tour de france stage fifteen

He carries the hopes of a nation, sort of. 

Like so many things in cycling, it’s more nuanced than can be summed up neatly and concisely. His is a large nation, and one largely unconcerned with the sport, but those who do care about it rest their high hopes on his narrow, climber’s shoulders. 

For several years, Sepp Kuss has retained his status as one of the sport’s next great something or other-s while newer and younger talents have emerged — some of whom have quickly gone on to realize their potential ahead of him. With a Vuelta stage win here and Dauphiné stage win there, he continues to show tantalizing flashes of the prodigious talent that encourages people to hope, and so they continue to oblige.

Their hopes are an awkward shape and size for him, and sometimes it feels a bit unfair to everyone involved. They send every cycling-related podcast or media outlet questions about when he will be liberated from the yoke of thankless domestique work, and whether he has what it takes to lead a team in the Tour. They dutifully spam #FreeKuss on Twitter when many of his best days are spent looking after Primož Roglič rather than going on the attack.

You don’t have to stretch the imagination too far to see their thinking. Nearly every prominent cycling voice has remarked on how at times he makes climbing look confoundingly easy — stone-faced, breathing steady, chugging along methodically on the Angliru or Col de la Loze while others suffer. On those days even Roglič, the most accomplished stage racer of the last few years, struggles to hold his wheel. 

But when given opportunities to ride for himself in a series of one-week World Tour stage races over the first half of the season, Kuss struggled to find form, never cracking the top ten on GC. The two primary objections to him as a leadership candidate — his relative inconsistency and subpar time trialing — have borne out to be legitimate concerns. 

Moreover, he developed a frustrating habit of effectively dropping himself by unleashing vicious attacks too early on climbs, blowing up, and ultimately finishing behind the main GC group. 

Sometimes, it feels as though he is most burdened when freed to race for himself, and most free when burdened with the races of others. But many American cycling fans understand the sport primarily through a lens of Grand Tour GC leadership, perhaps informed by the achievements of LeMond and Armstrong (the latter of whose ignominy further complicates matters where the fanbase’s psyche is concerned). 

It should register as an effusive compliment, but instead the suggestion that Kuss has all the necessaries to be among the world’s best climbing domestiques for a decade feels like damning him with faint praise. For one reason or another, the concept of an American Mikel Nieve just doesn’t compel in quite the same way an American Mikel Landa does. 

Do I know which of those he is, or could be? Does it matter?

The hopes are weighty, but Kuss, for his part, never betrays any frustration with or resentment of it all. He seems to regard the idea of his future prospects with the same easygoing, open-minded optimism with which he approaches just about everything else. 

He’s steady. He has needed to be, in a Tour in which his team has hit the deck constantly in crashes, ending the races of Roglič, Robert Gesink and Tony Martin.

Without their leader and two veteran road captains, Jumbo-Visma’s Tour could easily have ended up rudderless and unproductive. Instead, they have retooled on the fly.

Jonas Vingegaard is contending ably for a podium place in his first Tour de France. Wout van Aert not only won the Double Ventoux stage, but has unexpectedly asserted himself as a contender in the King of the Mountains classification, which is shaping up to be the Tour’s most consistently entertaining battle. Perhaps it’s not all such a disaster.

But whither Sepp Kuss?

He has spent two weeks biding his time, waiting for good form and opportunity to coalesce. But opportunities are not infinite, and so today he is in an elite breakaway, hunting the biggest win of his career. 

It’s been a tiring, tough old day at the Tour, containing over 4,500 meters of altitude gain and three first-category climbs including this year’s Souvenir Henri Desgrange (the highest point in the Tour), the Port d’Envalira, at 2,408 meters, claimed by Nairo Quintana. Altitude aside, the 34°C heat and poor Pyrenean road surfaces have served only to make the race more attritional, and much of the peloton is quite evidently longing for tomorrow’s rest day. 

Once again, the GC favorites are neutralizing one another. The Ineos Grenadiers have opted for the repeat strategy of using their entire team in an effort to make the race hard and facilitate a move from Richard Carapaz. By the end of the stage, runaway leader Tadej Pogačar, Vingegaard, Rigoberto Uran and Carapaz will each make unsuccessful attempts to distance the others. None of them will be winning or losing the Tour today, and with the break still minutes ahead, they won’t contest the stage win either. 

The Col de Beixalis serves as the day’s final obstacle, and while it’s short relative to the day’s other climbs, the initial few kilometers are excruciatingly steep. As though unperturbed by or completely unaware of this information, Quintana immediately puts in a scorching attack as the break reaches the climb.

Nobody follows.

Either he’s coming back on his own, or we’re not getting him at all, they figure. 

They’re right. Quintana, while going better at the moment than he has in months, burnt an entire matchbook when he put in a similar dig to claim the KOM points atop the Port d’Envalira, and then spent a while off the front in the wind on the subsequent descent. As the road winds upward onto a thirteen percent gradient, he is reeled in by the gradual acceleration of former teammate Alejandro Valverde. This effort serves a dual purpose, as several riders are shelled out the back of the group, including Van Aert, who has also spent much of the day hunting polka-dot points.

A hundred meters later, Quintana attacks again, but this time it’s a desperate bluff. The others follow easily, and he retreats, tail between legs, toward the back of the group of escapees. Soon, he’s off the back just as quickly as he went off the front.

As the snakelike road narrows to little more than a bike path, the gradient kicks up again, and David Gaudu decides this is his moment, shaking out his legs before lunging out of the saddle for a quick burst. Valverde, much less hesitant than usual to get into the wind early on a climb, closes him down in seconds, followed closely by Kuss. 

For a moment, it looks like these three might go away together, but Gaudu, wary of being caught out by a counterpunch, slows and stares down his rivals, allowing the others to regroup. Julian Alaphilippe, World Champion and perpetual danger on steep ramps, dangles harmlessly off the back, done in by the day’s efforts. Sensing an opportunity to catch the group unawares, Ruben Guerreiro kicks, but Kuss and Valverde are on his tail and he isn’t going anywhere. 

It looks like Kuss might be on one of his days, and Valverde’s 41-year-old legs appear lively, even by his ageless standard. Collectively, they’ve comfortably absorbed every attack the rest of the group had to offer, and now it’s come down to a sorting-out between them.

Not content to let the tension fester, Kuss goes over the top. As they round a bend encouraged by fans decked out in polka-dot gear, Valverde is following in Kuss’s wheel, until suddenly, he isn’t. 

Kuss is a picture of concentration, his face lending no indication of the thirteen percent gradient. Taking a quick glance back, he sees Valverde weaving across the road and knows the old man is vulnerable. 

Without a second’s hesitation, he strikes, hopping out of the saddle to accelerate once again, tongue briefly wagging out of his mouth and giving the first indication of any effort he’s made all day. He’s skipping away, spritely and determined, and the gap grows so quickly that within a matter of seconds Valverde can no longer see him around each corner. 

Kuss has gone, and gone early. 

Too early? Surely not again…

No, no. Not this time. He knows these roads, knows every corner and upward pitch. He’s pushed his advantage out to thirty five seconds. Four kilometers to the top. He knows this climb, even if he doesn’t do it as often as the others in the area because it’s just too damn hard. This is home.

Not home home, no. Not the Rockies, where he grew up cross country skiing with his parents from when he was yay high and barely walking, and where he planted the seeds for his cycling career on the mountain bike with his friends. Not Durango, with which he’s become semi-synonymous in the cycling world, and where plenty of those fans with all those high hopes live. But home, nonetheless.

Three kilometers to the top. His gap has come down slightly, and is hovering steady around twenty five seconds. The road levels out here a bit and is much easier for a kilometer or so. He’s been counting on it, thinking he’d have an opportunity to recover, but there’s a headwind making it harder than it should be. 

Ahhhh well, nothing to be done but push through it

He takes a sip of his bidon before pouring the rest over his legs, discarding it, and taking another from the race moto.

Plenty of cyclists live in Andorra — thirty three of those currently riding the Tour, even. It’s a convenient place for a professional cyclist, with access to numerous climbs, easy travel to France or Spain, and *ahem* advantageous tax structure, but for many it is little more than a temporary in-season residence. Kuss and longtime girlfriend Noemi Ferré (a retired cyclist herself) are building a home here. She’s here today on the climb with her parents, cheering him on. 

Into the last couple of kilometers of the climb, his gap is more or less holding. If he can maintain it over the summit, bringing him back on the way down into Andorre la Vella will be difficult, even for an ace descender like Valverde. He’s suffering now, digging deep into the bottom of his reserves. He knows he can do this.

“Twenty seconds, Seppy, come on man, you’re flying!” he hears over the radio in his ear as he crests the top. 

On the descent, he pulls out all the stops. There is another time when he rides with freedom and without burden, and it’s moments like these. Life offers no greater liberation than being alone off the front of a bike race. 

Alternating between pedaling on flatter sections and the new modified aero-tuck on the steep bits, he’s trying to save every second he can. Valverde gets within fifteen seconds, but no closer. Through the technical corners, Kuss takes every risk. He stays as light on the brakes as he can afford and sprints out of the saddle once he’s past the apex.

In the final kilometers, he keeps spinning away, half-grinning, half-grimacing as he makes his way toward the finish. Rolling in, he pulls off his AGU sunglasses and chucks them into the crowd, raising his arms in celebration. Crossing the line, he takes a deep breath of relief and clasps his hands together in front of his face, soaking in the magnitude of the moment. 

As the first American Tour stage winner in a decade, he has richly rewarded the support of those whose hopes he carries. Many of them, encouraged by this sparkling performance, will soon be asking once again what this portends for his future, and just how high he can climb in this sport. Those questions can be for another day.

He’s just come home a Tour de France stage winner.

The Tour will be moving on soon enough, but if not for that, he could stay here forever.