Sepp Kuss suddenly feels like a veteran of the Vuelta.
The 26-year-old pro cyclist from Durango made his Vuelta a España debut in 2018 in a surprise start after he won the Tour of Utah in his first year with Team Jumbo-Visma. A year later, Kuss returned to the Vuelta and won his first Grand Tour stage of his career with a brilliant climbing performance on Stage 15 of the 21-stage race with a solo climb up the Category 1 Puerto del Acebo. More than a year later, Kuss is set to make his third Vuelta start in the event that was delayed two months by the COVID-19 pandemic during a modified cycling calendar.
The race comes after Kuss finished 15th overall at his debut Tour de France that ended Sept. 20 and his 53rd-place finish at the UCI Road World Championships on Sept. 27 in Italy.
“I feel really good since the Tour,” Kuss said Monday in a phone interview with The Durango Herald on the eve of the start of the Vuelta. “I have felt really good in training since then. I am still fresh mentally, even though it’s pretty much what would usually be the end of the season. I think that’s important, to have motivation still and feel good.”
Riding in support of team leader Primož Roglic, who would win the 2019 Spanish Vuelta, Kuss had a breakout performance in 2019 with his stage victory. The team targeted the 2020 Tour de France after Roglic rode to third at the 2019 Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta victory.
Roglic held the lead at the Tour until Stage 20 of 21, when fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar put down a memorable time trial performance to steal the yellow jersey the night before the final ride into Paris. Roglic and Jumbo-Visma had to settle for second.
“Of course, I think after the race, on one side, we were disappointed,” Kuss said of the Tour. “But, on the other hand, we were happy with what we did. We didn’t have any regrets. It was still a really good team performance. Everybody gave absolutely 100%. We couldn’t be too sad for long. In cycling, there is always a new goal and something new to move onto. I think with the Vuelta coming so soon after, it was pretty easy to put the Tour behind us and start focusing on what was coming.”
Much of the same team from the Tour is back for the Vuelta, though the squad won’t have the services of Belgian star Wout van Aert. But team leaders Roglic and Tom Dumoulin figure to contend for the podium.
“During the Vuelta, it will become clear who will be our main man,” said Jumbo-Visma sports director Grischa Niermann in a team news release. “Our team is at the start with two favorites for the final victory, one of them is last year’s winner. That ensures that other teams will watch us. We are aware of that. We have to come up with a good plan to achieve a good performance. I think we have a very strong team with two riders who are our absolute priority. The other boys can optimally support Primož and Tom.”
This year’s Vuelta won’t be a typical Grand Tour with 21 stages. Because of the coronavirus, stages scheduled for the Netherlands and Portugal have been eliminated. That leaves an 18-stage race, which will still have two rest days.
Action now will begin Tuesday with a route primarily in Northern Spain. With the event happening two months later than normal and carrying into November, it will go from being one of the hottest three-weeks of cycling to one of the coldest. Riders could even see snow along with cold rain.
“I think it will be a test of mental fortitude along with physical,” Kuss said. “We’ll see what happened. I think Col du Tourmalet (6,938 feet above sea level) on Stage 6 is the only real high mountain stage. We will see what the weather is like on that day. Other than that, I think we can expect rain.”
Tuesday’s stage, won by Roglic with Kuss executing a perfect attack on the final climb to earn the polka dot jersey, started flat and fast before four categorized climbs, though none above Category 2. There was a 1-kilometer downhill sprint after the final Category 2 climb to the finish line.
Wednesday’s Stage 2 will offer three more categorized climbs, including a Category 1 shortly before the downhill finish.
Teams already have eyes on a burly Stage 6 on Sunday. It is the Queen Stage with a Category 1 climb before two hors category climbs of Col d’Aubisque and the mighty finish atop Col du Tourmalet, which could go a long way in deciding the general classification battle. With the way the first week ends, Niermann said the first week will be the most important of this year’s race.
A frightening day awaits the peloton the day after Halloween. The Stage 12 route has five categorized climbs with two Category 1 climbs before the final beyond classification climb of Alto de L’Angliru. In a style typical for Kuss, he has his eyes on that day.
“It’s crazy steep, one of the hardest, steepest climbs in cycling,” Kuss said. “It is synonymous with the Vuelta, as well, a historical climb. That will be a really, really brutal day to race up it but also exciting when you get to race historical climbs. I hope to have good legs on that day.”
Though Kuss spends much of his time in Spain now, he isn’t super familiar with much of the more northern course. The only climb he has raced before comes on Stage 17.
The hope is that the Spanish Vuelta, which has the same organizing company as the Tour de France, can get completed without any complications from COVID-19, just as the Tour was able to do. Teams have had to withdraw from the Giro d’Italia because of positive cases. Kuss said his team will take all the necessary precautions, and he likes what the race organizer has done with the team bubbles to try to keep riders healthy.
Kuss hopes the team will be able to focus solely on racing and get one, if not two, of the team leaders on the podium.
“I think we definitely want to win the race,” Kuss said. “With Primož and Tom, we have two guys who are still really motivated and are riding well. Primož won the race last year, so we have two of the big favorites. We will approach it that way. But also, the Vuelta is definitely different than the Tour in terms of hos it’s race. It might be a different strategy in how we tackle stages. Overall, I think it will be an aggressive race.”