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Sepp Kuss wins Vuelta a Espana, joins U.S. cycling greats

78th Tour of Spain 2023 - Stage 20

GUADARRAMA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 16: (L-R) Jonas Vingegaard of Denmark, Sepp Kuss of The United States - Red Leader Jersey final overall winner and Primož Roglic of Slovenia and Team Jumbo-Visma cross the finish line during the 78th Tour of Spain 2023, Stage 20 a 207.8km stage from Manzanares El Real to Guadarrama / #UCIWT / on September 16, 2023 in Guadarrama, Spain. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

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In an unpredictable Vuelta a España, Sepp Kuss became the fourth American man to win one of cycling’s three Grand Tours and the first to do it in 10 years.

Kuss (rhymes with moose), a 29-year-old from Durango, Colorado, led the Vuelta, the year’s third and final Grand Tour after the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, for the last two weeks and completed his victory with Sunday’s ceremonial ride into Madrid.

After more than 76 hours in the saddle over three weeks, he won by 17 seconds over Jumbo-Visma teammate Jonas Vingegaard — the two-time reigning Tour de France winner from Denmark.

Kuss went into Sunday with that 17-second lead, which was considered safe. As in the Tour de France, riders at or near the top of the overall Vuelta standings traditionally do not attack on the last stage. It’s usually a day for sprinters to contest the stage victory at the end.

That played out Sunday, so Kuss became the first American man to win a Grand Tour since Chris Horner took the 2013 Vuelta at age 41.

Going into the Vuelta, Kuss was expected to reprise his role from previous Grand Tours — as a super domestique working for Vingegaard or three-time Vuelta champion Primož Roglič of Slovenia. Vingegaard or Roglič (or Belgian Remco Evenepoel of Soudal–Quick-Step) was supposed to win this stage race.

But Kuss used those climbing skills to win the sixth stage from a large breakaway on a mountaintop finish on Aug. 31. He moved nearly three minutes ahead of Vingegaard and Roglič.

At the time, Evenepoel was considered the biggest threat to Vingegaard and Roglič. Perhaps even as Kuss moved into the leader’s jersey two days after his stage win.

Evenepoel was expected to erase much of that lead in stage 10’s time trial (16 miles), but Kuss rode decently and held onto a 69-second advantage. Evenepoel then surprisingly cracked on a mountain stage on Sept. 8 and out of the general classification race.

While it is rare for a domestique to gap team leaders, what happened next was even more intriguing.

Kuss, Roglič and Vingegaard went into the final week of the Vuelta in first, second and third place in the overall standings. Jumbo-Visma has been the world’s dominant team for the last three years, but never like this at a Grand Tour.

Typically, a cyclist does not try to wrestle a leader’s jersey from a teammate, but that’s just what appeared to be happening on Tuesday and Wednesday as Vingegaard and then Roglič won consecutive stages.

Kuss’ lead was cut to eight seconds, but order appeared to be restored on the final mountaintop finish on Thursday. Kuss and Roglič finished together, with Vingegaard another nine seconds back.

The message was clear. Roglič won the Giro in May. Vingegaard won the Tour de France in July. This is Kuss’ Vuelta.

A lasting scene from the three-week Vuelta will come from Saturday, when Kuss strolled into the finish arm in arm with Vingegaard to his right and Roglič to his left, each pointing to the man in the middle.

“A super special moment,” Kuss said a few minutes later. “It hasn’t sunk in yet.”

A team had never swept all three Grand Tours in one year, according to cycling media, let alone with three different riders.

And Kuss made history of his own, becoming the first man to win the Vuelta after racing both the Giro and the Tour that year since the Vuelta was moved from April and May to September in 1995.

Many use wins at the Vuelta or the Giro as a springboard to Tour de France yellow jersey ambitions the following year.

For Kuss, that appears unlikely as things stand at Jumbo-Visma. Vingegaard is three years younger and next year can three-peat at the Tour.

“If [Kuss] wants to, he will get the chances in the future for sure,” Vingegaard said. “I hope he will want to because he’s so good that he deserves all the chances. Obviously, then I will lose a super great helper in the mountains, but Sepp deserves all the chances he gets.”

If this is Kuss’ peak, he still will go down as one of the greatest cyclists in American history — one of four to win a Grand Tour (excluding Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of seven Tour titles for doping).

Quite a feat for a kid who grew up playing ice hockey, won college mountain bike titles at the University of Colorado and didn’t think about professional road cycling until after graduating with an advertising degree in 2017.

His triumph in Spain came against more decorated fields than wins from Horner (2013 Vuelta) and Andy Hampsten (1988 Giro, though Hampsten had an epic ride into the lead through a snowstorm). It may only be surpassed in American Grand Tour history by Greg LeMond’s Tour de France titles in 1986, 1989 and 1990.