Keegan Swenson at the finish of Steamboat Gravel. Photo: Dane Cronin

Keegan Swenson has seven hours to learn how to race road bikes

The US cross country champion and one of the world's best gravel racers got a late call-up to elite road worlds.

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The path from WorldTour road racing to gravel is heavily trodden, even cliché. Few riders travel in the other direction. 

Keegan Swenson, the best gravel racer in the discipline’s American homeland, is shoving his way upstream this weekend, making a late debut at the very pinnacle of road racing. The multi-time US National Cross Country champion and sewn-up winner of the big-payout LifeTime Grand Prix series will line up in the elite men’s road race on Sunday, eyeing a decent result and – perhaps – a more permanent move to road racing. 

“It seemed like a no-brainer [to come here],” he said on Thursday, sitting in a light drizzle outside the short-term apartment rental housing the US worlds team. “Why not? I have nothing to lose.”

Swenson, 28, wasn’t supposed to be here. In a normal year, he wouldn’t be. The group of eligible US men may not be stacked with world-champion-caliber favorites but it does have plenty of WorldTour road racing talent. Problem is, most of them stayed home. 

Lawson Craddock couldn’t get a visa in time, Quinn Simmons didn’t want to race (though his younger brother Colby is in Wollongong in the U23s), 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, from EF Easy Post and Ineos respectively, are the only two in the elite men’s squad who spend all year at the top of the men’s road racing. 

Less than ideal. So USA Cycling cast about, looking for solutions. Who could fill those slots? Most of the riders on the US domestic scene would be perfectly capable of taking on the crit-like Wollongong course and its many corners and punchy climbs, but simply don’t have the elite-level watts required. Then there’s Swenson, who in addition to his cross-country national titles and world cups has repeatedly beat former WorldTour pros on the gravel circuit all summer. He undoubtedly 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 akin to telling a man about to step into the ring with Conor McGregor that he’ll be just fine because he won a schoolyard fight as an eight-year-old.

He knows how to corner – see Tom Pidcock, Peter Sagan, and other offroad-first road pros for proof that the skills translate – but knowing where to be and when is a more difficult skill. “I think positioning will be the hardest part,” he said. “I’ll mostly just follow Neilson and Magnus around. Then I’ll see how far I can go.” 

“I think it’ll be fine,” he added. “I’m a good enough bike rider that I’ll figure it out pretty quick. It’s nice that we’re starting on the circuits, I’ll get a chance to dial it in.” 

He’ll have roughly seven hours from start to finish to figure it out.

How many road races has Swenson done, ever? “I think you’d need more than one hand to count them, but could do it with both, yeah,” he said with a laugh. 

It will help that this isn’t 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. The wet roads won’t bother someone with his off-road pedigree, and he already spends countless hours training on a road bike. 

He made a few small changes to fit, relative to 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 wheel brand Reserve, so he’s here on an S5 aero bike with a couple of wheel options that were shipped quickly once he made the team. A mix of SRAM’s first and second-tier Red and Force components points to the fact that this is no WorldTour steed. 

What would success look like? “I never show up to lose a race,” he said. But he’s realistic. “I want to see how far I can go. Maybe that’s in the break, maybe that’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 anyone has any expectations.”

There’s been some chatter around Swenson’s ability to make a more permanent swap to road racing. He’s not a young man anymore, but nor were riders like Mike Woods when he burst into the WorldTour in 2016 at 28. In the Age of Valverde, a rider like Swenson could conceivably have a decade of racing left ahead of him, and the potential earnings of a solid pro career can be tantalizing. 

“I don’t know, maybe. We’ll see how we go here,” he said when asked about a potential swap to skinnier tires. “There’s been a lot of talk about me going to the road, but I think it depends on what happens here. I think there might be some options after, maybe, maybe not. And then maybe I’ll like it, maybe I’ll hate it, it’d be nice to know.

“If it was the right team, and the right offer, and the right environment, then I’d consider 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 everything, I’ve had a good time racing 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 “kinda scrambling to find some odds and ends for the road bike” after his invite to worlds, but sponsors Cervélo and Reserve wheels came together to get a worlds-worthy bike together within a few days. He was overnighted two sets of wheels and will make the call on which he’ll race before the start Sunday.

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