Some 200 metres after the finish in the Clásica Jaén Paraiso Interior, Sepp Kuss (Visma-Lease A Bike) ground to a halt and, one recovery drink quickly downed, the 2023 Vuelta a España champion exchanged initial post-race impressions with teammate and fellow breakaway Jan Tratnik, who was third behind solo winner Oier Lazkano (Movistar).
“Two podiums in three days, not bad,” Kuss pointed out to Tratnik, already second in the Vuelta Ciclista a Murcia on Saturday, with a mud-stained grin. But Kuss’s own performance on Monday, on the backroads and gravel pathways of eastern Jaén was also more than remarkable in its own way, too.
Sixth at the finish, Kuss had always raced well off-road, given he was a US MTB collegiate national champion prior to taking up road racing full time.
His goals are much further down the line in 2024 and few were expecting the American to be shining so strongly midway through February, and on terrain that feels a long way from the usual mountain climbs where Kuss usually shines the brightest.
In some ways Kuss had no choice. Given that after teammate and standout favourite Wout van Aert punctured with some 60 kilometres to go and could not regain contact, Kuss and Tratnik, the last men standing from Visma in the front group, found themselves making the running for their team.
In an impressive two-hander, Kuss all but pulled the chase group to bits on the climbs and off-road segments while Tratnik kept back what strength he could for a possible small group sprint.
Ultimately, Lazkano finally proved too resilient to catch, even though his advantage was well below a minute at the finish, but as Kuss said afterwards, both he and Tratnik could be satisfied with how close they ran the Spaniard.
“It was too bad to lose Wout in the beginning with a flat tyre, but we still had Jan and I up there and it was very close,” Kuss told Cyclingnews. “I think either way it was going to be really hard to bring the break back. It was a very strong group and in such a short race, it was tough to make a difference because when the peloton’s breaking all the time, it’s hard to get organised.
“But other teams were controlling, so I tried to give everything I could and get Jan as close as possible and catch the last of the break. But he [Lazkano] was super strong and I was hurting myself to try and keep him [Tratnik] up there.”
After an initial spell of waiting to see if Van Aert could get back in contact, which proved impossible, “me and Jan tried to make the most of it in the front group”.
“We ended up getting very close, but it was a very well-deserved victory for Lazkano, too,” Sepp said.
“It was a fun race, just four segments of off-road” – after the heavy rains over the weekend forced a major reduction in their original total of 12 – “but I like races like these.”
The last segment of off-road was the worst, he agreed. “With a lot of stones and very steep in places, but you just have to have the legs in these kinds of situations. When we got back on the tarmac, I didn’t have anything left and I just tried to take turns as far as I could.”
Grand Tour prep
Kuss briefly questioned the presence of such off-road terrain in Grand Tours, saying he was “not sure if it’s the right thing” in multi-day events, but could add an element of “fun” in a one-day race.
“It is really fun, I like the gravel and stuff, no matter where you finish, you’ll always have some good memories. At home I ride the gravel bike a lot, but that’s very different to riding in the peloton with people all over the place.”
As Kuss told Cyclingnews at the start of the Clásica, the other goal of riding Jaén was to get some reference points in terms of material for the Tour de France, which ventures off-road round Troyes at the end of its first week. At the same time, racing Jaén means he’s also getting in an earlier start to the season, with Murcia and the Clásica followed by the Volta ao Algarve on Wednesday.
“To be honest I prefer to do it like this rather than be already altitude training. I like to do different races and you can only train for so long, so it’s nice,” Kuss said.
“Today is a good test for the equipment for the Tour, too, we have a lot of equipment options so it’s nice to get a feel for that. And just the flow of the race, of course, here it’s 100 riders while in the Tour it’s double that number and way more stress. So for me, I’m here mainly to enjoy myself and do something a bit different.”
In any case, as Kuss pointed out, anything he can take this early in the season is something of a bonus, given where he really plans to shine is much later in the year in the Tour and Vuelta. A sterrato race, he added, was also good to do because in a way it took him back to his cycling roots and his mountain bike days.
“I really enjoy that, once it’s a bit less hectic and you can find your own lines and have fun on the dirt,” he concluded, before pointing out, “but it’s definitely a different vibe to a mountain bike race!”