A breakout season for Durango’s Sepp Kuss reached a new high Tuesday in Utah.
The 22-year-old finished second in a sprint with BMC Racing Team member Brent Bookwalter in the second stage of the Tour of Utah, a multi-day stage race under the Union Cycliste Internationale governance.
Better than his second-place finish to Bookwalter, one of the top road cyclists in the U.S., Kuss earned the yellow jersey as the Tour of Utah’s overall leader. The Rally Cycling team member has finished the first two stages in a combined 8 hours, 35 minutes, 1 second, the same time as Bookwalter and James Piccoli of the Elevate-KHS Pro Cycling team.
Kuss finished 22nd on Stage 1, while Bookwalter was 30th and Piccoli was 62nd. Kuss said the yellow jersey initially was to be awarded to Bookwalter, but further review of the two completed stages revealed Kuss was leading the race.
“It’s the first yellow jersey I’ve ever had,” Kuss said. “After the stage, I assumed Brent would be in it because he won the stage. They awarded it to him, and then they reviewed the time gap. As I was about to leave, they told me I was in yellow. It was certainly a surprise, but what a pleasant surprise. I’m really happy.”
There are seven stages at the Tour of Utah. Tuesday’s second stage covered 84 miles and features 6,900 feet of elevation gain from Brigham City to Snowbasin Resort. Over the last two years, Kuss has proved to be one of the top American cyclists on big climbing stages that feature a mountain-top finish. He finished 10th on the climb up Mt. Baldy at this year’s Tour of California, and he won the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic from Durango to Silverton. In 2016, Kuss had a big breakout on the Oak Glen Stage of the Redlands Classic in California as an amateur, beating WorldTour pros.
Tuesday, Kuss and his Rally Cycling team had a strong plan after pre-riding the route a week earlier. The ride ascended Sardine Canyon, a Category 3 climb, and circumnavigated the Wellsville Mountains of the Wasatch Mountains. After a sprint back through Brigham City, cyclists climbed North Ogden divide at a 10 percent gradient for more than three miles. The final 10-mile climb came on a 6 percent gradient until the finish on top of Old Snowbasin Road.
Bookwalter was first in 3:38:12, with Kuss second and Piccoli third in the same time. Nine other riders are only two seconds behind those three in the general classification standings.
“I had a good feel for it,” Kuss said of Stage 2. “The finish climb actually wasn’t too selective. It’s a faster climb and not incredibly steep. I had a plan to go for the sprint in a smaller group. The second-to-last climb over a big divide had a bit of selection. We had four guys in the group, and I was able to have a strong team presence going into the final climb. Adam De Vos had a really good attack near the base of the climb, and it took pressure off (Robert Britton) and I in the back of the peloton.
“Adam was riding super strong and was reeled in with 1 kilometer to go. There was a big headwind on the climbs, and the GC guys were all looking at each other. One rider took off, and I followed Brent and (Robin Carpenter), who I knew would be good on this kind of finish, and we sprinted with 200 meters to go. Of course, you always want the win, and maybe with better positioning I could’ve challenged a bit better for the win, but I’m pumped to be in yellow.”
Kuss, son of Dolph and Sabina Kuss, said wearing the yellow jersey should give him an extra boost for Wednesday’s 5.6-mile time trial stage. It is an uphill time trial through Big Cottonwood Canyon at an average gradient of 5.5 percent. As the overall leader, he will get to ride last and know exactly the time he will need to maintain the yellow jersey for a second day.
“I’ll count on the power of the yellow jersey for an extra ounce of energy,” he said. “It starts at 7,500 feet and finishes at (8.750 feet). The Iron Horse is good prep for that.”
Kuss, who graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder in May, finished 40th at this year’s USA Cycling road nationals in Tennessee. The former mountain biker has only turned his attention to road cycling for two years and still is learning with each stage and race completed. Though he has produced major results, he knows there is work to do as he attempts to become a well-rounded rider known for more than climbing and mountain-top finishes.
“As you progress as a rider, you put more expectation on yourself, and other people put that expectation on you,” he said. “You can get pigeon-holed as a certain type of rider. You have to stay grounded. Since I’m so new to this, I’m looking at big-picture progression and not getting caught up in the day-to-day things. I’m staying level-headed and developing as a well-rounded bike racer other than shooting for specific results.”
The Tour of Utah will conclude Sunday in Salt Lake City. Kuss hopes to stay in the hunt all week and help deliver for the Rally Cycling team, an American Continental team which is in second place of the team standings, 22 seconds behind BMC Racing Team, a WorldTour organization.
First, Kuss and his teammates will take Tuesday night to enjoy the success of the young rider.
“The team is firing on all cylinders,” Kuss said. “We will celebrate tonight with a few drinks, but this race is far from over.”