Chad Cheeney of Durango Devo wears Sepp Kuss's Tour of Utah leader's jersey. It's unzipped, because Chad is quite a bit larger than Sepp. Sepp is leaning over with a Sharpie pen to sign Cheeney's torso.

Never forget the feeling (of Sepp Kuss’ Durango parade)

Sepp Kuss came home.

Caley Fretz
by Caley Fretz 20.10.2023 Photography by
Aleks Gajdeczka and Caley Fretz
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Sepp Kuss has gone through three permanent markers and there’s still an hour-long line for his signature snaking around the corner and out of Buckley Park. The exhausted Sharpies sit on the edge of a plastic foldout table next to a stack of posters a thousand high. He signs dozens of Durango Devo jerseys, a hundred T-shirts, one painted rock, one of his own old cross-country skis, one baby, and very nearly a boob. 

In the line: A seven-year-old named Alex who tells me, with gusto, that Sepp should win the Tour de France; a husband and wife who drove ten hours from Arizona and ask for a signature in Spanish, a language Kuss speaks fluently; Kuss’s former teacher and librarian, who hands him an updated library card, just in case; one of the top local junior racers, Chase, wearing one of Kuss’s Jumbo-Visma skinsuits that he found in a donation bin. Hundreds more shuffle forward slowly, each with a thank you and a story. Most are no more than one degree removed from the hero of this hometown of less than 20,000 people. High school classmates, junior hockey coaches; the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Everybody knows Sepp, or knows somebody who knows Sepp. They are proud.

Kuss won’t stop smiling. It’s starting to hurt, he says. Even more than his signing wrist.

Never forget the feeling. 

That phrase is everywhere on Thursday, the day of the Sepp Kuss parade. It’s the motto of Durango Devo, an organization you’ve certainly already heard of if you’ve read a single Sepp story in the last month. It sits on the collar of the program’s jerseys, #NFTF. Chad Cheeney, one of Devo’s founders, bellows it from the stage to an enormous cheer from assembled Durangutans (yes, pronounced like orangutans).

Never forget the feeling of riding with your friends, of your wheels coming off the ground, of discovering a new trail. It’s just a motto but it reflects why, in this reporter’s opinion, Sepp Kuss has connected so directly with so many. In an increasingly robotic sport, he never forgets to feel. 

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“It’s a really beautiful phrase,” Kuss says, hours later. He’s sitting behind the counter at Durango Cyclery, across the street from Buckley Park. It’s the defacto green room for this celebration. A few reporters have gathered, mostly local media and a few cycling titles. Kuss has exchanged the red jersey he wore all afternoon for a Jumbo-Visma polo, the one with the yellow, pink, and red buttons, the subtlest of sartorial flexes for those who know. 

Winning the Vuelta isn’t the feeling he’ll remember, as odd as that sounds. “I’ve already forgotten that feeling because it was very, very fleeting. Because it’s just a bike race,” he says. “The feelings that stay with me are the adventures I had on my bike leading up to that race, how I was able to push myself in training and the races and just overall, my enjoyment for riding a bike.”

Cheeney, out front of the Cyclery at this particular moment, his small child sitting in a big plastic bucket blowing on a vuvuzela loudly at the assembled microphones, would surely approve. 

Sepp Kuss smiles as he leans over a table to sign a onesie on a small baby. The child's father is wearing a polka-dot cycling jersey from the Tour de France and holds the child out gently for Sepp's signature.
Photo: Aleks Gajdeczka

Levi Kurlander and a small group of Durango movers and shakers had 18 days to figure out how to put this thing together. Whispers started flying around Durango cycling circles in late September: “Did you hear? Sepp’s coming home.” Something had to happen; this moment couldn’t go uncelebrated. 

“It started out like it was gonna be low-key, right?” Kurlander says. He’s the Executive Director of Durango Devo, a middle school riding buddy of Sepp’s, and became the defacto glue holding various entities together as they planned and organized. “Maybe we’ll just like do a quick hang, we’ll go for a mountain bike ride in the Gulch, and people will just hang out at Ska [Brewing] afterward.” Then they put out the press release and got 3 million hits in 48 hours. “And we’re like, okay, it’s not gonna be low key,” Kurlander says. 

I roll over to Buckley with neighbor (and Escape Collective member) Josh from the north end of town just after 3 pm, with festivities slated to begin a half hour later. You know those nature documentaries about the salmon returning to their place of birth to spawn? Thousands of them, all turning red (quite apropos for this analogy) as they reach the end of their lifecycle, all headed in the same direction with an unstoppable zeal. That’s what riding across town Thursday afternoon felt like. Families and groups of school kids zipping in from side streets and alleys onto the town’s main cycling artery, a path along the Animas river, all headed toward Buckley. I asked some cops for a crowd size estimate and they said, “Bigger than we thought, in the thousands.” 

Sepp Kuss stands behind a folding table to talk with one of many autograph seekers. It's an older man, with white hair and a beard, and behind him stretches a line of well-wishers and celebrants waiting their turn. Kuss is facing away from the camera, dressed in one of the red podium jerseys from his Vuelta a España win, with the zipper in the back.
Kuss and Dave Hagen, his signature soigneur.

The concentration of bikes increases as we approach Buckley. A full block of sawhorse-style bike racks lies in wait, already filling up. Prolific American racing announcer Dave Towle, who drove the seven hours from his home of Fort Collins, booms over the mic. Sarah Tescher, co-founder of Devo, and Cheeney, wearing Kuss’ 2018 Tour of Utah leader’s jersey, unzipped because Sepp is small and Chad is big, bound up on stage and tell us all to never forget this particular feeling.

Behind the stage, under a small white tent, Kuss stands in mildly European jeans and his red Vuelta jersey, fidgeting slightly. “This is part of his job now,” Kurlander says to me, but I don’t think any media training can prepare a quiet young man from a small town in southwest Colorado for this particular work requirement. His wife Noemi and their small honey-colored dog, Bimba, stand alongside. His mother Sabina, the woman who put him on a mountain bike in the first place, a two-time Iron Horse Bicycle Classic champion, and his father Dolph, a ski legend, stand twenty feet away, watching on. When they finally go on stage, Sabina gets the biggest cheer of anybody barring Sepp himself. The mothers and grandmothers of Durango were extremely cross that she wasn’t getting her props in the media during the peak of Sepptember; they made up for it at Buckley Park.

Kuss, in his red jersey, is sitting at a folding table and hands a signed poster to an autograph seeker. More fans wait behind for their turn.

An old Mercedes drop-top parks up on Main Street for Dolph, Sabina, and Noemi to ride in. Somebody pulls out a mostly sponsor-correct Cervelo mountain bike for Sepp and he throws his team-issue helmet on. Earlier, he spent five minutes behind the stage sticking electrical tape on a few non-sponsor components. Now, he moves off the stage and through the crowd, “like Moses parting the seas,” Towle bellows, and makes his way to the front of the parade.

Behind him is the latest crop of Devo kids. Olympian Todd Wells’ son, who is an absolute ripper; Chase in his Jumbo shorts; George and Cedar; Emmett and Kai who went one-two at the last high school mountain bike race, Rowan and Ellie who went one-two in the JV girls. Ned Overend sneaks up with the kids but nobody minds because it’s Ned.

Sepp sets off down main street, lined by trees turning gold and orange, past Mountain Bike Specialists, closed for the afternoon with an enormous poster of Sepp in the window. The Mercedes follows and people yell “Sabina!” from the roadside. Turn left, up to Second Ave, past a “We Love You Sepp” banner from Leland House, and back toward Buckley. I start off near the front but pull off to the side to get a sense of scale. For five minutes bikes stream by and I still can’t see the end of the line.

Kuss stands astride a bike, in his red jersey and a helmet, looks back at a crowd of cyclists ready to follow him on a celebratory ride. the front of the massive group is entirely kids, including several dressed in donated Jumbo-Visma  jerseys.
Photo: Aleks Gajdeczka
Kuss faces forward now as the ride starts. He's smiling in bright sunlight, while the crowd stretches into the distance behind him.
Photo: Aleks Gajdeczka

Something about Sepp, or something about his particular story within the sport, seems to hit different. For the last half hour of his two-plus-hour signing session, I subbed in for Dave Hagen, the former Fort Lewis College cycling team coach, as Sepp’s signature domestique. The job: stretching shirts and jerseys for signing, handing out posters, keeping the line moving. It’s a somewhat unusual position for a reporter but I can’t really pretend this is a normal story for me – I, too, am less than a degree of separation from Sepp. This is my (adopted) hometown, and in addition to my press pass it was my Devo coach’s jersey that was getting me around the various VIP areas of Sepp’s parade without issue.

My job for that half hour meant I got to watch, up close, hundreds of interactions between Sepp and fans. I have been to a lot of signings. I have never heard so many thank-yous, so many personal stories, seen so many hugs. I have never seen so many kids. I have never heard a rider tell the cops to let more people through. Never seen a rider go through so many Sharpies. Once things were shutting down, he spent another half hour walking around the fencing, signing more shirts and posters, giving out more hugs. “You’re too nice,” I said to Sepp as we approached two and a half hours. “I have too many friends here,” he responded, smiling.

The celebratory ride rolls down a street in Durango. It's gorgeous afternoon sun, yellow leaves on trees, and green forested hills in the background. A rider at the back in a Flyers t-shirt pops a wheelie on his mountain bike as the group rides through town.
Photo: Aleks Gajdeczka

None of this is news. Kuss caught the imagination of so many in part because he, like many big-name riders of his generation, bucks the stereotype of the GC killer. He’s the Anti-Lance in a country where that shadow still looms. He feels, in ways big and small, a bit more like a lot of us than some of his colleagues. He toiled for the benefit of others, did so humbly, but when opportunity arose he pushed for it. There is a bit of killer in there. “I learned a lot about myself during the Vuelta,” he says. He learned that he could do this. Who among us can’t feel that breakthrough viscerally?

All pro riders come from somewhere. It’s a quite basic truth that we nonetheless often forget. The places they come from helped make them who they are, and in turn, the good ones return the favor. Sepp is a reflection of Durango and Devo. Slowly, through all those kids lined up at the front of his parade, Durango becomes a reflection of him, too. The values their coaches espouse – have fun, ride hard – are embodied right there in front of them. He said he’d love to coach Devo someday. But he doesn’t need to get in the trenches to further mold this cycling-mad town in his image. All he has to do is never forget the feeling.

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