Kuss aiming to summit the learning curve in second year with Rally

For Sepp Kuss, the 22-year-old climbing sensation who will be starting his second year with Rally Cycling this weekend at Vuelta a Murcia, the 2017 season will almost seem like a vacation.

Kuss, an accomplished mountain biker who moved to full-time road racing last year, signed with the US Continental team mid-season after upsetting the apple cart at the Redlands Bicycle Classic by winning the Oak Glen queen stage ahead of Lachlan Morton (now with Dimension Data) and Janier Acevedo (now with Unitedhealthcare).

The promotion to pro racing created a busy schedule for Kuss, who is also pursuing an advertising degree from Colorado University in Boulder and interned for Warren Miller Films in the fall.

"I got to work on their film tour, doing some marketing and advertising stuff for them," Kuss told Cyclingnews last month at the team's training camp in Southern California. "That was super interesting. It was a busy fall doing that. I had 17 credits and then the internship. It was pretty busy, but I enjoyed it."

Kuss was also racing with the USA Cycling development program at the end of last season, trying to add more European experience to his cycling resume. Now he's got just two online courses to manage before an expected early graduation in May, and he's ready to turn all his focus toward racing.

Unlike last season, when Kuss started his year at regional US races with an elite amateur team, his 2017 campaign will throw him into the deep end of the pool in Europe with some of the World's top teams.

"We'll be going to some pretty high-level races early season in Europe," Kuss said. "I'll be doing Murcia, and then Volta ao Algarve, so they'll be some very tough races. I'm not really going in with any expectations in particular. I just want to take it all in and learn what I can from my experienced teammates and the other riders in the peloton, because this is going to be the biggest race I've ever done."

In Murcia, Kuss will be racing against riders like Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Matthew Hayman (Orica-Scott), Ion Izzagirre (Bahrain-Merida) and Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), while the field will be even more stacked at the five-day 2.HC Volta ao Algarve, won the past two years by Team Sky's Geraint Thomas.

Algarve is the race that saw former Rally rider Michael Woods [now with Cannondale-Drapac] launch into the big leagues in 2015 with a fifth-place finish on the queen stage behind some of the sport's biggest names. Kuss is excited to test his own climbing talents there, as well as getting his first time trial opportunity of the new season.

"It seems like this route will have some shorter finishing climbs, which I think suits me really well, more explosive climbs where you are full gas," Kuss said. "Then there's a time trial stage in the middle, so that's one area I'd really like to improve on. The more you race those time trials the better you get at them. I'm excited to do that."

Rally's European spring will continue at the Volta ao Alentejo February 22-26 and the Tour de Normandie March 20-26. USA Cycling's Pro Road Tour begins March 30 with the Joe Martin Stage Race, and the Tour of the Gila, where Kuss finished fourth on the opening stage to Mogollon and briefly led the best young rider competition before finishing 14th overall, starts on April 19.

"I think as far as the early season, Tour of the Gila will be a big one for me," Kuss said. "Coming from altitude that's usually not an issue for me, and the climbs suit me pretty well. It's a pretty balanced race. So I think that will be my primary goal since I've done it before.

"And then Tour of California if all of the UCI politics work in our favour. But any race I go to I'd like to perform well and have a consistent spring. I'd like to be at a high level all spring and then shut it down mid-season, then ramp up again for those races in Colorado, Virginia and Utah. I haven't seen the courses for Virginia and Colorado, but I imagine they'll be pretty good for me, so I'm looking for a strong second half of the year as well."

Aside from seeking out his own opportunities and contributing to his teammates' success, Kuss said, his focus for 2017 will be to strengthen his weak spots and to continue adjusting to the ever-longer and harder races he'll face as he dives deeper and deeper into road racing.

"Time trials and then just handling stages where it's a long stage with multiple climbs, just kind of managing my energy throughout those longer stages with those repeated efforts," he said when asked what he needs to work on this year.

"That's a lot of what you'll find in Europe and what you won't find much of in the US,” Kuss said. "So coming from that US racing scene where it's flat, flat, flat and then climb to the finish, I feel pretty confident in those stages. But stages where it's 30 minute climbs throughout the race, that's something that I still need to work on. But I think this season I'm feeling good with the higher work load and everything, so I think all that will be a natural progression to get used to those more sustained, harder stages."

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.