megantic. He rode the Tour de l'Avenir with the US national team but struggled, and he admits that his season ended with more of a whimper than a roar, but his raw talent was obvious and the potential was there.
An early wake-up call
In 2017, Kuss' first full season with Rally, he started with a February trip across the Atlantic for the one-day Vuelta a Murcia in Spain won by Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and the five-stage Volta ao Algarve in Portugal won by future LottoNL-Jumbo teammate Primoz Roglic. Kuss and his Rally teammates suffered on the trip, and the young American finished 45th in Murcia and 76th overall at Algarve. It was an inauspicious beginning, but it set him up well for the rest of the year.
“The first trip was tough,” Kuss said. “It's hard going over there. For us it was our first races of the season, and it was a pretty high level of racing to jump right into. Just from a positioning standpoint and fitness standpoint, it was hard to jump into that. But once we kind of re-calibrated and came back to the US and had all that success at Tour of California, pretty much every race we did in the US we had a ton of success, so we were all pretty confident.”
Kuss returned to the US and finished fifth in the Joe Martin Stage Race opening time trial, a short uphill blast well suited for explosive climbers. He went back to the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico and finished eighth overall while supporting teammate Evan Huffman's overall win.
Sepp Kuss upsets the favourites at the 2016 Redlands Bicycle Classic. (Jonathan Devich/Epicimages.us)
Striking gold in California
Up next at the Tour of California, the first WorldTour race for Kuss and his team, Huffman scored two stage wins, including a one-two finish with teammate Rob Britton, while Kuss finished 10th on the Queen stage to Mt. Baldy, the first non-WorldTour rider to cross the line on the summit finish.
“It was awesome,” Kuss said of the California race. “Our GC hopes kind of took a turn for the worse after the second stage, but that allowed us to race a bit more aggressively because we kind of had nothing to lose. That ended up with Evan and Rob being in those breakaways and Evan winning the two stages.
“After I was out of the GC picture, I said, 'OK, Baldy is going to be my chance to do something.' That stage was pretty good for me, and it was, again, a good confidence booster that I could be up there with some really good climbers on a tough stage and a tough climb. I'd say overall it's just important to have that confidence in those big races against top-level guys.”
At Canada's Tour de Beauce in June, Kuss came in third on the summit finish of the Mont Megantic stage, finishing behind stage winner and teammate Matteo Dal-Cin. Kuss showed his improvement in the race against the clock with a third-place finish in the time trial stage, but then had to abandon the final stage after Britton launched a solo move that decimated the field on the unrelentingly tough circuit race.
Kuss lit up the rest of the season from there, finishing second to BMC's Brent Bookwalter in the stage 2 summit finish at Snow Basin in the Tour of Utah and taking the lead of the 2.HC race. He surrendered the leader's jersey to Britton the next day in the uphill time trial and then rode in support of his Canadian teammate's general classification win, finishing ninth overall along the way.
“I'd say this season, performance-wise, I was really happy with it,” he said. “I started racing earlier than I ever had, and I was able to be consistent throughout the season. In 2016, about halfway through the year I was just kind of running on fumes, because even with not that many races days it was still more than I had ever done on the mountain bike. And just the training volume; on the mountain bike I was riding maybe nine hours a week.
“So 2016 was physically a big, big jump for me, and then this year in 2017, I was just really happy to be a factor in all the races, whether it was for my own result or helping a teammate, but I was happy to be more or less pretty consistent throughout the year.”
He kept the pressure on at the inaugural Colorado Classic, finishing sixth overall after being in contention for the win on the Queen stage in Breckenridge but crashing in a tricky corner near the finish. His talent was on display again at the Tour of Alberta, where he infiltrated a breakaway on stage 1 to Marmot Basin Ski Area and cleaned up second place after Huffman soloed to the stage win and eventual overall victory. Kuss remained solid throughout the stage race and finished second overall behind his teammate.
Kuss ended his season back in Europe with a string of one-day races topped off with the two-day Tour de Gévaudan Languedoc-Roussillon in France.
“I was happy to have as many race days as I could, because I felt like literally every race I did I was getting better and more comfortable riding in the pack or doing some sort of role for the team,” he said. “I think every race there was some new opportunity for me or some new learning experience, so every race just kind of built on itself.
“Overall I would say I was on a pretty similar level all season, and that allowed me to be reliable for the team at every single race,” he continued. “But, again, I wasn't sure how I'd feel late in the season, because in 2016 I was worthless after July, for whatever reason. But this season it felt like every race I did I was getting better and better. That was really exciting for me.”
Kuss takes a corner at the Tour of Alberta while wearing the KOM jersey. (Jonathan Devich/Epicimages.us)
Bangin' bars in Italy
Kuss started the September European trip in Austria with eighth place in Raiffeisen Grand Prix Jugendorf, where teammate Adam de Vos took the win. He fought for 17th at Coppa Agostini won by Michael Albasani (Orica-Scott) in a bunch sprint, then took 14th at Coppa Bernocchi in another field sprint won by Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida). He was 38th in Memorial Marco Pantani and ended his season with 13th on final day of the race in France.
“When we did the European trip at the end of the season, I think that confidence showed and we were really happy with the results we had there,” Kuss said. “Above all, it was a really good experience, and Adam got that win at the one-day race in Austria and we were able to factor into the Italian one-day races as well. It was a better showing at the end of the year.”
The growth in Kuss' own comfort level at navigating the aggressive UCI packs on the narrow, trickier European roads was also on display along with his consistent form as the rider known for his climbing prowess rubbed elbows with top sprinters on the Italian roads.
“I had a lot of fun actually in those Italian races,” he said. “It was super important for me to just get the feel for fighting in position. You'd go out and do a number of circuits, and every circuit you could kind of get a better feel for your own positioning, and for me it was just a big deal to understand how important it was to be at the front. And once I kind of figured that out through those Italian races, I could actually be a part of the race, following attacks or racing aggressively, which is fun because you can actually factor into the race.
“There would be a select group and then it would come back together for a larger reduced-bunch sprint in the end. I have a decent sprint, I guess, for a skinny guy, so it was fun to mix it up with those guys, bangin' elbows. A lot of it is just being in position with 1km to go and then hanging on for dear life – kind of fun.”
Sepp Kuss, Evan Huffman and Alex Howes on the final Tour of Alberta podium. (Jonathan Devich/Epicimages.us)
Getting the call from LottoNL-Jumbo
Kuss said he has been in contact with LottoNL-Jumbo since the Tour of California, where his performance on Baldy's slopes got the Dutch team's attention, and things proceeded at a steady clip from there.
“They were impressed with the Baldy stage, and so shortly after California I did a performance test with them,” he said. “I showed them some power files, and from there a lot of it was between them and my agent, but I was in contact with them on-and-off through the Tour of Utah and then through Colorado as well. I think they just wanted to see that I could ride at a similar level throughout the rest of the season.”
Kuss will learn more this week in the meetings with coaches and managers what his 2018 race programme will look like, but he can likely expect an increase in the 49 race days he put in this year. Alexey Vermeulen, a young American who rode with LottoNL-Jumbo in 2016 and 2017, averaged 66 race days each season with the team.
And although Vermeulen will not be on the team year, Kuss will benefit from the company of fellow American Neilson Powless, the Axeon Hagens Berman rider who also recently signed a two-year deal with LottoNl-Jumbo. Powless is another mountain biker who moved to the road in 2016, and who, coincidentally, shot to into the US domestic spotlight with a time trial win at the same 2016 Redlands trace where Kuss took his breakout stage win.
“I'm super excited to have Neilson on the team,” Kuss said. “It will be great to have another American on the team, and I get along really well with Neilson. It will be good because we're kind of on the same page: both new to the team, both younger guys. I think I'll be able to learn a lot from Neilson and maybe he'll be able to learn a lot from me. He's an extremely talented rider and a good guy, too, so I was excited when I saw that they'd signed Neilson as well.”
It's been a quick trip to the WorldTour for Kuss, one that he didn't necessarily anticipate would happen so fast, if at all. But the young rider has shown the mettle to endure the lifestyle, adapt to the next level at each jump so far and learn quickly along the way. He's put himself in a good position, now he's just got to make it to the finale and hold on.
“In 2015 when my mountain bike sponsorship fell through, that's kind of when I started looking for the opportunities on the road, and at that time it was a big transition and I thought, 'Yeah, I'll do this for a bit, and if it doesn't work out I'll just continue with my education – which I did anyway – and just look for a real job.' But then when I found success on the road bike, I thought, 'This is super fun and I want to keep going with it.' So, yeah, here I am now.”