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.