The path of WorldTour gravel road racing is a very busy, even clichéd one. Few runners travel the other way.
Keegan Swenson, the discipline’s top gravel racer in the American homeland, is forging his way uphill this weekend, making his late debut at the pinnacle of road racing. The multiple U.S. national cross-country champion and stitched winner of the big-money LifeTime Grand Prix series will line up in the elite men’s road race on Sunday, aiming for a decent result and – perhaps – a more permanent move to road racing.
“It seemed like a no-brainer [to come here]“, he said Thursday, sitting in a light drizzle outside the short-term rental apartment housing the United States world championship team. “Why not? I have nothing to lose.”
Swenson, 28, was not supposed to be there. In a normal year, it wouldn’t. The group of eligible American men may not be stacked with world-class favorites, but they have plenty of WorldTour road racing talent. The problem is that most of them stayed at home.
Lawson Craddock couldn’t get a visa in time, Quinn Simmons didn’t want to race (despite his younger brother Colby being at Wollongong under 23), and Sepp Kuss felt the same, tired from a long season. Matteo Jorgensen is part of Movistar’s relegation battle and had to stay in Europe. Neilson Powless and Magnus Sheffield, of EF Easy Post and Ineos respectively, are the only two from the elite men’s team to spend the whole year at the top of the men’s road race.
Less than ideal. So USA Cycling looked for solutions. Who could fill these slots? Most riders on the US National scene would be perfectly capable of tackling the crit-like Wollongong course and its many bends and punchy climbs, but just don’t have the elite-level watts required. Then there’s Swenson, who in addition to his national cross-country titles and World Cups, repeatedly beat former WorldTour pros on the gravel circuit all summer. It definitely has the watts.
Swenson’s last road race went well. He won the 2021 John Lauck Memorial at Antelope Island in Syracuse, Utah by a single second, making him the Utah State Road Race Champion. A solid amateur result that, ahead of an elite world championship, is nonetheless like telling a man about to step into the ring with Conor McGregor that he’ll be fine because he won a backyard fight. school at the age of eight.
He knows how to corner – see Tom Pidcock, Peter Sagan and other off-road pros for proof that skill translates – but knowing where to be and when is a harder skill. “I think positioning will be the hardest part,” he said. “I will mainly follow Neilson and Magnus. Then I’ll see how far I can go.
“I think it will be fine,” he added. “I’m a good enough cyclist to get the hang of it pretty quickly. It’s good that we start on the circuits, I will have the opportunity to compose it.
It will take about seven hours from start to finish to figure it out.
How many road races has Swenson already competed in? “I think you would need more than one hand to count them, but you could do it with both, yes,” he said with a laugh.
It will help that it is not a world championship in Flanders or Italy too. Wollongong’s roads are wide, and the city circuits in particular feel like racing a giant American criterium. Wet roads won’t bother anyone with his off-road pedigree, and he already puts in countless hours training on a road bike.
He made a few small changes to accommodate, from his gravel race setup, going a bit lower but not much longer. He races for Santa Cruz and their owners, PON, also own Cervélo and the Reserve wheel brand, so he’s here on an S5 aero bike with a few wheel options that were shipped out quickly once he was part of the team. ‘crew. A mix of SRAM’s first- and second-tier Red and Force components indicate this is not a WorldTour steed.
What would success look like? “I never show up to lose a race,” he said. But he is realistic. “I want to see how far I can go. Maybe it’s in the break, maybe it’s in a late selection. I think I can be competitive.
“I’m just kinda here to see what I can do, I don’t have any expectations, I don’t think anybody has any expectations.”
There have been discussions around Swenson’s ability to make a more permanent switch to road racing. He’s no longer a young man, but neither are riders like Mike Woods when he burst into the WorldTour in 2016 at age 28. In the era of Valverde, a rider like Swenson could possibly have a decade of racing ahead of him, and the potential earnings from a solid professional career can be tantalizing.
” I do not know, maybe. We’ll see how we do here,” he said when asked about a possible swap to thinner tyres. “I’ve been talked about a lot on the road, but I think it depends on what’s going on here. I think there might be options after, maybe, maybe not. And then maybe I’ll like it, maybe I’ll hate it, it would be nice to know.
“If it was the right team, the right offer and the right environment, then I would think about it,” he added. “Maybe there’s an option to do a bit of both, like Van der Poel and Pidcock. It’s fun to do a bit of both. I’m open to anything, I had a great time at running on gravel and I’m excited to do something new.
A look at the bike
So what does a mountain biker’s road bike look like? Nothing too unusual really. Swenson was “a little scrambling to come up with bits and bobs for the road bike” after his invitation to the world championships, but sponsors Cervélo and Reserve Wheels came together to get a bike worthy of the world championships within days. He spent the night on two sets of wheels and will make the call on which he will race before the start on Sunday.