By Stage 15 of the Tour de France, Sepp Kuss’s Jumbo-Visma team was so broken from the wave of first- and second-week crashes that the three riders they sent into the stage’s breakaway represented over half of their team. Three of the team’s strongest riders—including Primoz Roglic, their team leader, and Tony Martin, who rides like he’s diesel-powered—crashed out early, leaving a small yet strong squad to sift through the wreckage. They’ve hit the race’s third week on impressive form: Jonas Vingegaard’s strong riding in the mountains is the surprise of the Tour, Wout Van Aert throttled the field to win the queen stage, and this past Sunday, dedicated supporting rider Sepp Kuss finally raced for himself and earned the first stage win by an American in a decade.
Though he has the talent, Kuss is an unlikely stage winner on a few fronts. His job for Jumbo-Visma is almost always to protect others (usually Roglic), to drain his legs in service of someone else. It’s a noble calling, one that earns you respect and admiration within the peloton but none of the glory that comes with individual victory. Tim Declercq and Michael Morkov have put Mark Cavendish in perfect positions to win each of his four stages, and while Cavendish has profusely thanked them, their names don’t go in any record books.
Kuss is the first American stage winner since Tyler Farrar in 2011. In the intervening decade, a few talented Americans put forth good performances in the Tour—Andrew Talansky finished tenth overall in 2013 and 11th two years later, while Tejay Van Garderen finished fifth twice and took best young rider in 2012—yet nobody broke through and actually won a race until Kuss took first in Andorra this past Sunday. Kuss’s win also came on the same day that American rider Coryn Rivera won the final stage of the Giro Donne.
Kuss lives in Andorra during the season, and he had the benefit of getting to race for the win on roads he’s trained on and knows well. He chose the perfect time to attack on the Col de Beixalis—a climb so hard he told CyclingNews he doesn’t train on it much—then held on through the descent and flat run-in to the finish as Alejandro Valverde, the most prolific winner in the race, tried to chase him down into a biting headwind. Winning took nerves and legs in equal measure; after the race, Kuss said that his knowledge of the descent kept him calm until he had to time-trial away from Valverde. He also said that, despite his knowledge of the mountain, his Beixalis attack wasn’t timed for a specific corner, a particular distance out from the finish line, or a moment when a certain rider dropped from the break, but rather for the moment he saw his girlfriend, who is Spanish pro rider Noemí Ferré, and her family cheering him on.
“For sure I need to do something before then, so I can take the time to see them,” Kuss said of his thinking once he learned where they’d be. “It was really special to have them supporting me on a day like this.”