Protected by his teammates Friday, Sepp Kuss stayed in the yellow jersey for a third day at the Tour of Utah.
Kuss, a 23-year-old professional road cyclist from Durango, won Wednesday’s Stage 2 at the six-stage, seven-day Tour of Utah and assumed the UCI America Tour race’s overall lead. He has held onto that lead and the yellow jersey that comes with it going into the weekend’s final two stages.
Friday’s Stage 4 unfolded much the same as Thursday’s Stage 3, though the routes were drastically different. While Thursday’s ride was the longest of the week at 116 miles and Friday’s 68-mile stage was the shortest besides Monday’s opening time trial prologue, the finish played out nearly identical with Travis McCabe and Jasper Philipsen sprinting to the finish line together.
While McCabe of the UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team won Thursday’s sprint, Friday’s stage win went to Philipsen of Hagens Berman Axeon in a tight photo finish decided by an inch.
Nothing changed atop the general classification standings Friday. Kuss finished the 10-lap, 68-mile circuit route through Salt Lake City in 10th place. He finished in the same time as Philipsen’s 2 hours, 35 minutes, 4 seconds. Kuss was one spot in front of 303Project rider Griffin Easter, a Fort Lewis College cycling alum who calls Durango home.
Kuss’ five-day-total time of 14 hours, 29 minutes, 28 seconds is still 19 seconds ahead of his Team LottoNL-Jumbo teammate Neilson Powless and 25 seconds ahead of third-place Tejay van Garderen of the BMC Racing Team. Van Garderen had held the yellow jersey after Monday’s time trial and Tuesday’s Stage 1 before Kuss took it over Wednesday.
Kuss, regarded as the best climber at this year’s Tour of Utah, was not looking forward to Friday’s stage.
“I think (Friday) will be one of the more stressful days just because it’s a shorter stage, a pretty tough profile, a technical circuit,” he said Thursday night in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “It makes it harder to control. It’s a matter of staying calm.”
Kuss’ team protected him well for the second consecutive day. When an early break of 15 riders rode away from the peloton, the LottoNL-Jumbo team rode at the front of the peloton to stay out of the middle of the massive pack of riders. The team then worked on the final lap and a half to bring in the break riders and set up the mass sprint finish for a second consecutive day. Kuss, as he did Thursday, stayed out of the sprint and rode on the outside to avoid any potential crashes.
Powless went on to finish the stage in 21st, one spot ahead of Van Garderen. A total of 57 riders were credited with the same finishing time as Philipsen, including Griffin Easter’s brother Cullen, who was 56th. Griffin Easter is in 29th place overall, 5:08 back of Kuss. Cullen Easter is sitting in 45th, 14:52 back.
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FLC cycling alum Cormac McGeough, an Irishman riding for the Jelly Belly/Maxxis team, finished the stage in 76th. He is in 97th place overall, 42:33 back of Kuss.
After two days at lower elevation, the race will go back into the mountains for two days at altitude Saturday and Sunday. Saturday’s Stage 5 will begin in Canyons Village of Park City Mountain. The 94.8-mile route will begin with rolling terrain above 6,000 feet and then will feature two grueling climbs in the final 30 miles. The first is a Category 1 climb to nearly 10,000 feet above sea level up Guardsman Pass. After a 15-mile descent that drops 5,000 feet to the Salt Lake Valley, the riders will face a finishing Hors Category climb – a climb that goes beyond classification – up Little Cottonwood Canyon to the climbing finish at Snowbird Resort.
Sunday’s final stage will start and finish in Park City. At a distance of 76 miles, there are two more big climbs. The first is a Category 3 with sustained 15 percent grades. The riders will then descend and then climb Empire Pass with grades of 10 to 20 percent before a final descent back into Park City to the finish line.
“Saturday and Sunday, both stages are pretty tough,” Kuss said. “A lot of it Saturday can depend on which way the wind is blowing in the canyon. If it’s a headwind, it’s not quite as explosive. But, if it’s a tailwind, the bottom part of that climb can be pretty selective.”
Kuss’ first pro stage win came Wednesday at the Tour of Utah. Now, he has a chance at his first major professional stage race win this weekend.
“The nice thing now is that Neilson and I are one and two on GC, so we’re definitely in the driver’s seat,” Kuss said. “All we have to do really is follow, and being ahead is easier than being behind. Still, I’m excited for the weekend stages. Just because you have the yellow jersey doesn’t mean you can’t attack. There’s still lots to play for.”