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Meet Sepp Kuss, The American Cyclist Helping This Year's Tour de France Leader

By Peggy Shinn | Sept. 16, 2020, 3:30 p.m. (ET)

Sepp Kuss (number 16) and Primos Roglic (number 11) in the Col de la Loze of the Tour de France on Sept. 16, 2020 in Meribel, France.


They said today’s race, with two massive Alpine climbs, was the hardest stage of the 2020 Tour de France. 

And there, with 2 kilometers to go, was an American cyclist at the front of the race, dancing on his pedals up La Col de la Loz’s steep grades, setting tempo for his Jumbo-Visma team leader, Slovenian cyclist Primož Roglič, the man in the Tour’s yellow jersey.

His name is Sepp Kuss. And after he launched a key attack on a high alpine road above the French town of Méribel today, he helped Roglič get a gap on his nearest rival—Tadej Pogacar, also from Slovenia, who sits in second place overall. Kuss even led the race for a few minutes, but then dropped back to help his team leader. 

“I was just trying to set a good pace,” said Kuss, who is racing his first Tour de France. “And then I look back and there was a gap, and [stage winner Miguel] Lopez came across . I couldn’t stay with Lopez, so I backed off and tried to pace Primoz.”

Roglič finished second behind Lopez, but crucially, 15 seconds ahead of Pogacar, and Kuss crossed the line in fourth.

With four stages left in this year’s Tour, Roglič sits in first, 57 seconds ahead of Pogacar. 

Kuss has been the consummate teammate for Roglič—his chief lieutenant in key mountain stages. In fact, Kuss might be the best American climber since Andy Hampsten, who in the 1980s helped Greg LeMond win the Tour de France and then won a Grand Tour himself (the 1988 Giro d’Italia).

So who is this young American who has helped Roglič maintain the Tour leader’s yellow jersey and might one day wear the yellow jersey himself?

Life in the Mountains
Sepp Kuss is a product of the mountains. He was born in Durango, Colorado, and his parents, Dolph and Sabina Kuss, were cross-country skiing with their baby when he was just a couple months old.

Sabina is a long-time cross-country ski instructor at Durango Nordic and a world masters competitor, and Dolph competed for the national Nordic ski team in the 1950s, then coached the U.S. Ski Team from 1963-1972 and at two Olympic Winter Games (1964 and 1972). He was also the first men’s ski coach at Fort Lewis College in Durango and helped develop several NCAA champions.

The Kuss side of the family also has high-mountain blood. Sepp’s great-grandparents immigrated to Leadville, Colorado (elevation 10,151 feet) from Slovenia and Italy in the 1800s for the mining opportunities, and Dolph grew up there. He moved to Durango in the 1950s.

Durango is nestled at the foot of the San Juan Mountains, and it was in these mountains where the Kusses spent every summer on raft trips and taking week-long pack trips with their three burros. Baby Sepp rode atop Hilda, a burro with maternal instincts. If he dropped his baby bottle or his stuffed cat, or if his little seat slipped, Hilda would stop.

“I don’t know if I’m getting too far-fetched, but being in the mountains, in that scenery and the slow steady rhythm of hiking with burros, in all seriousness, I think that had something to do with the incredible calmness that Sepp has,” said Sabina. 

When Kuss was old enough to hike alongside the burros, he carried his own pack.

“He never complained, and he never asked for anything,” said Sabina, who still marvels at her son’s demeanor. 

And he liked doing everything—from whitewater kayaking, which he started in first grade, to cross-country skiing to mountain biking to ice hockey. When cross-country ski races would conflict with hockey, Kuss invariably picked hockey. He didn’t want to let down his teammates.

“He always did what was purely in his heart,” said Sabina. “He never cared what his peers did.”

Nor was he competitive. Until the fifth grade.

That’s the year he announced that he wanted to be a pro hockey player. He was quick and agile on his skates. But a career as a pro athlete seemed far-fetched. 

Their son seemed too considerate, too kind for cut-throat sports. When the family traveled, Sabina would ask her son what he wanted to do.

“He would look at me and Dolph and say, ‘What would you and Papa like to do?’” explained Sabina. “He always put someone else first.”

And he had other interests—he learned German, liked to build bikes, and sang and played guitar. His repertoire included mostly Elvis Presley songs, “All Shook Up” being a favorite.
When he was 9, he did a solo stage performance for a friend’s wedding.

Sepp Kuss (second from left) poses for a photo with other cyclists.


While his hockey dreams soon faded—Kuss was too small for a sport that involved checking (5’11” and 134 pounds, according to his Wikipedia profile)—his cross-country skiing prospects looked good. From eighth grade through his junior year in high school, Kuss qualified for junior nationals.

But by senior year, Kuss was squarely focused on mountain biking and Durango High School’s team. It was a sport he had pursued for years, but just for fun. In fact, the Kusses had given up their much-loved pack trips because their son wanted to spend the summer mountain biking.

At first, he mountain biked with his mom, who also has a big aerobic engine. She often races the famed Iron Horse Classic—an annual 50-mile bike race from Durango to Silverton over two 10,000+-foot mountain passes—and has won her age group many times over.

“He always wanted to go with me,” she said, “and he would always wait at every junction.”

Even so, Sabina felt as if she were slowing her son down. So she sent him to ride with Chad Cheeney, co-founder of Durango’s DEVO program. He was leading a few other youngsters on Monday rides.

“Chad was perfect because he wasn’t ever about creating racers,” said Sabina. “It was getting together and just having a great time.”

Asked if he saw talent in young Kuss, Cheeney assumed he would grow up to be good at some sport, given his parents’ athletic pedigrees.

Still, Kuss did not look like he was on a path to become Durango’s next cycling legend. In junior races, Kuss usually finished behind his friends. But his parents didn’t care.

“The constructive post-race talk from his dad, his parents were so supportive,” said Cheeney. “Any result he got, they were super supportive.”

From Mountain Biking to Road Racing
Kuss graduated from Durango High School in 2013 and went to the University of Colorado in Boulder. There, he began showing his talents on two wheels. Around Boulder, he began capturing hill climbing KOMs (King of the mountains) on Strava. He also won three national mountain biking championships for CU-Boulder, and one collegiate road racing title.

“You knew he could do it if a team gave him a chance,” said Cheeney.

Kuss considered the pro mountain biking landscape. Domestic trade teams are few and far between, and the sport, for the most part, has become a points chase—a trek around the world in the hunt for UCI points so riders can earn better world cup start spots. Only the top-ranked riders, who start at the front of every world cup, have a shot at winning, he realized. His passion for mountain bike racing began to wane.

Around the same time, a Durango friend invited Kuss to join an amateur road racing team. He finished respectably in well-known stage races, The Tour of the Gila in New Mexico and the Cascade Classic in Oregon, that spring and summer.

The following season—2016—Sepp finished fourth in The Tour of the Gila’s first stage, the 3.8-mile Mogollon climb with steep gradients of 15 to 19 percent. Then he won a stage of the Redlands Classic in California, beating a couple of former WorldTour riders.

From there, Sepp’s ascent up cycling’s food chain was quick.

He was picked up by a domestic pro team and two days after he graduated from CU-Boulder with a degree in advertising, he competed in the Amgen Tour of California.

Kuss’s results—including a sixth place finish overall in the 2017 Colorado Classic—caught the attention of the Dutch team Jumbo-Visma. And he quickly proved his worth to his new team. Kuss dominated the 2018 Tour of Utah. A month later, he raced in his first Grand Tour, La Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain).

A couple of top twenty finishes in Spain earned him a spot at the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) for spring 2019, where he helped Roglič—a former ski jumper—finish third.

The opportunities kept mounting. In last year’s Vuelta, Kuss won a stage—his first Grand Tour victory—and helped Roglič win the overall title.

“He really likes the strategy of road racing,” explained Sabina, who had planned to go to France this summer to watch the Tour but was forced to cancel because of the Covid-19 pandemic. “He likes that there’s all types of scenarios where someone could win. It takes tactics, strategy, and teamwork.”

“He’s just so well-rounded,” explained Cheeney. “I think that’s why he’s gotten where he is. He wasn’t all-in on his engine at an early age.”

You knew he could do it if a team gave him a chance

Chad Cheeney, co-founder of Durango’s DEVO program

2020 Tour de France
After the Covid-19 lockdown last spring, which Kuss spent in Spain with his girlfriend Noemi Ferré, he won a mountain finish in the five-day Critérium du Dauphiné last month.

“I think everybody came out of the coronavirus break really motivated and fresh,” Kuss told the Durango Herald on the eve of the 2020 Tour de France. “Every day [of the Dauphiné] was full-on, and to come out of that and win on the last stage gave me a lot of confidence.”

Early on in the 21-stage Tour de France, Kuss showed how hard he would work for his team. In stage 4, he led out Roglič for the win. And every day since then, he has been part of the Jumbo-Visma train at the front of the peloton.

“Every day, I’ve been feeling better, much better than I felt in the first week, so that’s a nice feeling to have this far into the race,” Kuss said on Sunday—his 26th birthday.

This week, Kuss is in his element—the high mountain stages of the Alps. Yesterday, he helped Roglič finish second, and then he crossed the line in sixth place.

Then came today’s stage, with its finish atop La Col de la Loz, featuring torturous 24 percent grades. In the final 4 kilometers of the climb, all the top ranked men in the Tour standings were together. But Roglič was the only contender who had a teammate in the group—Kuss.

Kuss’s attack in the final 2 kilometers helped drop Pogacar off Roglič’s wheel. By the finish, Roglič finished 15 seconds ahead of Pogacar and earned a time bonus. Kuss ended up dropping off Pogacar but still finished fourth in the stage.

“The fact is every meter on this climb that you can have some help is really valuable,” said Roglič. “So for me it was really welcome that Sepp could do some meters for me. It was just a brutal climb.”

Kuss moved up to 15th place overall. But road cycling is a team sport, and his finish is secondary to Roglič’s overall Tour win. It’s never ‘I’ for Kuss, it’s ‘we.’ The Tour has four more days until it concludes in Paris on Sunday.

“Tomorrow is also a really tough stage,” said Kuss. “So we have to do our best and recover and be ready for another really hard day tomorrow.”

Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.