— NBC Sports Cycling (@NBCSCycling) September 17, 2023
A modern sports miracle happened last week.
An American cyclist beat the Europeans at their own game by winning the 21-day Tour of Spain (la Vuelta a España).
And that cyclist is Sepp Kuss, a 29-year-old from Durango, Colorado, who has raced for the world-dominating Jumbo Visma team for six years.
And it’s an underdog story that not even he ever saw happening.
Not only is it rare for Americans to win in this European-dominated sport, but Kuss didn’t even go there as a contender; he was just there in a support role cyclists referred to as a “domestique,” one he’s performed for six years now. And his team Jumbo Visma sports the two most dominant grand tour winners of today, two-time Tour de France champ Jonas Vingegaard and current Giro d’Italia/three-time Vuelta champ Primoz Roglic, victories made possible by Kuss’s selfless (and fast) riding in their support.
But step by step, in this 21-day Tour, it became clear that Kuss was the fittest overall rider in the field, and that it was his super-star teammates who should support him rather than the other way around.
But Kuss’s 21-stage journey to keeping the red leader’s jersey to Madrid wasn’t easy. He even had to fight off his two teammates Roglic and Vingegaard (who kept attacking him at times) along the way.
Here’s what we can learn from his nerve-wracking journey to beat the best in the world:
Don’t chase the spotlight—chase excellence
Kuss never wanted to be the guy atop the podium. He’s ridden as a “super-domestique” for six years, helping Jonas and Primoz win six grand tours. (A “domestique” is a support role where you help pace your team leader up the climbs, break the wind for them, get water bottles and food from the team car for them, and generally sacrifice your legs to support their goals.)
He’s just striven to be the fittest rider he can be, and be able to outlast any other rider in the race—other than his own team leader. But by chasing fitness this relentlessly, he ended up accidentally taking the leader’s jersey on stage eight.
Let go of the outcome
Even when Kuss got the leader’s red jersey on stage eight—something most cyclists never expect to wear even one day in their lifetime—he was reluctant to see it as “his.” In daily interviews, he said he expected to hand it over to a teammate any day, if that’s what the team decided. He never let his ego get attached to it. And maybe that’s why the jersey seemed to “want” to stay on his shoulders.
The longer you delay gratification, the sweeter it’ll be.
Kuss has been a professional since 2016, and never chased “glory,” only the satisfaction of helping his world class teammates win the biggest victories in the world. But in pursuit of that goal, he eventually became their equals, as he strove to be fit enough to help them to the finish line each day on the toughest climbs in the world. Suddenly, in this Tour, it was he who no one could keep up with.
Always compliment others before yourself
No matter how many days he kept holding onto the leader’s jersey, he insisted it wasn’t about him, it was about the team, and he’d ride for his teammates instead if that’s what the team asked. Even when it seemed his own teammates were willing to ditch him and try to ride away and “steal” the jersey off their teammate’s back, he still cheered them on, selfless to the core.
Put in your 10,000 hours.
Like most pros, Sepp has steadily put in four to five hours a day on the bike since he was in college. Multiply that times 10 years, and you get 10,000 hours pretty easily. Of absolute misery and suffering. And voila—now he’s the fittest guy in all the mountains of Europe. How fit? He’s 6 feet but only 134 lbs.
Don’t give in to fear and revenge
Multiple times, in stages 13, 16 and 17, it appeared his own teammates were still secretly riding “against” him, meaning, more for their own ambitions than to protect their team leader (which is the golden rule in cycling). But Kuss never got upset about it, even when the world wanted him to. He just said, “If I drop, I drop,” and figured, let the best man win.
The less you seek attention, the more the world will give it to you.
Kuss never wanted to hog the spotlight, always choosing to compliment his team, rather than brag about his own riding. But each day, as he continued being in the leader’s jersey, and more Spaniards adopted him as their new, humble hero, the more he just smiled and tried to accept it with grace.
Be willing to lose in order to win
When it looked like all might be lost, and his teammates dropped him on stage 17 to the top of the feared, uber-steep, 21 percent ramps of L’Angliru, he seemed to just accept it and say, “Oh well, if I drop, I drop.” But he held on just enough to keep the leader’s jersey, and the next day (after severe social media backlash about the team leaving Kuss behind), the team decided to finally give their all for him.
Let your friends help fight your battles
After Kuss’s teammates appeared to abandon their team leader (and any basic cycling etiquette), Kuss didn’t blast them in the press. He didn’t have to; the whole world did it for him. Negative comments in the hundreds of thousands rolled in, condemning Jonas and Primoz for selfishly leaving behind their team leader—the guy who’d sacrificed himself for six years to help them win their grand Tours, and by the next day, the PR disaster was so overwhelming, that the Jumbo Visma director ordered them to ride to help Kuss, no matter what. And the rest was history. Kuss even built on his lead in the final few days, now that he finally had their help.
Focus your attention, then see what you can manifest
It seems to be no mere coincidence that Kuss won the Tour of Spain six years after he moved to Spain himself to make it his European cycling base. He learned Spanish, learned every road by heart while training there, made friends with all the locals, and in 2021, when the Tour de France wove its way through the roads of Andorra on stage 17, Kuss broke away from the field and won the stage, riding the same roads he’d ruthlessly trained on. Cut to two years later, and he’s winning the national tour of the country he’s adopted as his own. And on the winner’s podium? He addressed the audience in fully-fluent Spanish for two minutes straight. The whole country embraced him like family.
Have a little fun out there
After winning on stage six, Kuss did something we almost never see: not only did he actually drink out of the champagne bottle, he drank out of it for 15 seconds straight. Chugging like only an American can, showing the world he can drink as hard as he can bike. The crowd ate it up, and unlike other winners of the cycling world, Kuss wasn’t an automaton; he had personality. He was “real.” He was one of the people.
Then on the final day when the final victory was his? He blasted that bottle nearly into outer space, like a NASCAR champ at Daytona. It was a burst of personality the cycling world had been dying to see. And the roars from the crowd were deafening.
Here’s to you, Sepp Kuss. Looking forward to seeing you on the top step of the podium a little more often now.