The path from WorldTour road racing to gravel is heavily trodden, even cliche. Few drivers go in the other direction.
Keegan Swenson, the top gravel racer in the discipline’s American homeland, pushes his way upstream this weekend and makes a late debut at the pinnacle of road racing. The multiple US National Cross Country Champion and multiple winner of the lucrative LifeTime Grand Prix series will compete in Sunday’s elite men’s road race for a decent result and – perhaps – a more permanent switch to road racing.
“It seemed like a no-brainer [to come here]’ he said on Thursday as he sat in a light drizzle in front of the short-term apartment housing the US world 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 eligible US men’s squad may not be packed with world champion favorites, but they have plenty of WorldTour road racing talent. The problem is that most stayed at home.
Lawson Craddock couldn’t get a visa in time, Quinn Simmons didn’t want to race (although his younger brother Colby is in the U23s at Wollongong) and Sepp Kuss was feeling just as 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 in the men’s elite squad to top the men’s road race all year round.
Less than ideal. So USA Cycling went in search of solutions. Who could fill these slots? Most riders on the domestic US scene would be perfectly capable of handling the critical Wollongong course with its many corners and punchy climbs, but they just don’t have the elite-level wattage required. Then there’s Swenson, who, in addition to his cross-country national titles and World Cups, has repeatedly beaten former WorldTour pros on the gravel track throughout the summer. He undoubtedly has the watts.
Swenson’s last road race went well. He won the 2021 John Lauck Memorial on Antelope Island in Syracuse, Utah by a second, becoming the Utah state road racing champion. A solid amateur result that nonetheless looks, ahead of an elite world championship, like telling a man who’s about to step into the ring with Conor McGregor that he’ll be fine because he had one as an eight-year-old won the schoolyard fight.
He knows how to corner — look to Tom Pidcock, Peter Sagan and other off-road first-road pros to prove the skills transfer — but knowing where and when to be is a more difficult skill. “I think the positioning will be the hardest part,” he said. “I mostly just follow Neilson and Magnus. Then I’ll see how far I can get.”
“I think it will be okay,” he added. “I’m a good motorcyclist that I’ll find out pretty quickly. It’s nice that we’re starting on the circuits, I’ll get the chance to dial in.”
He’ll have about seven hours from start to finish to figure it out.
How many road races has Swenson ever competed in? “I think it would take more than one hand to count them, but you could do it with both, yes,” he said, laughing.
It will help that this isn’t a World Cup in Flanders or Italy either. The streets of Wollongong are wide and the street circuits in particular feel like you’re racing a giant American criterium. With his off-road pedigree, wet roads don’t bother him and he already spends countless training hours on the racing bike.
He made a few small changes to fit compared to his gravel racing setup and went a little lower but not much longer. He rides for Santa Cruz and their owner PON, who also own Cervélo and the Reserve wheel brand, so here he is on an S5 aero bike with a few wheel options that were quickly delivered once he joined the team. A mix of Red and Force components from SRAM first and second stages indicate this is not a WorldTour steed.
What does 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 on the break, maybe that’s in a late selection. I think I can be competitive.
“I’m just here to see what I can do. I have no expectations, I don’t think anyone has any expectations.”
There have been some rumors about Swenson’s ability to make a more permanent switch to road racing. He’s not a young man anymore, but neither were riders like Mike Woods when he joined the WorldTour in 2016 at the age of 28. In the age of Valverde, a rider like Swenson could potentially still have a decade of racing ahead of him and the potential merit of a solid pro career can be enticing.
“Perhaps I do not know. We’ll see how we go about it here,” he said when asked about a possible switch to thinner tyres. “There’s been a lot of talk about me taking to the streets, but I think it depends on what’s happening here. I think there might be some options after that, maybe, maybe not. And then maybe I like it, maybe I hate it, it would be nice to know.
“If it was the right team, the right offer and the right environment, then I would consider it,” he added. “Maybe there’s a way to do a little bit of both, like Van der Poel and Pidcock. It’s fun to do a little bit of both. I’m open to anything, I’ve had a good time in gravel racing and I’m looking forward to doing something new.”
A look at the wheel
So what does a mountain biker’s road bike look like? Actually nothing too unusual. Swenson was “kind of trying to find a few little things for the road bike” after being invited to Worlds, but sponsors Cervélo and Reserve wheels came together to put together a world-worthy bike in a matter of days. He has stayed two wheel sets and will make the call on which he will ride ahead of Sunday’s start.