One of the most intriguing storylines as the 2024 racing season gets underway is what role Sepp Kuss will be deployed in. Will #GCKuss return to a pleading hashtag, or will the affable American be afforded leadership opportunities throughout the campaign?
It has already been confirmed by Visma-Lease a Bike that Kuss will ride in support of Jonas Vingegaard at the Tour de France, before then going to the Vuelta a España as reigning champion. Kuss’s success at last season's third Grand Tour was celebrated as a victory for a committed servant, a win for what many believe is the sport’s best pure climber. But switching his duties so radically in the wake of his greatest triumph is not being considered by his Dutch team.
“Going to the Vuelta as a leader is a possibility, and he will defend his title, but to suddenly put a lot of emphasis on Sepp being a leader, having six or seven riders around him working all day, is not the approach that will make Sepp flourish,” Mathieu Heijboer, the team’s head of performance, tells Rouleur. “He will always be one of our most important riders in a race since he’s so good, but in the bigger picture of team strategy, he has a specific role. I definitely do not think that we have to make him a deliberate leader for one-week races to be good at the Vuelta – that’s not the approach we will take.”
Heijboer accepts that Kuss’ Vuelta win, when he narrowly edged out his team-mates Vingegaard and Primož Roglič and after a fraught final week battle, has altered his own goals. “In terms of mentality, I feel like he is a little bit more ambitious,” the Dutchman continues, “and he learned to know a new Sepp in the Vuelta, one who is very strong, not only physically but also mentally.”
But the argument put forward is that pressure-free training and racing is the bedrock of what makes the 29-year-old perform so well. “He is pretty clear in fact that he doesn't want to change how he approaches cycling and life,” Heijboer explains. “He’s getting more attention, for sure, and it’s a new situation he has to manage, but Sepp is an intrinsically motivated rider. He doesn’t need a result or competition to be motivated, and that is one of his strengths.”
Stage six of the 2023 Vuelta a España (Image by ASO)
The probability is that Kuss will head into the Vuelta as a co-leader alongside Vingegaard, and he will also be an additional card to play in as-of-yet-undecided one week stage races. But no longer will Kuss be able to slip into a large breakaway and take several minutes out of a GC group, like he did on stage six of the Vuelta, a result that was the foundation of his victory.
“Has his status changed within the team? Has he got more respect now? Is he happy to jump back into being a sidekick, or has his confidence grown and he wants to be a leader? We don’t know but what I would say is that no one saw him as a GC rider that day in the Vuelta,” former pro Dan Martin reflects. “Remco [Evenepoel] would have been confident of taking those three minutes back [he ceded on stage six] in the TT as well, but they were complacent in letting him go up the road, and you have to say Sepp’s time trial was phenomenal.
“In a Grand Tour, it’s much easier to take time when you’re at the top, but if you lose a minute or two in the first week, mentally it’s difficult to fight back. Now he’s won the Vuelta, he’ll never be allowed to get into a big break like that again, and he won’t have that freedom to take back time in that way.”
Another factor working against Kuss is that modern-day races and parcours are less suited to riders of Kuss’ ilk. “He would have been a little more successful if he was part of the same generation as me and was a pro 10 years ago,” theorises Martin, who chalked up six Grand Tour GC top-10s. “The tactics suited the more pure climbers, and so did the courses. Ok, he was successful in the last Vuelta, but the best GC riders now are men of all trades, they’re strong at everything with little weakness. Every Grand Tour now is brutally hard and they try to put things in there to trip up the climbers. Sepp needs to have a strong team around him.”
Will it domestique duties or a leadership role for Sepp Kuss in 2024? (Image by SWPix.com)
As Martin references, Kuss delivered the time trial performance of his life on stage 10 of the Vuelta to minimise his losses, but it still remains the area that most people identify as the American’s weak spot. Will he be spending more time on the TT bike in 2024? “We’ve tried different approaches over the years in improving his time trial abilities,” Heijboer explains. “The approach of being very focused on the TT bike is definitely not the right one for him. The right way for Sepp is trying to have a rather relaxed, gentle approach to it. He doesn’t need to focus on time trialling or climbing – he needs to be a good, all-round cyclist. Don’t change – that’s how he can improve his time trialling.”
There is one area, however, that Visma have circled as requiring work. “I don’t believe he will go a lot faster in climbing – his power to weight ratio has always been very, very good – but he can definitely improve his durability,” Heijboer says. “That means how hard and how fast he can go after a very hard race, especially at the end of a final week of hard stages. It’s marginal, but he can improve this.”
An even stronger Kuss can be a contender in whatever race he has given leadership duties in, but perhaps, as Martin proposes, the American won’t crave the number one title. “The big GC guys need success to feed their own ego, but he can just be happy with having won the Vuelta,” Martin says. “It was a career-defining result, and he will go into this year’s race enjoying having number one on his back, and he will take confidence from the fact that he won the race. He’s done it before, and he can do it again. But if he doesn’t? So what. He’s already won one Vuelta, and you can never take that away from him. If he doesn't win another Grand Tour again, nobody is going to complain.”
*Cover image by James Startt