Sweat dripped down the face of Sepp Kuss during his shining moment at the Tour de France. It was tears that streamed down the faces of his friends and family back home in Durango.
The 26-year-old professional road cyclist from Durango has had fans in his hometown waking up as early as 3:30 a.m. to tune into live coverage of his first ride at the world’s most prestigious cycling event. The three-week, 21-stage race will conclude Sunday in Paris, and Kuss is expected to deliver Team Jumbo-Visma teammate Primož Roglic onto the Champs-Élysées in the yellow jersey as the race’s new champion.
“I’ve emphasized it before, but I can’t do that enough. They were fantastic, and although I am the one who’s wearing it, this yellow jersey really belongs to all of us,” Roglic said Friday of the work of his teammates.
And while those in Durango have cheered on Roglic to support the fine work of Kuss, it will be the arrival of their own as the top American in the 107th Tour de France that will bring a flood of emotions over a Southwest Colorado mountain town more famous for its mountain biking legacy than accomplishments on the road. Kuss could change that dynamic in the coming years.
“It’s been just incredible to realize he has so many fans,” said Kuss’ father, Dolph, a two-time Olympic coach for the U.S. ski team. “We’ve been getting clippings from France and the Wall Street Journal and all kinds of places. It’s been a really exciting couple of weeks.”
A banner has adorned downtown Durango outside Maria’s Bookshop since the Tour de France began reading “Go Sepp Go!” Though Kuss doesn’t post much to his social media, he has reposted support from those in Durango to his Instagram page throughout the last three weeks.
Kuss’ parents, Dolph and Sabina, have watched each stage live. At times, Dolph has met up with his “man friends” where he feels he can cheer on his son with no restraints. Sabina never holds back, willing her son up the steep mountain passes of the French Alps from more than 5,000 miles away.
“I get so tense and excited watching it that I need to go back every day and watch it again and read about it so I can really appreciate everything,” said Sabina, who first inspired her son in the world of cycling during her multiple top age-group finishes at the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic from Durango to Silverton. “I have to keep telling myself, ‘This is the Tour de France. Not the Tour of Utah. This is the Tour de France.’”
It was only two years ago that Kuss had his breakthrough success with a win at the week-long Tour of Utah. That came only 15 months after he graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in advertising.
While Kuss had previously competed in three Grand Tour races – once at the Giro d’Italia and twice at the Vuelta a España, including a stage win in 2019 – it has been his ride at the Tour de France that has captivated his hometown and given them a first-hand look at how fast he has gone from a collegiate mountain bike national champion to road cycling star in a matter of five short years.
“The kid is going to be, already is, a superstar,” said professional mountain biker Payson McElveen, who once was a mountain bike teammate with Kuss on the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory Durango Devo Sweet Elite team in Durango. “He is going to make a crazy amount of money over the next few years after this performance. Even so, he stays so grounded. The fact he has already had so much success but it’s not all going to his head bodes really well. Sepp has always been a great guy, and now you see he might legitimately be the best climber in the entire world. The world knows now, and he’s only been doing this a handful of years. He’s going to blow the roof off of it.”
It was Kuss’ performance Wednesday as he surged to the front during a climb at a 24% grade up the newly paved Col de la Loze that brought tears to the eyes of McElveen. Though he would eventually drop back to complete his role as a support rider for Roglic to help the 30-year-old Slovenian build his lead, Kuss’ move at the most difficult segment of the entire race showed that he will be contender in the race for years to come.
“Honestly, it’s hard to put into words. I got choked up (Wednesday) morning when Sepp started rolling away from the lead group looking so comfortable while the commentators were bewildered and losing their marbles about how well Sepp was riding,” McElveen said. “Phil Liggett and Bob Roll are the voices I had in my head as I was riding around my neighborhood in Austin, Texas, as a kid impersonating Lance Armstrong winning Tours. It solidified that bike racing was what I wanted to do. To hear those same voices announce Sepp – a friend, a teammate, someone I care about – I lost it ... straight up crying. It was super special, and there is really no one I’d rather see have the success, either.”
Kuss has been featured on an almost daily basis on the NBC Sports broadcast. Commentator Bob Roll, also of Durango, has refereed to him as “The Durango Kid,” on multiple occasions, talking about his upbringing in the Durango Devo youth cycling program started by Chad Cheeney and Sarah Tescher.
“Imagine being a young kid from Durango watching Sepp Kuss absolutely crush the Tour de France, thinking, ‘That could be me,’” said Durango’s Meghan Wells, wife of three-time mountain bike Olympian Todd Wells and mother of young Durango cyclist Cooper Wells, who watches Kuss in admiration each morning. “Sepp, you are an inspiration and, more than that, such a humble and nice person. I had tears in my eyes watching you (Wednesday).”
Cheeney, who Kuss has credited with teaching him how to ride a bike, has visited the Kuss home to watch a few stages. Sabina swells with pride every time she hears “Durango” uttered during the broadcast. She believes it was his upbringing in the San Juan Mountains that shaped him not only as an athlete but as a humble young man and as a willing and eager teammate.
“He had a real special childhood here playing hockey, skiing and living an outdoor life,” Sabina said. “Backpacking with our burros every summer in the mountains, I feel like that’s a huge part of who he is and who he became. He always was in the mountains, enjoying life and the natural flow of things. You see that in who he is today.”
Kuss’ calm demeanor, at times with a smile on his face while others are grimacing in pain, has captivated American cycling fans. For those who know Kuss best, it’s not surprising to see him perform so valiantly.
“It’s been sweet watching Sepp crush it the last couple of weeks, especially in such a classic Sepp, Devo and Durango fashion,” said 2016 mountain bike Olympian Howard Grotts, who is one year older and grew up with Kuss in Durango. “I’m sure it’s incredibly tough, but Sepp has a way of making those climbs look somewhat effortless. Just pure bike stoke, which is what it’s all about.”
Kuss’ top finishes at this year’s Tour, which was postponed two months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, include a sixth place on Stage 15 on his 26th birthday and his fourth place on the queen stage Wednesday. Going into a tough uphill individual time trial Saturday, which Kuss admits he is nervous about, he is in 15th place overall and easily the top American, with former Jumbo-Visma teammate Neilson Powless of California in 57th more than two hours behind Kuss.
His performance hasn’t only captured the awe of Durango, it has further motivated even some of the top current professionals in town.
“It is so rad to see him taking cycling as far as he has,” said longtime friend and professional mountain biker Stephan Davoust, who wakes up each morning with roommates Levi Kurlander, Henry Nadell and Sam Vickery to watch the Tour. “It’s honestly such an inspiration. It makes me want to have more drive in training and dig for a little bit more. Growing up in Durango, Sepp and I were always into mountain biking. He went off to college in Boulder, and a couple of years later he was into this road racing stuff. It’s just crazy to see he’s taken the road all the way to the top. I thought we would be mountain bikers forever, and now here is Sepp at the literal pinnacle of cycling. Not only is he there, he’s destroying everyone there.”
The entire cycling world now knows the name Kuss. In Durango, he is still “Seppy,” the fun-loving, selfless individual who would rather catch up and talk about what he has missed in Durango than his accomplishments at one of the biggest events in all of sports.
Kuss hopes to return for the holiday season after a summer of quarantine in Spain. First, he might get a chance to have a team leadership at the Vuelta in November. Whenever he is able to return to his hometown, a hero’s welcome will await. And for Kuss, the best parade will be a chance to ride a mountain bike on his hometown trails with his friends.
“It’s a real intimate feeling we have right now,” Sabina said. “So many people care in a special way about our Seppy. It’s a real tender feeling for us. We have absolutely loved it these past few weeks.”