The making of Sepp Kuss: Durango, mountain bikes, and the lasting love of letting it rip

We go back to Kuss' roots to explore the unique fun-loving ethos of his childhood club, the 'ridiculous adventure rides', and why he was seen as 'really loose in a positive way'

Clock13:33, Friday 22nd September 2023
Sepp Kuss (front) with his Durango Devo colleagues around the time of 2006, long before the champagne-popping of the Vuelta

© Durango Devo / Getty Images

Sepp Kuss (front) with his Durango Devo colleagues around the time of 2006, long before the champagne-popping of the Vuelta

Durango, Colorado, with its population of 19,223 at an altitude of exactly 2,000 metres, is blessed to be at the confluence of America’s most famous geography.

To the south are the 'Shiprocks' and Monument Valley, towering cathedrals of stones and sand that erupt from vast stretches of barren flatlands. To the west are the four corners and the chasms of the San Juan River around Mexican Hat. You might know the San Juan River for the famous river crossing scenes in The Searchers, John Ford’s seminal Western.

To the east, over the Continental Divide and across the San Luis Valley, are the tallest sand dunes in the United States, marooned over 7,000 feet above sea level. To the north sprawl the San Juan Mountains and the largest section of uninhabited, untouchable wilderness area in all of the Rocky Mountains.

While he may no longer live in Durango, it was that playground and the life Sepp Kuss lived within those mountains and valleys that have paved his winding, humble and unique path to the top of world cycling

In the natural collection of trails winding up any available slope, life in the mountain town is conducive to allowing kids to leave their homes or school and roam. Often, this is done under the watchful, but equally rambunctious gaze of Durango Devo coaches.

Durango Devo: where kids having fun are fast

Since 2006, Durango Devo has been the go-to sports program in the town, which prioritises cycling over the conventional American sporting exploits. Yet, instead of falling victim to the pervasive culture of overly intensive youth sports, Durango Devo is chill.

Kuss, who was 12 in 2006, was a foundational member of that chill ethos. As he has shown by winning the Vuelta a España, he has kept that calm, cool, laid-back core to this day.

“He seems like the same, fun-loving kid now when I see him climbing to the finish line of these stages,” Chad Cheeney, the co-founder of the program, tells GCN.

“You know when he gets that little smile and kinda sticks his tongue out almost like he's saying 'yeah I’ll sprint you guys!' That's what I remember the most, just him liking the challenges we would throw at him in practice.”

Considering other youth sports in the US, or even US sports in general, that chill vibe seems like an outlier. Yet, it is very true to Durango – a town whose vibe may or may not have led to an infamous mark as the least fashionable city in the United States, according to USA Today.

Durango Devo really couldn’t be run any other way.

“We’ve done a good job of hiding the fact that we're doing high-level aerobic skill workouts. It's just a full on game,” Cheeney says.

“For practice, we created a bunch of games we do around town and kids just end up being fast. Mountain biking is just so damn fun, kids will do a hill climb and say ‘that's so much fun, let's race up that hill together.

“We took an approach to mountain biking like ball sports and gave kids coaches and a season and competitions and two-to-three weekly practices, because cycling didn't have that yet. But within that structure, we played a lot.”

Twice in a generation talent

While Durango Devo continues to churn out talented riders, Sepp Kuss is probably their most famous product. One can only say probably because he is not the only generational talent to emerge from the small town over the past few years. He is one of two.

Christopher Blevins has been the top American mountain biker for the past three years. Like Kuss, he vaulted into the upper echelons of mountain biking, securing the first-ever short track World Championship and America’s first World Cup win in decades.

Nevertheless, long before that, he was just the youngest of a bunch of “groms”, as Cheeney loves to call the young, adventure-minded kids on Devo.

“I was the youngster, like five or six years younger than Sepp," Blevins tells GCN. "So when I was in middle school and they were high schoolers I tagged along with them. When I was 12 or 13, I was always the little kid and probably exposed to some older kids' things…”

Blevins trailed off with a chuckle for a second, hinting at the rambunctiousness of the old Devo days that have surfaced on Instagram in recent days, before returning to the topic at hand: "But anyways, a normal Devo practice was totally unpredictable.

“Chad would just take you where it was best that day. You didn't know if you were going to race each other uphill or play foot-down in a gazebo in a park. It's just really spontaneous and fun and a testament to Chad Cheeney and the Devo philosophy.”

That structure of weaving the performance in and around the laughs and controlled chaos of the Durango Devo practices offered just enough balance for Blevins, Kuss, and countless other great riders to emerge from Durango as some of the best in the world.

“The normal everyday Devo practice was the bedrock for the love of mountain bikes, but Wednesday night short tracks and the once-a-month telegraph time trials were the big events,” Blevins said. “I think I won my short track Worlds because of those short tracks and everyone recognized what Sepp could do on climbs from those time trials.

“I don't think there is anything special about the individuals, it is just about the collective community we were born into. The only leg ups we had was just riding together and great coaching pushing us in the right direction.”

Next in line

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While Blevins has moved onto pastures anew, specifically Santa Cruz, California, and Kuss has moved full-time to Andorra, Cheeney is very much still around Durango building on that philosophy. With Kuss’ success, his job might even be getting bigger.

“The experts will all tell you that you can be just as good as the people around you. That's what we have around here. We have all the different levels for all the riders to choose what path they want to go with cycling. We have over 100 coaches and over 900 kids so the pool is huge.

“Right now we have Riley Amos who got two medals at the U23 world cup and just a few years ago he was freaking out because Chris Blevins showed up at his short track. These kids see these guys, see how they are training, and it's pretty easy for them to be confident in their training and not overdo it."

From the legacy that Durango Devo is rapidly forming, the cycle of talent is quickly becoming something that is getting more and more sustainable, as the alumni return as shining examples of how fast can be fun and how fun is natural.

“The biggest thing is that cycling is embedded in the community in such a natural way,” Blevins says. “Nobody expected or was riding with the goal to be where we are now. It was just riding with your friends and accidentally getting good.

“That was definitely the case with Sepp, he was always the one to do ridiculous adventure rides. He was just really loose in a positive way. The development curve was secondary to just everyday fun.”

In a town like Durango, Kuss’ success is sure to lead to more riders like himself. That’s not to say, however, that it will be easy to recreate. Kuss, after all, chose the hardest way.

“Sepp is unique in how much he has embraced the WorldTour lifestyle,” Blevins says. “It wasn’t predictable – nobody expected Sepp to follow the ultra-serious route – but there's a purity to it.

"Sepp is in the WorldTour because he loves riding his bike and he wants to see how good he can be. He's unique, in a way, by not letting the externalities of a life in the WorldTour make it more difficult for him.

“Really the most surprising thing is having two of the top American WorldTour [with Sepp Kuss and Lidl-Trek's Quinn Simmons both from Durango] because there are many more mountain bikers and both Quinn and Sepp could have followed that route."

Kuss is slated to return to Durango in the coming days as his European race season has wrapped up. With the energy from the Vuelta feeding the energy of a bike-mad town, he is sure to get a hero's welcome.

Yet away from the big events, it would surprise nobody to see Kuss dust off the mountain bike and turn up to a day with Durango Devo, encouraging the next generation of riders to see where they could reach.

After all, at heart Sepp Kuss is still just a grom from Durango.

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