‘A legend in the making’: Durango’s Sepp Kuss wins stage of Tour de France


Sepp Kuss

Cycling – Tour de France – Stage 15 – Ceret to Andorra La Vella – France – July 11, 2021 Team Jumbo–Visma rider Sepp Kuss of the U.S. celebrates on the podium after winning stage 15 REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

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.”


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