Hailed as “The Durango Kid,” Sepp Kuss accomplished the greatest feat by an athlete in the storied history of the Colorado mountain town Sunday.
Kuss, 26, can now call himself a stage winner of the Tour de France. He is only the 11th rider from the United States to win a stage of the event in its 108-year history, and he is the first American since Tyler Farrar in 2011 to celebrate victory at the world’s most famous race.
“I am in total disbelief,” Kuss said. “I never would have imagined winning a stage in the Tour, especially this year because I never felt super good in the stages leading up to this. To do it shows that you always need to believe in yourself and keep trying. If you work hard and enjoy what you’re doing, something good always comes from it. That’s what I was thinking about after the race, was the hard work and my love for doing it.”
Following a route that traveled directly past his new residence in Andorra, Kuss would mount a solo attack three miles before the summit on the last of four categorized climbs Sunday. Chased only by Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, a four-time Tour de France stage winner, Kuss built a 25-second advantage going over the top of Col de Beixalis with a steep gradient of 8.5%.
“I don’t ride to Col de Beixalis much in training because it’s so hard, but I knew if I had a good gap, I’d stay away till the finish,” Kuss said. “I felt confident in my descending. But there was a lot of headwind on the flatter part to the finish, so I was still a bit nervous with the gap. I was suffering like crazy the last two kilometers to keep driving away.”
With a ripping descent into Andorra la Vella, the capital city of the country nestled between France and Spain in the Pyrenees mountains, Kuss had to fight with everything he had to hold off the charging Valverde, the 2018 world champion long heralded as one of the most explosive finishers in the peloton.
Kuss would keep Valverde at bay, as he finished the 118.9-mile Stage 15 in 5 hours, 12 minutes, 6 seconds. Valverde, who was 23 seconds behind Kuss, found the 2013 graduate of Durango High School at the finish area, and the two exchanged congratulations in Kuss’ newly learned tongue of Spanish.
“At the finish, he just said, ‘Job well done.’ We were both saying how hard it was and how hard we were going over the climb and also in the headwind all the way to the finish,” Kuss said. “For me, it’s nice when a rider like Valverde, who has won so many races and been in cycling for so long tells you ‘good job’ at the end of a race.”
Going into this year’s Tour de France, Kuss quickly noticed the Stage 15 route that would ride from the French communue of Céret and into Andorra, where he and his girlfriend, Noemi Ferré, are in the process of building a home.
“Today, I knew it was finishing where I live, so I was motivated for the stage. My girlfriend and her family stood on the final climb to cheer me on, so I am really happy that I won here,” Kuss said. “I also didn’t want to overthink it or target it too much coming into today. If it doesn’t go well, then you’re more disappointed. I needed to take every day as it came, and today I focused on doing the race one step at a time, getting through each moment and do the best I could in the end.”
‘The Durango kid’
Viewers in Durango tuned into the race on NBC Sports, where commentator Bob Roll, also a longtime Durango resident, was on the microphone to provide color commentary. As Kuss surged, Roll referenced Kuss’ upbringing in the Durango Devo cycling program that has turned out dozens of national champions and a handful of Olympians and world cycling stars.
In Winter Park, scene of the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships, Devo athletes huddled together in the team house to watch their hero climb and then twist and turn his way to victory.
“Made me cry today,” said Devo co-founder and coach Chad Cheeney, long credited for sparking Kuss’ love for the bike at a young age. “So proud of Sepp, that smile, that dig. He’s one hell of a bike rider. I’m at mountain bike nationals, and everyone here was cheering for him. A legend in the making.”
In Italy, 2021 mountain bike Olympian Christopher Blevins of Durango also watched in awe of an accomplishment of a hometown rider only three years his elder who he used to chase around at local races.
“I talked about hometown heroes last week, and Sepp was absolutely part of that list for me growing up,” Blevins said. “He’s still one of, if not the pro cyclist, I look up to the most, so today’s win was incredible on a number of levels.”
Since the first mountain bike world championships in 1990 at Purgatory Resort north of Durango, the town has been a hub for many of the top cyclists in the world. Success has primarily come on the mountain bike. Ned Overend, winner of that 1990 race, was one of several world champions who would call Durango home in the years after. With the formation of the Fort Lewis College and Devo cycling programs, Durango has remained a force, with four men’s mountain bikers representing the U.S. at the last six Olympics and a junior road world champion in Quinn Simmons, now a WorldTour rider for the Trek-Segafredo team.
Kuss grew up winning national championships in mountain biking. He went to the University of Colorado and continued to race for the club team, and he won two more collegiate mountain bike titles before he gained an opportunity to race on the road. His natural climbing ability quickly saw him rise from small local squads to continental team Rally Cycling and then to a contract with Team Jumbo-Visma on the WorldTour in only a matter of three years.
It’s all come from a community of 20,000 residents lauded for having the most Olympians and national and world champions per capita than any town in the U.S.
Kuss called it an honor to put together the performance during mountain bike nationals, a weekend that has always meant so much to Durango cycling.
“To do it for everyone at home, especially all the young Devo kids, it’s special. I wouldn’t be here without that upbringing in Durango and Devo and that love for cycling,” Kuss said. “As they teach in Devo, you ‘Never Forget the Feeling,’ and to take that feeling and love of riding bikes to the biggest stage in cycling, it’s really incredible for me. I hope everybody gets some inspiration from it.”
‘I can feel their emotion’
Kuss’ father, a two-time Olympic coach of Nordic skiing at the 1964 Winter Games in Austria and 1972 in Japan, watched his son’s ride Sunday from the family home in Durango. Normally quiet while consuming sporting events, Dolph was as animated as ever Sunday as he urged his son up the climbs and summoned him to take risks to keep Valverde away on the descent.
“By the time one of those climbs is over, I am exhausted,” said Dolph, an inaugural Durango Athletic Hall of Fame inductee. “I normally don’t make very much noise, but when I watch him take off like that, I feel like a sucked orange when it’s done. I have felt that way about some other athletes as I’ve watched them, but it’s different when it’s your own son. It’s hard to verbalize the feeling.
“Between participation at the Olympics, participation in the WorldTour and world championships, we’ve all kind of talked about how the peak achievement would certainly be winning a Grand Tour stage. Even beyond that, to do it at the Tour de France would be the biggest accomplishment. Even an Olympic win doesn’t take the type of perseverance like a 21-day race and the conditioning and mental skills it requires. If I reflect back on my time in Durango, this at present is the top achievement.”
Kuss’ mother, Sabina, is known for screaming to her son through the television in hopes of willing him to victory. She savored every second of her son’s performance Sunday. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he hasn’t been able to travel to the U.S. to see his family since winter of 2019. But Sabina felt as though she was there in Andorra alongside his girlfriend and her family to cheer him to victory.
And while watching him rip through the descent to the finish line, Sabina said it was the first time she ever felt calm watching him ride downhill. He reached a top speed of 50 mph and averaged 36 mph on the way down after he had averaged a stunning 12.7 mph on the last climb.
“Anytime Sepp does something like he did today, it’s truly a treasure,” Sabina said. “It’s unbelievable. Today felt like watching him at the Tour of Utah in 2018. It brought me back to where I saw him flash that big grin and the huge relief he expressed at the finish line when he won that race. That’s when we first saw he could be a winner, but we have never taken it as if it is supposed to happen.
“With this year’s Tour being so difficult with all the crashes, seeing what he did today – and this is no slight to Olympians – but this was an Olympic kind of win for Sepp. It just spoke so much to what he can do.”
After the race, Kuss was quick to phone his parents, as he does after any race.
“They put the same amount of energy into every stage as I do,” Kuss said. “Even the days that maybe aren’t worth watching, they put in the hard hours in front of the TV. They are my biggest supporters, and I can feel their emotion even though I am across an ocean.”
Going into his debut Tour de France in 2020, Kuss already had a stage win at one of the three famed 21-day Grand Tours with a 2019 victory at the Vuelta a España. Coincidentally, that win also came on the 15th stage.
“I don’t know if 15 is my favorite number, but maybe it says that the second week is good for me,” Kuss joked. “It takes awhile to get my engine running.”
Slovenia’s Primož Roglic would go on to be crowned overall champion of the 2019 Spanish Vuelta for a second consecutive year with Kuss as his primary helper, and Roglic wanted Kuss with him when he went for victory in France the next year.
Iconic climbing performances by Kuss helped keep Roglic in the leader’s yellow jersey for the majority of the 2020 race. But a poor individual time trial saw Roglic surrender the lead to fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar on the penultimate day, and Roglic had to settle for second.
For his incredible showing, Kuss was awarded a rich new contract to remain with Jumbo-Visma for another three years.
This year, the goal again was to see Roglic wear yellow into Paris. But it was never to be. He withdrew from the race after Stage 8 because of his injuries, and the rest of the team was given some freedom to pursue individual results.
“There’s definitely less pressure. We are racing in a different way than we normally would with Primož,” Kuss said.
Belgian national champion Wout van Aert made the most of his chance on Stage 11, which featured two climbs of the famed Mont Ventoux.
Kuss, who was able to get through the wreckage in the first week largely unscathed, looked to his own opportunities in the Pyrenees mountains.
Sunday, it was Van Aert who aided Kuss through the descent of Port d’Envalira before Kuss was turned loose on the final climb.
“This was Sepp’s day,” Van Aert said. “He lives in Andorra, and he was looking forward to this stage. I’m happy he managed to get this amazing victory for him and for the team. He spends the whole year working for others, so it’s nice he gets his own chance.”
Kuss thanked the effort of Van Aert for helping deliver him to the last climb in position to attack.
“My team did a fantastic job today,” he said. “Wout was ahead of me in the whole valley. If a champion like that works for me, then I have to finish it off, too.”
With Pogacar more than five minutes ahead of Rigoberto Uran and poised to stay in the yellow jersey and win his second consecutive overall Tour de France title, the riders went into Monday’s final rest day only five stages away from the finish in Paris.
For Kuss, who is currently 49th in the standings after a top-15 overall finish a year ago, there will be more opportunities to show his strength on mountain climbs Wednesday and Thursday in the Pyrenees. But he said he will turn his primary attention into aiding teammate Jonas Vingegaard, who is third in the overall standings and only 14 seconds behind second place.
“I think after the stage success we have had so far and the way Jonas is riding, now we can be really happy and confident and give our best in this third week,” Kuss said. “I want to help Jonas to the podium. That would be a really successful Tour if we can do that.”
With Sunday’s historic stage win now in his pocket, Kuss will carry plenty of confidence for the final week, future Tour de France appearances and his upcoming co-leadership role next month at the Spanish Vuelta.
When he gets a chance to catch his breath during Monday’s rest day, he said he will reflect on all those who helped him get to Sunday’s finish line.
“When you are in a race and in the rhythm every day, sometimes it can feel just like any other bike race. But then maybe you zoom out a bit, and yeah, the Tour de France is a pretty big deal,” Kuss said. “You can get so absorbed in the moment. For me, it’s important to step back and realize that by showing yourself in a race like the Tour, you can do a lot more and inspire other people.
“There’s always a story behind every successful rider. The mentors and the people who helped them get to that point. That is something I will always be grateful for, and the support of everyone in Durango means so much on a day like today.”