Sepp Kuss and Neilson Powless came into the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah with instructions from their Dutch LottoNL-Jumbo team to have fun and look for opportunities where they could find them. They found a big one during Wednesday's stage 2 in Payson, where Kuss went on a 52km solo breakaway to take the stage win and the yellow jersey, and Powless followed him across the line 29 seconds later to take second and claim second overall.
The 23-year-old Kuss now leads 21-year-old Powless by 21 seconds in the overall, with BMC Racing's Tejay van Garderen now third overall at 25 seconds. Rally Cycling's Kyle Murphy, who was third on the stage, is now fourth overall at 37 seconds.
Kuss is back in the yellow jersey he wore here for a stage last year when he rode for Rally Cycling, while Powless will retain the blue jersey of the best U23 rider. It's a big result on one of the biggest showcases in their home country.
"It's super cool," Kuss said of the stage result. "I think that's a special thing about LottoNL-Jumbo. The young guys get a lot of opportunities that they wouldn't on some of the bigger teams like Quick-Step, BMC or Sky. You wouldn't see a neo-pro getting a leadership role in any races, so I think that speaks to the development aspect of the team."
Kuss came into the stage 17 seconds down on overnight leader van Garderen, who took the jersey in Monday's prologue and successfully defended it through stage 1. When the GC fireworks started kicking off on the lower slopes of the 24km climb up Mount Nebo, Kuss jumped in with both feet.
"At the beginning of the climb I felt really strong, but I thought I'd wait until some of the GC guys started attacking and then maybe I'd try something on my own if I did feel good," Kuss said.
When Trek-Segafredo's Peter Stetina surged away from the GC group just a few kilometres into the climb, Kuss followed and then quickly dispatched Stetina.
"It was definitely a headwind, so once I passed Pete I started thinking maybe this wasn't the smartest decision, but I still felt really good and under my limit," Kuss said. "I just kept going at a reasonable speed and thought if they catch me they catch me, and I'll still have something in reserve.
"When I heard the time gaps were pretty stable, I thought, 'Yeah, well I'll just keep going,' but it wasn't the most pleasant experience out there riding into the headwind. I'm just happy I made it to the finish line."
Powless, meanwhile, was sticking to the GC group that contained van Garderen and his teammate, Brent Bookwalter, Mitchelton-Scott's Jack Haig, and EF Education First-Drapac's Hugh Carthy, Mike Woods and Joe Dombrowski. The LottoNL-Jumbo rider was gapped off near the top of the climb with several others, but he fought his way back to the group and started thinking about the finish.
"I was struggling in the group a little bit," Powless said. "I was just trying to stay within myself the whole time. That's the way I have to ride climbs, is just to try not to have a surge at all and stay within myself and pray that the group doesn't get too far away and I can come back. Luckily, I felt strong over the top and I was able to come back with Gavin Mannion and Brent Bookwalter."
Powelss realised that once he reconnected with the yellow jersey group, his prospects had improved dramatically.
"I knew if I came back it would be a good group finish for me, especially with the riders that were left," he said. "I was incredibly happy and at a loss for words going one-two on the stage, and I had a little time to celebrate. You don't usually get to celebrate when you finish second very often, but when your teammate finishes first and then you come across the line next, I think that's rather special."
Kuss had a shorter take on their result.
"Shake and bake," he interjected.
For Powless, it was a much better day than the last time he rode up Mount Nebo in 2016 with the Axeon team. On that day, teammate Adrien Costa finished second to Jelly Belly's Lachlan Morton, while Powless came in 11th, nearly four minutes down.
"This was definitely way better than the last time I did Mount Nebo," he said. "I really struggled a couple of years ago when I came up that climb. Luckily Adrien was super strong that day, so it was fun to be a part of. But I think today was more special.
"When Sepp went up the road, I was just following him, and the whole time I could hear our director in my earpiece, and I'm like, 'Sepp is incredible. He's definitely the top guy in the race right now. That's insane.'"
Told that Haig had also said Kuss was the strongest in the race, the young race leader was appropriately modest when asked if he also believed he was the stongest rider in Utah.
"Uh, no," Kuss said. "That's really nice of him, but there are still some really big favourites in this race, so we'll see. There are definitely some hard stages coming up, but now the team is in a position where I don't have to make a big move like I did today.
"But I certainly feel good and feel confident," Kuss said. "We have a really strong team here, and having Neilson in second is also a big advantage to us as well. I'm definitely looking forward to the rest of the race. It should be pretty fun."
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