TOAfter a long wait, an American is once again at the center of the cycling universe. For three weeks, Sepp Kuss, the 29-year-old climber from Durango, Colorado, navigated the Pyrenees, the inhuman ramps of Asturias, and threatening attacks from outside and within their own team. And it has emerged as the winner of the Vuelta a España.

This is the first grand tour victory for an American since Chris Horner’s impressive victory on Vincenzo Nibali at the 2013 Vuelta. In the intervening years, no American has won a world championship or a monument; Kuss is the only American to even lead a grand tour since Horner, and the only American since 2011 to win a Tour de France stage.

Horner’s Vuelta victory obscures the length and severity of the drought from which American men’s cycling is only just emerging. Horner was almost 42 when he redshirted in Madrid, and American cycling was at its modern nadir.

Nine months earlier, Lance Armstrong had finally admitted that he was guilty of doping accusations that he had denied and mocked throughout his career. Since his first victory in the Tour de France in 1999, Armstrong had created a cult of personality around him and dedicated his career solely to winning the Tour. In his world, there was a race and a cyclist that mattered.

When Horner won the Tour, the wounds caused by Armstrong’s perfidy were still too raw: American fans were not ready to trust another shocking comeback story just yet, even though the legitimacy of Horner’s victory was never called into question. doubt. And Horner was too old to take advantage of his career-defining success. He was born in 1971, the same year as Armstrong and grand tour podium finishers Hamilton and Bobby Julich; he was a reminder of times past, not the vanguard of a new generation.

The history of American professional cycling is very easy to understand through a generational framework. The boomers – Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten and the 7-Eleven team of the 1980s – put America on the map. Generation X further enhanced the reputation of American cycling, before destroying it entirely. The process of rebuilding the sport took so long because the millennials who followed failed to capitalize on the initial promises.

Tejay van Garderen might hang out with Chris Froome or Nairo Quintana for a week or two, but never make it for a full grand tour. Taylor Phinney seemed destined for a decorated career as a time trialist and classics cyclist before suffering a horrendous leg injury at age 23. That year, Andrew Talansky noted a great victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné, probably the biggest victory by an American between Horner’s victory in the Vuelta and Kuss’s, and then left cycling for triathlon three years later.

Kuss is the eldest of a new generation of young Americans who have the potential to return the United States to the front of the pack: Neilson Powless, Matteo Jorgenson, Brandon McNulty, Quinn Simmons and Magnus Sheffield. (Kuss, born in September 1994, is technically a millennial, but he’s close enough to Generation Z to keep up the thread.)

This group has won world age championships, World Tour classics and grand tour stages, but winning the general classification in a grand tour is at least a step beyond what anyone of the current generation had achieved.

Kuss is now arguably the most decorated active American cyclist, which is notable because he couldn’t represent a harsher rebuke of the American stereotype.

In the past, overall successful American cyclists tended to be dynamite time trialists. Elite climbers, yes, but also capable of dedicating a lot of time to their rivals against the clock. Kuss is the complete opposite, a pure climber, standing 5-foot-11 and weighing 134 pounds, of which surely at least 70 pounds are lungs.

Sepp Kuss celebrates on the podium after confirming his victory in Madrid
Sepp Kuss celebrates on the podium after confirming his victory in Madrid. Photography: Susana Vera/Reuters

When Kuss took the red jersey on stage eight of this year’s Vuelta, no one expected him to keep it for long, as the race’s only individual time trial was on stage 10. The pre-race favorites were very strong against the clock; Remco Evenepoel is the current world time trial champion and Primož Roglič is the current Olympic champion. Jonas Vingegaard secured this year’s Tour with a resounding victory in the time trial stage. It was expected that Kuss could lose up to three minutes to Evenepoel in just over 25 kilometers.

Instead, Kuss limited his losses to just 1 minute and 15 seconds to Evenepoel, finishing a surprising 13th in the stage, 11 seconds behind Vingegaard and less than 90 seconds behind Italian time trial specialist Filippo Ganna, who won the stage. Afterwards, Kuss joked that it was the first time he had finished a time trial without being overtaken.

Which is the other thing that makes Kuss unusual. LeMond and Armstrong, despite their intense mutual dislike, were both combative and eager to play mind games even against their own allies. Kuss is one of the most popular riders in the peloton: relaxed, self-critical, constantly with a smile on his face. Until the final days of the race, Kuss almost seemed pleased with the position he found himself in, determined to enjoy it while it lasted rather than worrying about when he might finish.

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In his two Vuelta stage wins, the first in 2019 and this year’s sixth stage victory that launched his overall challenge, Kuss slowed down in the final kilometer of the stage to high-five fans lined up along the roadside barricades. After winning the stage, he sprayed champagne on the crowd, as is customary. But while most cyclists, dehydrated and exhausted after a day on the bike, take only a polite sip, Kuss raised the bottle to a 14 second pull that would have made any college sophomore proud. Cyclists talk endlessly about how their sport is about suffering, but sometimes it can also be fun.

Kuss won over fans not only because he seems like a good player, but also because of his tireless work over the years as domestic for Roglič and Vingegaard. His spectacular contributions as an opening act and his evident talent for climbing led to the emergence of “GC Kuss” as a meme on cycling Twitter, an expression of amused hope that cycling’s deepest team will one day allow its biggest backup singer to become its leader.

And then, against all odds, it happened. Kuss won his stage from the breakaway, took a lot of time with the other GC riders and never gave up the lead. When Evenepoel collapsed and lost 27 minutes on the Col du Tourmalet stage, the only remaining threats to a Kuss victory were his teammates Roglič and Vingegaard.

Both Roglič and Vingegaard had incentives to overtake Kuss. The two are competing against each other for primacy in next year’s Tour de France, and a victory for either of them would mean a second grand tour victory this season; Only Chris Froome and Alberto Contador have achieved such a double in the 21st century.

For a moment, at Alto de L’Angliru, on stage 17, it seemed that the unthinkable was going to happen. Roglič, who was given permission to go for the stage win, took Kuss off the wheel and, instead of following the American, Vingegaard followed him. Kuss held his lead in the race for just a few seconds after Bahrain-Victorious’ Mikel Landa caught him and joined him at the final summit of the climb. (True to form, Kuss apologized to his Spanish rival for passing him to the line so he could gain four bonus seconds.)

Public outcry followed; The last time the Vuelta visited its most notable climb, in 2020, an exhausted Roglič was falling behind rivals Richard Carapaz and Hugh Carthy. Kuss, the loner domestic By remaining in the leading group, he had sacrificed a chance to win a stage to keep his faltering leader in the fight. The parallel was striking: Roglič and Vingegaard had combined for six grand tour wins with Kuss on the team, and neither had been on the podium without him.

During the last two mountain stages, the Jumbo-Visma trio stayed together and crossed the finish line arm in arm on stage 20. Cycling Weekly’s Adam Becket started a summary article on social media wondering if the public outcry over the Angliru incident had intimidated Jumbo-Visma into riding for Kuss instead of letting his strongest riders fight each other.

After LeMond and Armstrong clashed so frequently with the European cycling establishment (for better or worse), what a thing it is to see this: an outpouring of support for an American who not only wins, but is loved for doing so. After six seasons of important but under-rewarded teamwork, he’s finally getting his well-deserved moment in the sun. And unlike Horner in 2013, not only is he young enough to remain at the top for years to come, but there’s a rich crop of American reinforcements behind him.

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