All roads continue to lead up for mountain-biker-turned-road-revelation Sepp Kuss. The 21-year-old newcomer has already established himself as one of the top climbers on the North American domestic scene this year, and he's now hoping to expand his road racing knowledge with a European trip later this summer.
USA Cycling has taken notice of the 5-foot-11-inch, 130-pound natural climber, and Kuss [rhymes with moose, ed.] is working out plans to race with USA Cycling's U23 team across the Atlantic. But his next race will be this week's U23 national championships in Kentucky, where he and Rally Cycling teammate Curtis White will take on the relatively flat 177km race against a field that includes the usual Axeons Hagens Berman juggernaut.
"I don't know if the course will necessarily suit me, but it should shape out to be a pretty tough race," Kuss told Cyclingnews in a telephone interview last week after he returned from Tour de Beauce, where he won the queen stage at the top of Mont Megantic.
"Just being in any race I can do at this point will be good for me," he said of Nationals. "I'm looking forward to it. It's just me and Curtis White. We're the two Rally representatives, and I think we'll be up for the challenge."
So far in his first year of full-time road racing, the three-time Collegiate MTB champion, who represented the US in U23 race at the 2014 and 2015 MTB worlds, has been rising to the challenge. Like his own climbing style, Kuss' climb to the top of the domestic scene has been explosive.
Riding for the Gateway Harley Davidson U25 development team in April, the then-unknown Kuss won the Redlands Bicycle Classic queen stage to Oak Glen, then followed it up with a solid ride among the best climbers at the Tour of the Gila. Kuss' consistency got the attention of US Continental team Rally Cycling, which quickly signed him though the 2017 season.
"Sepp pretty much flew under the radar until Redlands," Rally Cycling Performance Director Jonas Carney told Cyclingnews. "After that we did some homework. It turned out that Sepp is friends with several guys who have raced for our team, and his family is well known in Durango by some close friends of our program. That made it an easy choice to bring him on board."
Kuss said he could see that Rally appeared to be a well-supported and well-run outfit that also rode well as a team in the races, so Carney's initial overtures were well received.
"I think they kind of wanted to see how I did at Gila as well," Kuss said. "After that [Redlands] win there were probably a lot of people thinking maybe it was kind of a one-off result or a one-hit-wonder kind of thing. So after that I felt like I still had quite a bit to prove, that I could still climb with the best."
Kuss backed up his Redlands stage win with a fourth-place finish during the Tour of the Gila's opening stage, which finished at the top of the Mogollon climb.
"I put in pretty good ride at Gila, and I think that probably sealed the deal, just showing that I can get it done when it's going uphill. It's all the stuff in between that I need to figure out," he said.
Sepp Kuss climbs Mont Megantic at Tour de Beauce. (Rob Jones).
Finding his place on the road
Kuss, who will turn 22 in September, is the son of Dolph Kuss, a Durango, Colorado, local legend who coached the US Ski Team in the 1960s and '70s. Kuss found mountain biking in his adolescence and immediately took to the sport. Like he has on the road, he rose quickly to the top of the national scene and continued to race while attending college at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he plans to graduate next year with a degree in advertising.
After two self-described up-and-down years off-road and the loss of his sponsorship, Kuss decided last season to split his time between the road and the mountain bike. He rode for Intermountain-Livewell out of Utah and used stage races like Gila and the Cascade Cycling Classic as tune up for his MTB goals.
"That was a bit harder than I thought it would be, just because nowadays road and mountain bike are so different," he said. "The World Cup mountain bike racing style is so explosive and specific. It's just totally different racing compared to the road. That's what motivated me to go on the road full time this year.
"Doing those couple stage races last year I realized you could still be a factor in the race even if you're not the strongest guy, whereas on the mountain bike it's almost predictable. You have to have a good start and then you go flat out for however long. It's like a time trial. Road racing is pretty dynamic. You can be a factor in the race whether it's winning or helping out the team.
"Mountain biking, at least for me, was a lot of mental stress, just being focused on that one day of racing where there were so many variables," he said. "On the road you have four, five hours to watch the race play out or make the race. It was kind of freeing for me. I kind of removed any expectations and just have fun with it now. I have nothing to lose."
In the off-season, Kuss set up a deal with the Gateway Harley Davidson team, then narrowed his focus toward success on the road. For the first time, he went into the season with the mindset that he was a road racer. His training was more focused, with considerably more volume and consistency. And there were some lifestyle changes, too.
“Maybe having a little bit less fun in college. Tone it down a little bit," Kuss said. "Focusing on the road solely this year has been a bit easier on me mentally."
Kuss started racing in Arizona in February, then faced his first big test against a national-quality field in the short uphill time trial at the San Dimas Stage Race. He placed fifth in the stage won by former WorldTour rider Janier Acevedo (Jamis), but it wasn't the type of extended climbing he seems to prefer. Following San Dimas, he went to Redlands, where his stage 2 win ahead of Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) and Acevedo was a shocker. The 9km climb to Oak Glen after 115km of racing was the perfect set up for Kuss to surprise the favourites.
"The big thing for me, at least coming from mountain bike, was conserving energy and not riding like a mountain biker, saving it for when it really mattered," he said. "It was definitely a learning experience, so it was awesome to come away with that stage win."
His solid performance at the Gila, where he also finished 10th in the relatively flat Fort Bayard stage, boosted his confidence and helped land his current spot with Rally. The next stop was the top of Mont Megantic, where his stage win at the end of a hectic day of racing closed the door on any talk that he was just a mountain biker taking a short detour on the road.
"As much as I love the mountain bike and appreciate all the support I got on the mountain bike, at the end of the day you want to always strive for the top level and getting results at the top level, and I think I found that on the road," he said. "You can be a different factor in different races, and I think that's incredibly motivating. I think I'd like to stick with the road."
Sepp Kuss in time trial mode at the Tour de Beauce (Casey B. Gibson)
Built like a slightly smaller Chris Froome, Kuss looks like a natural on the road bike, and he obviously climbs like a prodigy. He appears to have a sharp learning curve and a ton of natural talent. He's in a good spot with Rally, which is the team that helped take Giant-Alpecin's Chad Haga, a collegiate rider who signed with Rally midway through 2011, to his current spot in the WorldTour. Kuss will need to continue to improve his all-around talents if he wants to follow Haga's path, however.
"Sepp is an incredible climber, but he needs to work on some other things to be a GC contender," Carney said. "He just started on the road and he is learning fast. With the guidance of our directors and riders we expect him to progress quickly."
Kuss is on the same page as Carney. He knows his climbing skills are prodigious, but he needs to learn the intricacies of racing – the ability to remain calm and save energy – that make the difference at the end of a long day. And after watching himself tumble down the general classification in time trials, he knows he's got to get better at the race against the clock.
"I think the base fitness is there for time trialing, but I've never been in the wind tunnel or anything like that to have my position dialed in at all," he said. "So over the winter I'd like to work on that. Just being able to climb well and hold my own in the time trial rather than climbing well and then losing a minute or two minutes in the time trial, which puts me on the back foot a bit. I think that's the number one thing as far as GC is concerned.
"And then I think in general just kind of getting more racing experience, especially in races that don't necessarily suit me, and learning how to float around the pack a little bit better, when to be in the front and when to be relaxing. Ideally all that would prepare me to perform well in Europe."
Sepp Kuss rides with teammate Rob Britton. (Casey B. Gibson)
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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.