Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
At age 29 and nearing the end of his seventh season as a support rider in the professional ranks, Sepp Kuss has proved his right to be a grand tour winner — whether or not he’s still wearing the red jersey when the Vuelta a España finishes in Madrid on Sunday.
By earning and then defending the jersey day after day, the Coloradan has joined a select few others who waited years before proving their grand tour chops at the Vuelta: the late bloomers.
Kuss’ performance in Spain counters the recent proliferation of riders winning their first grand tour at much younger ages. During this “younger is better” era, we have seen the Tour de France won by three men aged 25 or less (Tadej Pogacar at 21, Egan Bernal at 22 and Jonas Vingegaard at 25), the Giro d’Italia by two others (Nairo Quintana at 24 and Tao Geoghegan Hart at 25) and the Vuelta by two more (Remco Evenepoel at 22 and Fabio Aru at 25).
So, who were the late bloomers, the men who didn’t win a grand tour until they were more than 30 years old?
Ireland’s Sean Kelly began his pro career as a domestique, leading out Belgian star Freddy Maertens in the sprints or working for Belgian climbers Claude Criquielion and Michel Pollentier in the Tour.
In his first four Tours, Kelly finished 34th, 38th, 29th and 48th. His career didn’t turn around until he moved to the French team Sem-France Loire at age 25, starting with his breakthrough victory at the weeklong Paris–Nice in 1982. Kelly would win Paris–Nice seven years in a row and started winning big classics after age 27; but grand tours always seemed beyond his capabilities.
As a team leader, the Irish sprinter-turned-weeklong stage racer started to do better in three-week races but didn’t seriously challenge the best. At the Tour, he improved to the top 10, with seventh in 1983, fifth in ’84 and fourth in ’85 (albeit more than six minutes behind winner Bernard Hinault).
Kelly got his first grand tour podium at the 1986 Vuelta (still more than five minutes behind the winner). Then, finally, in 1988, at age 32 and in his 12th pro season, Kelly went to the Vuelta with winning ambitions. By then he was the world’s top-ranked rider and the leader of a Spanish team, Kas; he said before the start: “If I don’t win then for me it will be a letdown.” He rode a conservative race, keeping within a couple of minutes of the GC leader until the day before the finish. That’s when he trounced the climbers in a 30-kilometer time trial to take the overall victory. Kelly didn’t win another grand tour.
Switzerland’s Tony Rominger didn’t begin bike racing until his early 20s and soon showed himself as a strong time trialist and then as a rider who could win weeklong stage races. His breakthrough came at age 27 when he won Tirreno–Adriatico in 1989 and went on that year to win the Tour of Lombardy classic. But three-week races were a different story. The record in his first seven grand tours was: 97th, DNF, 44th, 68th, DNF, 16th and 57th. He didn’t ride a grand tour in 1991 when he was on the French team Toshiba, which put its energy behind French star Laurent Jalabert; but Rominger again excelled in weeklong stage races, winning Paris–Nice and the Tour de Romandie and placing third at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Rominger’s 1992 move to a Spanish team, CLAS-Cajastur, where he was the sole leader, changed his fortunes. As preparation for April’s Vuelta, he was second at Paris-Nice and won the Tour of the Basque Country. On paper, the Vuelta course looked perfect for Rominger, the time trialist. There were three TTs, but in the first two he placed only ninth and 19th, losing three minutes to the top finishers—including riders from the powerhouse Carrera, ONCE and PDM teams.
Two days after the second of those time trials, the race exploded in the French Pyrénées on a stage over the Portillon, Peyresourde, Aspin and Tourmalet passes to a summit finish at Luz-Ardiden. On a cold spring day, with thick fog on the highest peaks and snow on the roadsides, most riders wore arm warmers and rain jackets. It was a stage of attrition that resulted in big losses for Carrera (Stephen Roche lost more than seven minutes), ONCE (Alex Zülle was nine minutes down) and PDM (Raúl Alcalá, who’d been third overall, lost 11 minutes and stage 7 TT winner Erik Breukink finished half an hour back).
Rominger excelled in such cold, wet conditions and launched a late counterattack to all but catch stage winner Laudelino Cubino, with race leader Jesús Montoya a minute behind. The much-changed GC (with Rominger up to second, a minute behind Montoya) was virtually unchanged 10 days later before a flat 38-kilometer time trial at Fuenlabrada. Rominger put almost two minutes into Montoya —and so won his first grand tour at age 31 in his seventh pro season. The Swiss would go on to win two more Vueltas, along with an overall Giro title and a second place in the Tour.
Perhaps the most surprising late bloomer to win a grand tour was Chris Horner. The American’s roller-coast story has enough successes and failures to fill a book in a career that seesawed between U.S. domestic and the highest level European teams. In regard to stage racing, Horner now and then won weeklong events as varied as Malaysia’s Tour de Langkawi in 2000 (at age 28), America’s Tour de Georgia (2003) and Tour of California (2011) and Spain’s Tour of the Basque Country (2010). As for the grand tours, which he generally rode as a domestique, he had only one top 10 finish in seven Tours, did not finish his only Giro, and in his first three Vueltas his best overall place was 20th. Then came 2013 — in his 17th pro season at age 41.
Horner was then a member of the RadioShack-Leopard squad that contained such stars as Fabian Cancellara, Andy Schleck, Jens Voigt and Andreas Klöden. Horner’s season started with a solid sixth place at Tirreno-Adriatico, but a bad crash at his next race, the Volta a Catalunya, sidelined him for four months. He returned to racing in the U.S. at the six-day Tour of Utah, finishing second overall after winning the stage to the Snowbird Resort summit. The 2013 Vuelta began two weeks later.
It was clear that Horner was in the form of his life when he won stage 3 on a short summit finish that earned him the leader’s red jersey. He dropped to fifth place over the first week of racing that ended with a mountaintop finish on the ultra-steep Alto de Hazallanas, where Horner won again, taking 48 seconds out of Vincenzo Nibali and moving back into the overall lead. Then, in the only individual time trial, Horner was 20th, dropping to fourth overall after losing 90 seconds to new race leader Nibali.
Horner moved up to second after finishing with Nibali on the big stage into Andorra—but he was now 50 seconds behind on GC. The veteran American snatched back about 20-or-so seconds on each of the following two summit finishes, gained six seconds on the next and went into the red jersey before the penultimate day’s stage 20, three seconds ahead of Nibali. This was the stage to the iconic Angliru, perhaps the steepest long climb in any grand tour. Horner answered each of the Italian’s surging attacks, and then left Nibali behind on the last double-digit switchback to extend his lead to 37 seconds, his final margin of victory.
Ten years later, another late-blooming American is in the red jersey. Although Kuss conceded 19 seconds to his superstar teammates Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard on the Angliru stage, those two never doubted Kuss’ climbing ability — they’ve both had countless close-ups of his back wheel pacing them up grand tour mountains for year after year. However, they were likely shocked that their faithful teammate did so well in the flat time trial at Valladolid last Tuesday to keep his overall lead and upend the GC expectations of the two Jumbo-Visma team leaders.
Kuss hasn’t a great TT record because like other team helpers he has generally regarded TTs as an extra rest day. But an analysis of his efforts in the last TTs he rode at this year’s Giro and Tour tell a different story. On the 18.6-kilometer Giro stage to Monte Lussari, although he conceded 38 seconds to Roglič on the first, flat 10.5 kilometers, he then went six seconds faster than the Slovenian on the opening half of the 7.8-kilometer climb to the finish; Kuss was sixth on the stage. At the Tour, in the 22.4-kilometer stage to Combloux, won by an unstoppable Vingegaard, he paced himself well, conceding roughly 50 seconds to the Dane on each of the four timed sections, to place 14th on the day.
Starting the only TT at this Vuelta, in Valladolid, Kuss was already in red with a two and a half minute margin over his two teammates. Over the flat 25.8 kilometers course, he could have been expected to lose two minutes to each of his two leaders. Instead, he lost 53 seconds to Roglič and only 11 seconds to Vingegaard—and Kuss actually went four seconds faster than the Tour champion in the second half of that stage! Now, still wearing the red jersey by a 17-second margin over Vingegaard going into the final weekend, Kuss is looking good to join those other late-blooming riders, Kelly, Rominger and Horner, as a grand tour winner.