Sepp Kuss' domination of the climbing stages at the 2018 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah was so complete that when riders at the post-race press conference were told they'd have to wait a few more minutes for the overall winner to arrive from the award ceremony, Mitchelton-Scott's Jack Haig had a succinct response that summed up the week of racing.
"That's the first time we've had to wait for him all week," Haig said, lacking only a rimshot to complete his snarky one-liner.
Kuss claimed all three climbing stages in the race, soloing away on Mount Nebo during stage 2 to take the win in Payson and claim the yellow jersey. The LottoNL-Jumbo rider won Saturday's 'queen stage' with another solo move, and then completed his hat-trick with Sunday's solo ride into Park City. At the end of seven days, Kuss took the overall win by 2:09 over Ben Hermans (Israel Cycling Academy) and 2:22 over Haig.
Now the 23-year-old neo pro is set to make his Grand Tour debut later this month at the Vuelta a Espana.
"I'm definitely excited for it," Kuss said. "When I found out it was in the cards a few months ago, it definitely gave me lot of motivation. I don't know what it's going to be like, but it's going to be super-hard. I've never done anything like it, so I'll take it week by week and see how I feel about it."
Kuss said he was looking forward to working with, and for, George Bennett, LottoNL-Jumbo's likely leader in the three-week race.
"Obviously George is riding really well, so when you go there with a guy who could really perform in the race, you can bring it up another level," Kuss said. "It will be exciting to go there and help him out. I have a lot of confidence from this race, so I'm ready to give it my all for George."
Coming into form at the Dauphiné
Kuss admitted that his early spring with LottoNL-Jumbo did not go well. He raced mostly without significant results through the Tour of California, then found some form at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June before an extended rest at home.
"I'd say my form started to come around at the Dauphiné – just kind of out of nowhere, honestly," he said. "The races before, I wasn't really riding very well. I was pretty heavy, and then at the Dauphiné all of a sudden I was riding well and feeling like normal.
"That gave me confidence for the next few months of training. I was in Colorado the whole time at altitude, so that was also a big advantage for this race."
Kuss said the team's decision to let him go home to Colorado for nearly two months before starting things up again at Utah was key to his success.
"They let me have a nice rest and then just kind of do my training at home," he said. "I ate hamburgers every night and played badminton after dinner – a few US things, whatever that means – just being with family and friends. When you're happy and enjoying the training and the process, then you can have a lot of confidence for the race."
Kuss showed that confidence with another solo attack on Sunday. After the GC group he was in blew apart with Haig's attack, Kuss followed the Australian rider until they had solo leader Nathan Brown (EF Education First-Drapac) in their sights, then he leaped away from Haig and was soon next to Brown before the Empire Pass summit.
"Then he put it in the big chainring and attacked me," Brown said at the post-stage press conference. "No love."
While Kuss said he was "heartbroken" to drop his friend Brown, he powered away up and over Empire alone and onto a rain-soaked descent on the other side of the mountain into Park City. Kuss held off a late charge up the finishing straight from fast-closing Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) and Haig, and then held his arms aloft to celebrate his hat-trick of stage wins and the overall victory in the race where he finished ninth overall last year with American team Rally.
"This almost feels like a home race for me, aside from the Colorado Classic," Kuss said. "Coming from Durango, there's a lot of connection to the Utah area, so it's cool to see familiar faces.
"I think what makes the race special is all the fans. Everyone's super-enthusiastic and respectful, and it just kind of has that American flare. So it's fun to be here with the European guys."