‘The gravel is really fun’ – Sepp Kuss shows new verve at Clásica Jaén

Vuelta a España winner is not just a GC rider but can do one-dayers too, as he showed in Spain

Clock20:25, Monday 12th February 2024

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Sepp Kuss attacked the Clásica Jaén with vigour he normally saves for stage racing

One could be forgiven for missing the Clásica Jaén Paraiso Interior. The UCI 1.1 race is in its third edition as a build-up race towards the early-season stage races of the Ruta del Sol and Volta ao Algarve, which are themselves build-up races towards the bigger Monuments and stage races later in the year.

For the US cycling fans in particular, it also happens to run on Monday morning after the Super Bowl, a difficult time for American viewers to say the least. Yet for those fans who could spare a couple of minutes to watch the race crisscross the olive groves, dirt roads and punchy climbs of Jaén, the reward was something new: Sepp Kuss excelling in a one-day classic.

The Visma-Lease a Bike rider did not win the day – that honour went to an indomitable Oier Lazkano (Movistar) who soloed to victory – but on those punchy dirt tracks far away from the high mountains where Kuss normally thrives, there was a new verve to how he raced. The effortlessness found in his climbing style was brought to the dynamic nature of the one-day challenge.

“I like the gravel, in a one-day race it’s really fun,” Kuss said after the finish where he rolled across the line in sixth, after working for his teammate Jan Tratnik in the final. “In a Grand Tour, I don't know if it’s the right thing, but in a one-day race, it's really fun. No matter where you finish, you have a really nice memory of these kinds of races.”

Kuss’ visibility on the day was, on paper, far from ideal for Visma-Lease a Bike. Their strategy at the start of the day was all geared towards Wout van Aert who was the big favourite for the race. Nevertheless, he was a victim of a poorly timed mechanical at the start of the first gravel sector, which immediately caused a shake up of Visma-Lease a Bike plans.

To make matters worse, Kuss was attacking the front of the peloton to bring back the breakaway of the eventual winner, unaware of the mechanical that affected his leader.

“Looking back it wasn't the best thing to do,” Kuss said of his acceleration on the first dirt sector. “I only heard he flatted at the end of the section, but I was in front and there was a moto there. I just wanted to follow my own line and avoid any bike problems. I didn't know what the course was like so it was better to be in front than behind.

“We had to wait and see a little bit. We wanted to see if we could come back so we tried to wait. But Ineos and UAE had numbers there and they were already riding a good pace so it would be hard for Wout to come back.”

Even if success eluded them, there was a lot to look into from the Visma-Lease a Bike performance. Beyond the winner Lazkano, Kuss was the main aggressor, pulling his teammate Tratnik, Tim Wellens (UAE Team Emirates) and a strong Bastien Tronchon (Decathlon-AG2R La Mondiale) away from an already elite chasing group on the last gravel sector.

Ultimately, it was too little too late as the four riders were unable to work together to pull Lazkano back into the fold. Yet, from an outside perspective, it seemed clear that Kuss ended the race with his stock firmly pointing up.

The reigning Vuelta a España winner showed, for the first time since a third place at the Faun-Ardèche Classic in 2022, his ability to finish high in the standings in a one-day race. For a rider who freely admits he is one for stage races, this is nothing to shake a stick at.

Perhaps it is just a flash in the pan, but Kuss looks to have taken the confidence from his Vuelta to heart as he looks to seize the opportunities at a crowded Visma-Lease a Bike team. If the Clásica Jaén is anything to go off of, expect Kuss to only improve this season.

His attacking performance today shows that, while he will be crucial at the Tour de France as a loyal domestique once again, Kuss is bringing new ambition to the table in 2024 and will have his eyes set on his own prizes as well, one of which could come as soon as this week.

Kuss will be back racing again at the Volta ao Algarve for his first stage race of the year. The American will then take a month away from racing, presumably to train at altitude, before returning to racing in Spain at the Volta a Catalunya and Itzulia Basque Country to round out his spring schedule before returning to racing before the Tour de France and Vuelta a España in the summer.

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