Sepp Kuss just made history as the first American man in a decade to win a Grand Tour. After years of playing a key role as a domestique for Jumbo-Visma—the most dominant team in road cycling today—Sepp has vaulted to the pinnacle of the global cycling stage with his incredible win at the 2023 Vuelta a España. But where did this happy-go-lucky American come from?
Sepp grew up in the small mountain town of Durango, Colorado. With a population of just 20,000, this hard-to-reach community sandwiched between the towering Rocky Mountains and the expansive desert of the Southwestern USA doesn't seem like the kind of place that would spawn one of the USA's only Grand Tour winners. And it seems even less likely when you realize that Sepp spent most of his time racing mountain bikes on gnarly singletrack trails as a kid.
One of the secret ingredients that helped foster Sepp's innate talent was a local youth mountain biking program known as Durango Devo. Sepp was one of the first generation of riders who grew up in the Devo program—but the story is bigger than just one racer. "Devo alumni include Olympians, World-Tour pros, Grand Tour stage winners, Cape Epic champions, World Championship medalists, and over 50 national champions," says the Durango Devo website. And now, that list should be updated with "a Grand Tour Winner!"
The story of Durango Devo is so much bigger than just a handful of elite racers, so let's take a deep dive inside the Durango Devo program to see what it's all about.
Inside Durango Devo
Durango Devo has become the most successful youth mountain bike development program in the country as it continues to churn out world-class athletes. However, Devo is decidedly not a racing program. Founded in 2006 by Chad Cheeney and Sarah Tescher, from the start, their goal was to help develop kids into lifelong cyclists through a team environment. While racing is a part of what they do, it remains a secondary goal to helping kids of all ages learn to love mountain biking.
Devo's programs are divided into an age-based structure, beginning in preschool. In kindergarten and up, kids are divided into teams based on their grade level, going all the way up through high school. Instead of breaking kids out based on their skill level, the idea behind this structure is that "kids who ride with their peers, who build friendships with other people who ride, are going to be more likely to stick around in the sport," said Levi Kurlander, the current Executive Director of Durango Devo—who is himself a Devo alumnus. This conscious deemphasizing of skill levels adds diversity to the teams and helps them stick to their main goal: keep it fun.
Racing isn't truly introduced until the kids hit middle school (6th grade), and even then, it's totally optional. Beginning in sixth grade, the young athletes can choose from three different teams: a cross country race team, a bikepacking and adventure team, and a gravity/dirt jumping team. Again, the teams are comprised of kids in each grade level with these specific interests, without any emphasis on ability level. If you're keeping track, that's a lot of different teams. As of the time of this writing in fall 2023, Devo currently runs 43 different programs. That's 43 mountain bike practices happening at least once a week in Durango (with more frequent practices for the older athletes).
Each team finishes the year with a big out-of-town overnight trip using Devo's fleet of 15-passenger vans, which is often the highlight of the kids' year. "If it's a non-competitive team, we send them on some sort of an adventure overnight out of town as the culmination of the season," said Levi. If the team is more competitive in nature, the end-of-year trip is more likely to be the state championship high school cross-country race, for example. "I think those trips in the vans out of town [are] one of those key moments where you build those friendships and connections that kids will hang on to and keep 'em involved in the sport for the long run."
Even when the kids do reach racing age, Devo's training philosophy is... how shall we put it? Unorthodox.
"We don't do any race-specific intervals or training or what most endurance athletes would consider 'structured training,'" said Levi. "We don't do any of that in any of our programs ever. I think that takes the pressure off of the riders from a results standpoint and makes it about the experience of riding and makes it about the experience of being on a trip with your friends to a new place to go ride—and you happen to be at a race.
"But doing that, taking the pressure off, means all of these athletes that might have the physiological potential to be a really high-performing elite athlete have time to grow into that before they're burnt out and moving on to a different sport or quitting sport altogether by the time they get into college. That seems to be the biggest downfall for a lot of potentially successful racers is that they get out into the world of cycling, which is kind of brutal."
Devo thinks that "the results will come later. If you've got the physiology for it, the results will come, and the desire to train and be structured and train in a way that'll really put you at the top of a world podium will come later. But for us, we're trying to create that comfort in racing and comfort in riding that will keep those athletes engaged even if they're not necessarily winning every day. I think that's the key piece for pretty much any of those athletes."
Levi also highlighted the long arc that a mountain bike (or even road racing) career can take. "There's pretty high levels of burnout typically in junior development cycling programs that are really focused on racing," said Levi. Consider a sport like "gymnastics or swimming or other youth sports where you might hit your peak at 15 to 18 or even 15 to 20. Some of the best cyclists are 25 to 35. So, starting with our programs in first grade, we're talking [about] keeping these kids stoked on riding bikes for another 20 years. So we're looking at that as kind of the baseline for the program and then creating a really inclusive, low stress, almost non-competitive atmosphere around these team practices—that's kind of what we're all about." Sepp was 29 years old when he won the Vuelta, and this win is only going to catapult him into a new extraordinary phase of his career. When we zoom out and look at ultra-endurance athletes, we also find top-tier marathon racers and bikepacking adventure racers performing at the top of their game into their 40s (and sometimes beyond). In this light, Devo's strategy of playing the long game makes total sense.
So what do the teams do in lieu of structured training? Mostly, they play games.
"We do a lot of games at practice, so we'll do things like foot down—[which] is one of our classic games where you've got a defined court, so to speak. You're in a parking lot between this parking space and that one, and it's just 'last one to put their foot down wins'—things like that that are not necessarily about all about speed and fitness," said Levi. "Skill development is key to this whole thing. So bike balance skills—the fastest rider on the team sometimes wins, but oftentimes, it's a rider who's not always at the front of the group on rides that's able to win. Fun little games like that. It just keeps it dynamic. . .so these different kinds of kids in the program have opportunities to succeed in different things."
Just how big is Durango Devo?
As mentioned early, Devo currently runs 43 different programs that practice at least once per week. In their current fall season, 425 riders are practicing with Devo on a weekly basis.
"Typically some of those kids will do more than one program, and then we have some kids that'll just do summer camps and things like that," said Levi. "So each year we typically have about 600 total unique participants and 1,200 or so registrations spread across those programs for those kids doing more than one."
43 programs. 600 kids. All in a town of just 20,000. The math doesn't seem to make sense, but that's just how stoked on riding mountain bikes the town of Durango is.
In order to accommodate all of these student athletes, Devo generally employs between 80 and 90 coaches—and they currently have 83. "Some of those are volunteers, but a lot of them are paid," said Levi. "All of them are certified through our own coach training program that we run, as well as all the usual safe sport and concussion heads up trainings, and all those sorts of things."
I was curious about how Devo integrates with the Colorado MTB League, which is one of the premier middle school and high school mountain bike race leagues in the USA. I learned that since Devo has their programming so dialed, they're contracted to run both of the high school race teams in town. Yes, both—this town of 20,000 fields two different high school teams: one from Animas High School and one from Durango High School.
Logistics and More
It's no easy feat to manage a machine with so many moving parts, so as you can imagine, there's quite a bit of logistical maneuvering involved. The Devo website lists six different staff members, with a board of directors on top of that (all in addition to the coaches). Devo also owns its own fleet of vans for trips, along with a wide array of needed equipment to run the various programs.
Devo is a non-profit organization, but for an org running logistics this complex with this kind of overhead, funding is important. Most athletes do pay to be a part of the program, but the price varies depending upon the amount of hands-on time the athlete has with a coach. Prices "range from $135 for a push-bike program, which is eight weeks practicing once a week for eight weeks, all the way up to our most expensive option with travel and all of those sorts of things, which is around $600," said Levi. "Basically it breaks down though to about $12.50 per hour of contact time with coaches."
$12.50 an hour might sound cheap, and that's because the price families pay is dramatically subsidized. "About 45% of our budget comes from sponsorships, donations, and fundraising," said Levi. "So effectively half of the actual cost of running our programs and the overhead and salary for the staff and insurance, all those things—about half of those expenses are covered through fundraising and donations and sponsorships." To date, most of those sponsorships come from local businesses and brands. While Devo has a few national-level brands like Dometic and Osprey on their sponsor list, and they'd love to add more in the future.
While running a program of this scale costs money, Devo never wants money to present a barrier to any kid who wants to participate. "We also do provide scholarships—full-ride scholarships—and bikes and equipment support for those that need it. Really, anyone that wants to participate, regardless of your ability to pay, right now can sign up for a program," he explained.
Even though these sponsorships are available, getting the word out can be challenging. "One of our constant battles is to get the word out about those scholarships and encourage people to apply, and apply early enough that we can get 'em a bike and get 'em a helmet and get 'em all of those resources that they need to have a good ride," said Levi. "Yeah, we're working on that for sure, and the more we get the word out about [the scholarships], the more I think people will take advantage of it. Our goal is to have at least 30% of our registrations be on scholarship, so we're getting there."
Other barriers to participation still exist. "We're working on transportation being the next barrier to entry for our programs. Not everyone's parents can take off work after school to drop them off at a different trailhead for practice. So right now, that's our next hurdle to get more kids involved: figuring out how we can either start setting up practices from schools or on a bus route so that they can take school buses to and from Devo practice."
My mind spun as I tried to imagine the amount of work it would take to run a program this complex. Sometimes, it seems like organizing a weekly group ride requires an advanced mathematics degree to get schedules to line up, much less 43 programs. But Devo has their system dialed, and they take advantage of modern tools at their disposal to make it easier—such as Strava.
"We like using Strava a lot for a lot of our events," said Levi. "We just did a race at Purgatory, the resort north of town, this summer, where we did an Enduro downhill that we timed entirely with Strava. We created segments and just used Strava as our timing system for the race. It was super fun and made it super easy to organize a race. We didn't have to spend thousands of bucks on a timing system, and people got out there with their phones and their Garmins and rode the courses and got timed—it was pretty fun to see that come together like that. It's an awesome tool, that's for sure."
Never Forget the Feeling
With all this talk of sponsorships and fundraising, logistical challenges, athlete burnout, pro contracts, and race times, it might seem easy to lose sight of the goal—but Durango Devo remains adamantly focused on helping the kids in their programs have fun and become lifelong cyclists. To help keep the goal the goal, they have an unofficial motto: "Never forget the feeling."
Whether it's a coach working with an uncooperative group of kids or a program manager trying to work through the next logistical nightmare, by remembering the feeling—the unadulterated happiness that flows from riding a bike down a swoopy singletrack trail—they can always recenter to focus on what's actually most important in both their work with the 600+ Durango kids and their own lives. Mountain biking and the flow states it engenders have a centering effect, clarifying what it means to live well as a finite human being. Connecting with this core, this feeling, continues to guide Devo to this day, and it is precisely why they've been able to turn thousands of kids into lifelong riders—whether or not they become the next Sepp Kuss, Grand Tour champion.