Sepp Kuss surged up the steepest and tallest climb at the Tour de France. While some across Europe were at first unsure of the 26-year-old American’s attack, his supporters in his hometown of Durango had tears in their eyes watching one of their own lead the charge up the Cold de la Loze.
Born and raised in Durango, Kuss was the star of the day Wednesday during a pivotal Stage 17 of the 107th Tour de France. For a moment, it appeared the climbing sensation would attack the final two miles in an effort to win his first Tour stage of his young career, it was his move to drop back in aid of team leader and Tour de France overall leader Primož Roglic that very well could be the defining moment if the Team Jumbo-Visma riders are able to ride into Paris on Sunday still with the overall leader’s yellow jersey on the back of Roglic.
Kuss briefly looked as though he would be the first to the top of the Col de la Loze, with several sections stepper than 20% grades. But he was joined on his big attack by Astana Pro Team rider Miguel Ángel López of Colombia. Kuss said he wasn’t going to be able to keep up with López in the closing moments, and López would win the stage in 4 hours, 49 minutes, 8 seconds.
Instead of challenge for the win, Kuss instinctively dropped back to Roglic and his closest rival Tadej Pogacar, who had entered the day only 40 seconds behind Roglic for the overall lead. But Roglic was the stronger of the two Slovenian stars Wednesday, especially with the aid of Kuss, who was the only support rider able to stay in the front group on the Col de la Loze.
Roglic would finish 15 seconds ahead of Pogacar and gained an extra two-second time bonus to now give him a 57-second lead going into the final four stages of the race. Kuss finished the stage in fourth, 56 seconds behind López. It was his second top-10 stage finish of the Tour, and he proved to be the only other rider who could keep up with the top three in the overall standings.
“It was a really tough stage,” Kuss said in a post-race interview with NBC Sports. “Once we turned onto the small goat path here, it was just blown to pieces already, sooner than I expected actually. So, I was just trying to set a good pace. Then, I looked back and there was a gap and López came across. I couldn’t stay with López, so I thought it was better to wait for Primož and try to accelerate with him. So yeah, it was a big fight to the line with him and Pogacar.”
The queen stage of this Tour featured two climbs beyond categorization (hors category), including the summit finish on the newly paved bike path of Col de la Loze in Méribel. The finish was the high point of this year’s Tour at 7,559 feet above sea level. It was the first time the Tour has climbed the new path.
“It was a very good day for us,” Roglic said in a Jumbo-Visma news release. “I am very happy with what we have shown today and also with the time gained. Of course, I would have liked to win the stage, but López was a bit too strong. It was a very tough stage with a very steep final climb. When I see an opportunity, I attack, and so I did.
“Most importantly, apart from López, I have gained time on my competitors. However, the Tour is not over yet and there are still three tough days to come. We have to stay focused and be ready for the attacks that we expect to come. The team was very strong. I cannot thank my teammates enough. Sepp, in particular, was impressive today.”
Jumbo-Visma did a strong job to keep up with a high pace over the first hors category climb of Col de la Madeleine. A breakaway group included France’s Julian Alaphilippe of the Deceuninck–Quick-Step team and Richard Carapaz of the Ineos Grenadiers, who saw team leader Egan Bernal, the defending Tour de France champion, drop out of the race Wednesday morning after falling more than 19 minutes behind Roglic in the previous days.
It was Team Bahrain McLaren, working for team leader Mikel Landa, that would set the pace of the peloton behind the breakaway group, but Bahrain didn’t have the strength to match Jumbo-Visma once the final climb of 13½ miles began. At the base of the climb, the breakaway riders were all caught, setting up the final drama of attacks and team strategy.
Jumbo-Visma co-leader Tom Dumoulin again played a brilliant role in support of Roglic on Wednesday. He took another big pull at the bottom of the climb before he eventually had to drop back. Strength in numbers for the Dutch-based team has been a big story of this Tour with many other riders struggling to keep up with the depth of Jumbo-Visma.
“This is an excellent result,” said Dumoulin, who finished the stage 10th and is in ninth place overall. “We took time on Pogacar. We did not expect that, actually. We had the stage under control. Because of Bahrain’s work, we didn’t have to chase. For us, it was a great situation with that breakaway because then the time bonuses were gone. We were represented well with six riders until the final climb. That was good. The final climb is a fair one and then you can see that Primož is one of the best riders in this Tour.”
After Kuss’ initial attack in which he left Roglic and Pogacar behind, many thought he had made a mistake in his support role for Roglic. But Roglic confirmed he had told Kuss to attack after the two had briefly come up with an impromptu strategy.
“We (pre-rode) this stage several times. But in a race, it is different,” Kuss said in the team news release. “I felt really good. The plan was that I would attack and force the competition to chase. López and I had a little gap, but he was going so fast that I couldn’t follow him. I also didn’t want to blow myself up. I waited for Primož, and luckily he was good enough to gain time on Tadej. On a (climb) like the Loze, with the many tempo changes, it is difficult to close a gap once it is there. This was a great day for us.”
Kuss was thrust into the spotlight further after the stage with many crediting his effort for helping Roglic build a lead and break further from Pogacar. He is now in 16th place overall, 35:53 behind the lead time.
“We had an exciting morning,” Kuss’ father, Dolph, said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “We always have high hopes for what he will be able to do, and he sure did his job today. We were all so excited. I guess, like other fans, we thought he was on his way to the stage victory. But later when we visited with him, we learned that it was the plan to draw up the other competitors to go. Apparently, it worked out the way they wanted it to.”
NBC broadcaster Bob Roll, also of Durango, got a chance to chat about Kuss’ Durango upbringing as a mountain biker in the Durango Devo program while Kuss led the charge up the climb.
“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 today.”
Professional mountain biker Payson McElveen, a former mountain bike teammate of Kuss, also was brought to tears for the second time during this Tour de France while watching the broadcast Wednesday.
“Honestly, it’s hard to put into words. I got choked up this 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 today. Straight up crying. It was super special, and there is really no one I’d rather see have the success, either. He’s so humble and grounded.”
While Kuss has drawn praise, he has maintained his humble, team-first attitude and has remained focused on doing his job for the team more than any individual accolade.
“It feels good; just do my best and enjoy the race, but every race is hard,” Kuss said. “It’s the Tour. It has a lot of prestige and everything and everybody is in good shape, so it’s nice to be riding well for the team.”
Now, the team has a quick turnaround before another tough Stage 18, the final mountain stage of this year’s race. It is nearly 109 miles with five categorized climbs, including two Category 1 ascents and one last hors category climb of La montée du Plateau des Glières.
Jumbo-Visma expects UAE Team Emirates and Pogacar to try to attack for every time bonus in an effort to close the gap before an uphill individual time trial Saturday ahead of Sunday’s final ride to Paris.
“Tomorrow is also a really tough stage,” Kuss said. “We have to do our best and recover and be ready for another really, really hard day. Tomorrow, I think, could be the hardest day of the race.”