Sepp Kuss is having a May to remember.
The Durango native and recent graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder is in his second full season as a professional road cyclist for the Rally Cycling team. He had put together some strong results this week in the AMGEN Tour of California, but Thursday was his best day yet with a 10th-place finish in Stage 5. The stage played to Kuss’ climbing strength over 77.9 miles with 11,000 feet of elevation gain from Ontario to the finish at Mt. Baldy.
“I knew going into the race today it would be a really good stage for me,” Kuss said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “I conserved as much energy as possible on the hilly climbs and felt good toward the end. I played the first bit of the hills fairly aggressively, and I paid for it later on, but I really showed myself on the early part of the climb.”
American Andrew Talansky of the Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling Team won the stage in 3 hours, 43 minutes, 15 seconds to edge overall Tour of California leader Rafal Majka of Poland and the BORA-hansgrohe team from Germany. Majka finished in the same time. New Zealand’s George Bennett was another two seconds back in third place, with American Ian Boswell in fourth five seconds behind Talansky.
Kuss, 22, fought hard to stay with the lead group. He finished in 3:44:11, which was 56 seconds behind Talansky. Kuss edged Norway’s Vegard Stake Laengen to secure his place in the top 10 for the stage.
Kuss, who graduated from Durango High School in 2013, moved from 36th in the overall standings to 27th with Thursday’s result. His combined time of 20:01:35 is 13:38 behind Majka. Kuss is among some elite company in the UCI World Tour and USA Cycling Professional Tour event. He’s competing against many of the top riders in the world and is holding his own. He is nearly 15 minutes ahead of world champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia. Sagan won Stage 3.
Kuss and his team aimed to win the whole tour. A tough Stage 2 in which he finished 10:55 behind Majka eliminated that goal. He was disappointed with the stage but said he kept his focus going into Stage 3.
“For me, personally, I didn’t have the legs on the second stage,” he said. “Sometimes it’s tough for morale after disappointment like that. For me, it was just important to treat the rest of the race like I was still in it for the GC.”
Kuss, son of Dolph and Sabina Kuss, climbed from ninth to fourth in the Best Young Rider standings Thursday and is now only 36 seconds behind Sam Oomen of the Netherlands with two stages to go. Wednesday, he was 12:20 behind but erased nearly all of that deficit with Thursday’s top-10 performance. He said the Best Young Rider’s jersey was a goal of his going into the race, but the Stage 2 result made him stop tracking his progress in that competition.
“After that second stage, being 10 minutes back, I thought I was out of the picture,” he said. “We’ll see if I can come out with something at the end of the week, and I’d be super happy to. For now, I’ll be happy to have a good result on the last two stages and help my teammates the rest of the week.”
It has been a strong showing for Rally Cycling, as Evan Huffman and Rob Britton finished first and second in Stage 4 to help send the team to a stage win. Kuss said it was a blast to be part of that victory celebration with his teammates. The team is 10th in the standings, 30:12 behind Team Sky of Great Britain. BMC Racing Team of the U.S. is second, 6:23 back.
Kuss will return to Durango next week and plans to register for the road race at the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. He hasn’t competed in his hometown event since he was in high school and is looking forward to bringing Rally Cycling teammate Colin Joyce of Pocatello, Idaho, along with him. He’s also looking forward to giving defending champion Payson McElveen and Olympian and childhood friend Howard Grotts a run for the championship.
“I’ll be there,” Kuss said. “I’m looking forward to a good battle with all the Durango guys there, and I’m pretty excited to race it again.”
A win would be the perfect way to end a May that started with finishing his degree in advertising from CU-Boulder. He raced for the Buffaloes, signed a professional contract as a junior and still graduated in four years, an accomplishment worth celebrating.
“It’s been a pretty good last couple of weeks,” he said. “I actually had to move my graduation ceremony to make it to the team presentation for Tour of California, but that’s fine for me. It’s a race I’ve been training for for quite awhile now. I’m obviously super excited to finish my degree in four years and race at a high level throughout that time as well. But I’m going to miss being in school. Being a college kid is pretty special, but not too many people get to be an athlete out of school. It’s cool.”