Sepp Kuss was preparing for another day of training for the Tour of California while back in his college town of Boulder last week when he got an early-morning call from his professional cycling team. It was the day after his Jumbo-Visma teammate Robert Gesink was injured in a crash, and Kuss had a feeling what the call was about.
The team directors offered Kuss, a 24-year-old professional road cyclist from Durango, a spot on Team Jumbo-Visma for the 102nd Giro d’Italia, one of the three grand tour events on the International Cycling Union (UCI) World Tour schedule along with the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, where Kuss made his grand tour debut last year as a World Tour rookie.
Kuss, last year’s emphatic Tour of Utah winner, made the decision to finish up a few days of training in Boulder and fly back to Europe for the Giro and give up a co-leadership position for the team at Tour of California.
“I figured they’d have to pick someone pretty quick to fill Robert’s spot. I didn’t necessarily think it was going to be me that got the call,” Kuss said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald on Friday, a day after the team presentations in Bologna, Italy. “It was pretty exciting. It was a pretty quick transition. From a training standpoint, I think it was probably for the best that I was in the U.S. getting good training in, a little bit of altitude, see some friends, things like that.
“I’m in a good place going into this race, but, yeah, definitely a bigger challenge I guess than doing California.”
Kuss also had spent time back in Colorado training before the Tour of Utah last August, where he won three stages and finished 2 minutes, 9 seconds ahead of any other rider after the seven-day race. The chance to be a co-team leader at California, where Kuss had a breakout performance in 2017 with a 10th-place finish on the Mt. Baldy climbing stage only weeks after he graduated from the University of Colorado, was a big opportunity for Kuss to ride for the overall win, especially with the Tour of California’s switch to focus more heavily on climbing in 2019.
The chance to ride in his second career grand tour event and first Giro was even bigger. It was only three years ago that Kuss began to fully transition from mountain biking to full-time road racing. In 2017, he signed with a continental pro team, Rally Cycling, after showing some climbing promise. His 2017 results led him to his first European pro contract with his Dutch team. He’s climbed through the pro cycling ranks as fast as he conquered the three climbing stages last year in Utah.
“I’m pretty happy, you know? It’s happened fast,” he said. “When it all happens so fast, there’s maybe a bit more expectation when you do things quickly. But, for me, I have to stay grounded and remember that I haven’t been doing it for so long. I still have got a lot to learn. It’s a quick progression initially, but to be really at the top, top end, it takes even more work. It can be a steep progression, but, with that said, it’s pretty cool to already be in these races that I was just watching on TV a few years ago and never think I’d be racing them. It’s pretty surreal at times.”
Instead of being a team leader, Kuss will take on a support role at the Giro. His Jumbo-Visma teammate Primož Roglic of Slovenia is a heavy favorite at this year’s Giro after his three stage wins and overall win at Tour de Romandie on the heels of his wins at Tirreno-Adriatico and the UAE Tour. Kuss will be used to help control the race during the big climbing stages. This year’s Giro features seven summit finishes. There are 12 mountainous stages in all, with eight in the final 10 days of racing.
“The Giro d’Italia is one of our main goals this year,” Jumbo-Visma sports director Addy Engels said in a news release. “Primoz is one of the top (favorites). Everyone in the team needs to support him to reach our goal: to win the Giro d’Italia. With Laurens, Sepp, Antwan and Koen, Primoz got strong climbers who will support him.”
At last year’s Vuelta, Kuss showed his strength on the climbing finishes on the fourth and fifth stages and then finished 10th during Stage 7. He later admitted those big efforts took too much out of him in the first of the three weeks of racing.
He has learned from that experience, though he knows the Giro will be a bit different with the more grueling stages coming later in the race.
“During the three weeks, some days you feel a little better, some days you feel worse,” Kuss said. “It’s important for me as a support rider to know when to pick your moments, when to sit up and save it for another day, and then to know when you really need to be there. I think every little thing you do in the first half of the race almost bites in the third week. You really have to manage pretty much everything energy wise, from nutrition to sleep. As the race goes on and the stress goes up, it can be harder to control all those things, but being relaxed as possible is pretty important.”
Kuss said he is most looking forward to Stage 16, a 140-mile route with more than 18,700 feet of vertical gain. During the route, he will climb the Gavia (8,599 feet) with a descent into Bormio before a climb of Mortirolo (6,076 feet) with max gradients of 18%.
“It’s a pretty hard day,” said Kuss, who thrives during those most grueling climbs. “To have that one checked off would be pretty cool with two super iconic climbs. That will be pretty wild.”
Kuss is hoping for nice conditions but knows the Giro is notorious for throwing weather curveballs at the peloton. Growing up in Colorado, he knows better than most how to adjust to changing spring conditions with everything from snow to extreme heat.
There are only two rest days between Saturday’s start and the finish on June 2. In the end, Kuss hopes to celebrate with his team and Roglic.
“It’s pretty high energy here in Italy with the cycling culture they have and the history of this race,” he said. “This year, especially with our team, there’s a lot of media attention and maybe a bit more expectations. We have a good team here and are pretty motivated to make it for three weeks.
“It’s exciting to be in position where you know you can possibly do something pretty special by the end of the race and be part of something like that. There’s so many variables at a race like the Giro, and a lot of it you can’t prepare for. But, fitness wise and our team dynamic, it’s all good. Everything we can control, we’ve got confidence in.”