The kid who beat Armstrong: Keegan Swirbul’s journey back to form and fitness
Professional cycling is full of unknowns. Oftentimes, the hardest aspect of the sport doesn’t come during the race, no matter the duration, the weather, or the difficulty. Instead, the hardest aspect can be the struggle back to normalcy, confidence, and fitness after a setback. It’s something every racer will experience.
That struggle is something American phenom Keegan Swirbul has dealt with in spades during his short career.
The 21-year old from El Jebel, Colorado, was thrust into the spotlight in 2012 after beating pre-scandal Lance Armstrong at a mountain-bike race in Aspen, at age 17. It wasn’t just a simple sprint to the line, either, as Swirbul attacked on the final climb and solidified his gap, crossing the line over five minutes ahead of Armstrong, who finished second.
The result reached mainstream media. Heavy expectations were immediately placed on Swirbul’s shoulders, with Outside Magazine dubbing him as “the next Armstrong.”
But Swirbul’s rapid progression would be halted in 2015 during his second season with Axel Merckx’ development outfit. A painful bout of plica syndrome in his left knee resulted in an operation and a late start to the season. Despite the injury, Swirbul took the biggest win of his short career at the 2015 U23 national road championship.
The result was notable, achieved on a demanding course at Lake Tahoe, California. Finishing in second was teammate Greg Daniel, now with Trek-Segafredo, and in fourth, Alexey Vermeulen, now with LottoNL-Jumbo.
Signing with the BMC Development Team for the 2016 season, Swirbul proceeded into his early season training with motivation. His primarily European schedule would see him lining up at the biggest races of his life, and so, he wanted to ensure complete and perfect preparation. Swirbul admits to lacking moderation in any aspect of his life, especially when it comes to his passions.
“I definitely have a tendency to overdo things because my mentality is like, ‘alright, well so-and- so is doing this so I’ve gotta do more to get ahead of them.’ That has really really gotten me into trouble in my four years [within the sport],” he said. “It’s for sure something that led to the injury in the first place. Doing extreme, extreme training.”
Swirbul’s mentality is truly a double-edged sword. On one hand, an athlete possessing this ethos can quickly excel through intensity and passion. Conversely, it can quickly lead overuse injuries. Small injuries tend to lead down a slippery slope, especially in endurance sports, where the true essence of the pursuit is pain tolerance. Something small gets ignored and compensated for, and ultimately leads to another issue.
He jumped on his new BMC in December and immediately began a high-volume training program. He admits he jumped into heavy training too quickly, subsequently flaring up an Achilles tendon issue which ultimately led to another bout of plica syndrome, this time in his right knee.
“I tried the conservative approach with just therapy, because in the back of your head, you’re thinking, ‘ok well if this doesn’t work I’m going to have to get [plica] removed surgically,’” he said.
Swirbul ultimately succumbed to the pain, and realized heavier measures needed to be taken in order to ultimately overcome the injury. The measures didn’t just include an operation and physical rehabilitation, however — he also realized that his entire approach towards training needed to be adapted. The relentless intensity with which he pursued his preparation wasn’t sustainable.
“Come June, I was like ‘well, my season is over.’ I was super down. Depressed as hell. And then I got the surgery and it was August before I could ride at all,” he continued. “My coach and I have really been working on just trying to keep it consistent. In the middle. No highs or lows.”
BMC Development didn’t re-sign him, but regardless, Swirbul persisted in trying to find a team for the 2017 season. It wasn’t until January that he was offered a spot on longstanding American squad Jelly Belly-Maxxis. Finding a home for 2017 was a critical step in continuing the career he’s working to shape into a sustainable enterprise.
“It’s really hard for me to grasp the ‘less is more’ mentality.” He said. “But I’m pretty sick of showing up to races feeling tired or injured but knowing I can produce the numbers to be up there.”
The learning curve for a young professional is typically plagued with setbacks, and Swirbul has experienced more than his fair share. The setbacks lead to learning, however, picking up the nuance and balance required for productive and sustainable training.
As Swirbul’s form and confidence are restored, he’s again seeing the exceptional form that has carried him to numerous victories in the past. He donned the yellow jersey at the Tour de Beauce after a fifth-place finish on the demanding Stage 2 finish atop Mont Mégantic. At the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, he placed tenth on the Stage 3 time trial up Big Cottonwood Canyon, finishing in the same time as American star Brent Bookwalter of BMC Racing.
This week, he’s at the Colorado Classic, racing against WorldTour teams on home soil. He’s again beginning to find his way within the sport that’s presented him with so many obstacles in the past.
“I’m definitely confident in my engine and my abilities,” Swirbul affirmed. ”The times I have shown up to the races knowing I’m at my top level I’ve been really competitive. It keeps me going, knowing that someday I’ll sort out the injuries, my form, and my training, and figure out what works to show what I can really do.”
It’s been a process of learning for the talented rider, and he continues to forge on, absorbing what he can along the way. Despite his distaste for taking rest, he’s learned it’s necessary for a sustainable and injury-free process.
“One thing I definitely have learned is that you can rest,” he said. “Maybe if I’d been smart and said ‘okay, two weeks,’ maybe  would have been a different year, a different situation. The essence of the sport is all about dealing with pain, but it’s a delicate balance, and I’ve learned that the rest will do the job. I’m starting to figure out what works for me.”