After a long wait, an American is once again at the center of the cycling universe. For three weeks, Sepp Kuss, the 29-year-old climber from Durango, Colorado, navigated the Pyrenees, the rampas inhumanas of Asturias, and threatening attacks from outside and within his own team. And he has emerged as the winner of the Vuelta a España.
This is the first grand tour win for an American since Chris Horner’s stunning victory over Vincenzo Nibali at the 2013 Vuelta. In the intervening years, no American man has won a world championship or a monument either; Kuss is the only American to even lead a grand tour since Horner, and the only American since 2011 to win a stage of the Tour de France.
Horner’s Vuelta win obscures the length and the severity of the drought from which American men’s cycling is just now emerging. Horner was nearly 42 when he wore the red jersey into Madrid, and American cycling was at its modern nadir.
Nine months earlier, Lance Armstrong had finally admitted that he was guilty of the doping allegations he’d denied and mocked his whole career. Since his first Tour de France win in 1999, Armstrong had built up a cult of personality around himself, and devoted his career solely to winning the Tour. In his world, there was one race, and one cyclist, that mattered.
When Horner won the Vuelta, the wounds caused by Armstrong’s perfidy were still too raw – American fans weren’t ready to trust another shocking comeback story yet, even though the legitimacy of Horner’s win was never called into question. And Horner was too old to build on his career-defining success. He was born in 1971, the same year as Armstrong and grand tour podium finishers Hamilton and Bobby Julich; he was a reminder of times gone by, not the vanguard of a new generation.
The history of American pro cycling is very easy to understand through a generational framework. Boomers – Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, and the 7-Eleven team of the 1980s – put the US on the map. Gen-X enhanced US cycling’s reputation further, before destroying it entirely. The process of rebuilding the sport took so long because the millennials who followed couldn’t build on early promise.
Tejay van Garderen could hang with Chris Froome or Nairo Quintana for a week or two, but never put it together over a full grand tour. Taylor Phinney seemed bound for a decorated career as a time trialist and classics rider before suffering a horrendous leg injury at age 23. That year, Andrew Talansky scored a breakout win at the Critérium du Dauphiné – probably the biggest win by an American man between Horner’s Vuelta win and Kuss’s – and then left cycling for triathlon three years later.
Kuss is the oldest of a new generation of young American men who have the potential to bring the US back to the front of the peloton: Neilson Powless, Matteo Jorgenson, Brandon McNulty, Quinn Simmons, and Magnus Sheffield. (Kuss, born in September 1994, is technically a millennial, but he’s close enough to Gen Z to keep the thread going.)
This group has won age-group world championships, World Tour classics, and grand tour stages, but winning the general classification at a grand tour is at least one step beyond what anyone from the current generation had accomplished.
Kuss is now undoubtedly the most decorated active American male cyclist, which is notable, because he could not represent a sterner rebuke of the US stereotype.
In the past, successful American GC riders have usually been dynamite time trialists. Elite climbers, yes, but also able to put huge time into their rivals against the clock. Kuss is the opposite, a pure climber, listed at 5ft 11in and 134 lbs, surely at least 70 lbs of which is lungs.
When Kuss took the red jersey on stage eight at this year’s Vuelta, no one expected him to hang on to it for very long, with the race’s sole individual time trial coming up on stage 10. The pre-race favorites were very strong against the clock; Remco Evenepoel is the reigning world time trial champion, Primož Roglič the reigning Olympic champion. Jonas Vingegaard clinched this year’s Tour with an emphatic time trial stage win. The expectation was that Kuss could lose as much as three minutes to Evenepoel in a little over 25 kilometers.
Instead, Kuss limited his losses to just 1 minute, 15 seconds to Evenepoel, finishing an astonishing 13th on the stage, 11 seconds behind Vingegaard and less than 90 seconds behind trainlike Italian time trial specialist Filippo Ganna, who won the stage. Afterward, Kuss joked that this was the first time he’d finished a time trial without being passed.
Which is the other thing that makes Kuss unusual. LeMond and Armstrong, despite their intense mutual antipathy, were both combative, eager to play mind games even against their own allies. Kuss is one of the most popular riders in the peloton: laid-back, self-deprecating, constantly with a smile on his face. Up until the final few days of the race, Kuss almost seemed tickled by the position he found himself in, determined to enjoy it while it lasted rather than fret about when it might end.
In his two Vuelta stage wins – the first in 2019 and the stage six victory this year that set his GC challenge in motion – Kuss slowed down in the final kilometer of the stage to high-five fans lined up along the roadside barricades. After winning the stage, he sprayed champagne at the crowd, as is customary. But while most riders, dehydrated and exhausted after a day on the bike, take only a polite sip, Kuss turned the bottle up for a 14-second pull that would have done any college sophomore proud. Cyclists talk endlessly about how their sport is about suffering, but sometimes it can be fun too.
Kuss won over fans not just because he seems like a good hang, but because of his tireless work over the years as a domestique for Roglič and Vingegaard. His spectacular contributions as a support act and obvious climbing talent led to the emergence of “GC Kuss” as a meme on cycling Twitter, an expression of amused hope that the deepest team in cycling would one day let its most important backup singer become its frontman.
And then, against all odds, it happened. Kuss won his stage from the breakaway, took huge time on the other GC riders, and never gave the lead up. When Evenepoel cracked and lost 27 minutes on the Col du Tourmalet stage, the only remaining threats to a Kuss victory were his teammates: Roglič and Vingegaard.
Both Roglič and Vingegaard had incentive to overtake Kuss. The two are jockeying against each other for primacy at next year’s Tour de France, and a victory by either one would mean a second grand tour victory this season; only Chris Froome and Alberto Contador have achieved such a double in the 21st century.
For a moment, on the Alto de L’Angliru on stage 17, it seemed like the unthinkable would come to pass. Roglič, given leave to pursue the stage win, rode Kuss off his wheel, and rather than pace the American back, Vingegaard followed. Kuss retained his race lead by mere seconds after Mikel Landa of Bahrain-Victorious caught him and paced him over the final crest of the climb. (True to form, Kuss apologized to his Spanish rival for outsprinting him to the line so he could snap up four bonus seconds.)
Public outcry ensued; the last time the Vuelta visited its most notorious climb, in 2020, an exhausted Roglič was falling behind rivals Richard Carapaz and Hugh Carthy. Kuss, the lone domestique remaining in the lead group, had sacrificed a shot at a stage win to keep his faltering leader in the fight. The parallel was striking: Roglič and Vingegaard had combined for six grand tour wins with Kuss in the team, and neither had ever finished on the podium without him.
Over the final two mountain stages, the Jumbo-Visma trio stayed together, crossing the finish line arm-in-arm on stage 20. Adam Becket of Cycling Weekly led off a social media roundup article by wondering if public outcry over the Angliru incident had cowed Jumbo-Visma into riding for Kuss rather than letting its strongest riders have at one another.
After LeMond and Armstrong so frequently butted heads with the European cycling establishment (for better or worse), what a thing that is to see: an outpouring of support for an American who not only wins, but is loved for doing so. After six seasons of important but under-rewarded teamwork, he’s finally getting his well-deserved moment in the sun. And unlike with Horner in 2013, he’s not only young enough to stay at the top for years to come, there’s a bumper crop of American reinforcements coming behind him.
Source of data and images: theguardian