From parkour to the peloton: the Keegan Swirbul story
Cycling is speed, watts, precision. A historic sport rooted deep in European tradition, its athletes known as some of the greatest sufferers on earth. Parkour is mastery of movement, balance, and creativity. A fringe sport that turns the world into a massive playground.
To the naked eye, these two sports don’t have much in common. In fact, perhaps the only thing they have in common is a tall lean blonde-haired kid named Keegan Swirbul.
Swirbul is quirky, a man of many narratives. He is the kid who won a junior national championship in cross-country skiing, then quit the sport just weeks later. He is the kid who once held his brakes on every downhill, just to ensure he never coasted during a training ride because, he says, “coasting doesn’t count as training.”
(Note: Don’t do this, it will cost you a fortune in brake pads.)
He is the kid who races in glasses that look as though they should be donned by a movie star, not a bike racer. He is the kid who beat Lance Armstrong, a story that follows him around endlessly. Outside Magazine even coined Swirbul “the next Lance Armstrong.” He finds that narrative tiresome.
Before any of this, you could find Swirbul scaling buildings and jumping across massive gaps near his home of Basalt, Colorado. Not on a bike, but with his feet.
Parkour is the sport of moving quickly through an urban environment with the use of running, jumping, and climbing. It is as much an art form as a sport. “I would never miss out on a parkour session because I had a race the next day,” Swirbul said. It never once crossed his mind that scaling buildings and leaping over structures contributed to his oft-felt feeling of sluggishness on the bike and cross-country skis.
“I would go out and do parkour all day,” he said. “I’d come home exhausted and realize I had to go ride my bike, so I would go up the hill above my house for 20 minutes before dinner.”
This is how Swirbul describes his training on the bike as a youngster. He remembers showing up to Mountain Bike National Championships in Sun Valley, Idaho, unsure of what to expect. He quickly realized that he was the strongest rider his age. He walked away with second place and a sour taste in his mouth, knowing he made mistakes.
On a cold March night in 2013, Swirbul took to the streets of Fairbanks, Alaska for a parkour session in his usual XXXL sweatpants. Meanwhile, all his competitors were getting ready for bed. The next day he won a Junior National Championship in cross-country skiing. He celebrated by doing a misty flip off the podium, a brief glimpse into the interesting world of Keegan Swirbul.
A few weeks later, he retired from skiing altogether.
That next summer, Swirbul met Axeon cycling’s team director Axel Merckx. Merckx offered him a spot on the team for the next season. When Swirbul signed his first cycling contract with Axeon, he had never raced on a road bike before. He realizes now how lucky he was to have that opportunity. “Knowing what I know now, that is insane,” he says. “Giving a chance to someone who has never done a road race?”
Road cycling didn’t come as easy as past sports had for Swirbul. Road racing offered the challenge he needed.
That first year had its ups and downs. “I knew absolutely nothing about road cycling,” Swirbul says. “It blows my mind how naïve I was.” During Team Axeon’s first training camp, Swirbul couldn’t figure out how sit on someone’s wheel — among road racing’s most basic skills. Swirbul spent a considerable amount of time on the pavement that season.
“I crossed wheels with people all the time,” he says. “I crashed multiple times during our first training camp; I crashed 20 minutes into my first race.” He describes that first season as demoralizing.
Yet there were some bright moments. During the U23 National Championships, he found himself accidentally riding away from everyone. “This is so strange,” he thought, alone off the front. After repeatedly getting beat down, he would experience these small strange moments of bliss on the bike. Moments where he felt stronger than all his competitors. It was these moments that kept Swirbul’s hopes alive through all the rough patches.
The Tour of Utah is one of the premier road races in the United States. It is attended by pro teams from all over the world. When Merckx informed Swirbul he would be racing in the 2014 Tour of Utah, he had only done a handful of small stage races in his life.
His naivete was obvious. “I thought I had to diet during the race,” says Swirbul. While the other riders were taking in a number of calories appropriate to their endeavours, Swirbul was skipping mid-race feeds in the hope of losing weight during the race. Not surprisingly, the tactic didn’t pay off. Swirbul got shelled at the Tour of Utah. He barely hung onto the back group just to finish the stages.
“I remember thinking so clearly ‘Wow I’m just not made for this, I’m just not even good enough.” That thought came after stage two. On the third stage, it was much of the same. He was gapped off the back and crashed. “After that day I totally cracked at the race buffet,” he says. “All I ate that night was brownie after brownie after brownie.” His body was starving for some fuel.
The fourth stage was the first mountain stage. His mindset at the time was, “I’m just going to finish racing this year then go to school after that.” The stage started and his legs felt amazing. Another moment of pure bliss on the bike.
“I remember thinking, ‘this is weird as shit because I was getting absolutely crushed the days before,'” Swirbul says. He ended up beating all the best young rider candidates on that stage. “It was the brownies, I actually had fuel.” That was a big moment for Swirbul. “I’m not as shitty as I thought,” he says.
It’s not surprising that Swirbul got beat down in 2014. He hated it. He didn’t know what he was doing. He made mistakes he didn’t even know were mistakes.
The next season, Swirbul won the U23 National Championships road race. BMC, one of the world’s most successful teams, signed Swirbul to its development team. He felt on top of the world. It was a huge step forward in his career, especially at the young age of 20.
Swirbul had signed with BMC in the hope of getting some race experience over in Europe, the sport’s heartland. Those hopes were quickly dashed as injuries ravished his season.
He didn’t compete in a single race for BMC. Instead, he put on his stars and stripes jersey and rode short loops around his home, banging his fists against his bars as knee pain would flare up again and again with no respite. Swirbul sought several opinions on his injuries but had no luck. “I was so sad that whole season,” he says, “totally hopeless that I would ever be back.”
The looming issue was the one-year contract Swirbul had signed with BMC. He had taken a bet on himself, foregoing the chance to ride with Axeon again and throwing everything at one year with the BMC development team. The bet didn’t pay off. “I burned my bridge with Axeon,” Swirbul says. “BMC wasn’t going to sign me again because I was such a liability.”
At the end of the year, he was without a team. On October 20th, 2016 he posted the following to this Facebook page: “Anyone have any connections or a possible spare road bike I may be able to borrow for a bit?” BMC had taken their bike back and Swirbul was at rock bottom. Three years into his road cycling career, Keegan Swirbul, the quirky kid with endless talent, a U23 National Champion, the kid who signed to BMC, didn’t even own a bike to train on.
Since October of 2016, Swirbul has rebounded in a big way. Jelly Belly took a chance on him which paid off handsomely for the US Continental team. Fast forward two years, Swirbul is one of the best riders in North America. He was able to prove this at the 2018 Tour of Utah where he finished seventh overall, beating the likes of Michael Woods (a recent Vuelta a España stage winner and world championships bronze medalist) and Tejay Van Garderen (fifth overall at the 2012 and 2014 Tours de France).
But Swirbul’s contract is expiring with Jelly Belly and that contract cannot be re-signed — the team will no longer exist next year.
The situation is reminiscent of the spot Swirbul found himself in two years ago. All the now-23-year-old can do is wait, hoping a team will believe in his talent.
As for the parkour, Swirbul is a one-sport athlete now. “Last fall during my month break I decided I wanted to do parkour,” he says. “I went out to this place near my house. It was a small jump but I was barely making it across. I tried to do a flip off the ground for the first time in years and when I landed I thought I ripped my ACL. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god, Keegan you are such an idiot — you just ruined your career.’”
Watts, these days, are safer than backflips.
About the author
Colorado born and raised, Ben Berend was a 2018 US Olympian in Nordic Combined skiing (it’s a sport — just google it). He ditched the big skis and jumps for a college degree but is currently a cross-country skier for the University of New Mexico (#golobos). Ben describes himself as a 23-year-old dude trying to prove to the world that Liberal Arts ain’t no joke. He’s an enthusiast of all things bikes.