Chad Cheeney remembers the moment he knew Sepp Kuss was different.
Kuss was competing in a junior mountain biking world championship, and Cheeney, along with other members of Durango Devo, a nonprofit mountain biking program he started in 2006, were following Kuss’ progress on a computer. They couldn’t see visuals of Kuss actually pedaling, but they watched as his assigned number on the tracking website went from 150th place—his starting position—to someplace in the top 50, methodically passing other bikers what seemed like every few seconds.
“He had started at the back of the pack, but his lap times were in the top 15 guys for the race,” Cheeney says. “All of us were like holy….this kid is a climber.”
Kuss, though, would go on to become more than just a good climber. He is now one of the best at powering up massive mountains in the world, which he proved in dramatic fashion by becoming the first American to win a stage at the Tour de France in a decade. The 26-year-old’s victory came last month during a mountainous trek that ended in Andorra.
The performance left Cheeney in tears. “I was at another event. I just started crying behind my shades when I heard,” he says. “It’s so awesome that this kid is such a great human—and he is the one that won.”
The Durango Devo coach was one of the first people to train Kuss on a bike, beginning in sixth grade. Kuss’ father, Dolph, was the coach for the U.S. Nordic skiing team, but mountain biking became his son’s preferred sport, with Cheeney leading him and a cadre of other youngsters on two-wheelers in and around the town.
The burgeoning star would go on to win three national collegiate mountain bike titles at the University of Colorado Boulder before officially trading in his moutain bike for a road one around 2016. After winning a stage at the Redlands Classic that same year, he signed a pro contract. Continued success for the United States national team in Europe drew the attention of the world’s top teams, including the squad he currently rides for, Jumbo-Visma.
But even after mastering and eventually finding fame on a skinny-tired bike, the roots of Kuss’ success lie in the hills of Colorado. Ahead of his appearance in La Vuelta, a major international race, which takes place in Spain starting August 14, we asked Cheeney about his best advice for climbing the highest peaks like Kuss—whether you’re on a mountain or road bike.
To start, Cheeney suggests finding a massive hill or trail near you to see what your baseline level of skill is. It can even be a stretch on a city street that you ride up and down a few times just to get a feel for your bike, as well as your level of strength and endurance. Cheeney says part of the fun of getting into climbing—and biking in general—is seeking out those routes. “You can find good training off the normal routes,” he says. “You just have to put in a little more time exploring for it on your GPS or the internet.”
If you are looking to take things to the next level, Cheeney says to start doing eight-minute intervals. “Start with a 10-minute warmup,” he says. “Then go eight minutes at your hardest, just like all in. Then spend some time recovering until you can talk, tell a story to a friend. Over time, you can shorten that recovery and work on getting faster.”
Make a Game of It
When Kuss was coming up in the Durango Devo program, Cheeney preferred to have the team’s training be competition-based. “Instead of looking at a stopwatch and having them do laps, we could come up with these little mini-competitions to do around town,” Cheeney says. “Even just minute-or-under segments add in some fun and make things less of a slog.” You can liven up your own training by inviting friends along for some good-natured rivalry and creating challenges that help you push through difficult climbs—and will make each of you better, too.
Finding Strength off the Bike
Cheeney says the one thing that many hardcore bikers forget to do is work non-cycling muscle groups. He recommends working in activities that involve some lateral movement, like tennis, basketball, or volleyball. “I am biking all the time,” he says, “and that just gives me this linear muscle strength. That’s how you get hunchbacks and all kinds of [knee and thigh tissue] problems.”