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

The path from WorldTour road racing to gravel is well-trodden, even clichéd. Few cyclists travel in the other direction.

Keegan Swenson, the best gravel racer in the discipline’s American homeland, is working his way up the river this weekend, making a late debut at the pinnacle of road racing. The multi-time US cross country national champion and LifeTime Grand Prix Series grand prix winner will line up in the elite men’s road race on Sunday, looking for a decent finish and, perhaps, a more permanent switch to the road races. .

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

Swenson, 28, shouldn’t be here. In a normal year, he wouldn’t be. The US pool of eligible men may not feature favorites of the caliber of world champions, but they do have plenty of talent for WorldTour road racing. 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 (although his younger brother Colby is at Wollongong in the under-23s), and Sepp Kuss felt the same way, tired from a long season. Matteo Jorgensen is part of the fight for Movistar’s relegation 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 entire year at the top of the men’s road races.

Less than ideal. So USA Cycling looked for solutions. Who could fill those spaces? Most riders on the US national scene would be perfectly capable of taking on the critical race of Wollongong and its many hard-hitting corners and climbs, but they just don’t have the elite-level watts needed. Then there’s Swenson, who in addition to his national cross-country titles and world cups has repeatedly beaten former WorldTour pros on the gravel circuit all summer. He certainly 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 single second, making him the Utah state road race champion. A solid amateur result that, before an elite world championship, is like telling a man about to step into the ring with Conor McGregor that he’ll be fine because he won a schoolyard fight when he was eight years old. .

He knows how to corner; look to Tom Pidcock, Peter Sagan and other off-road pros for proof that skills translate, but knowing where to be and when is a more difficult skill. “I think the positioning will be the hardest part,” he said. “Most of the time I will just 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 rider to figure it out pretty quickly. It is good that we are starting on the circuits, I will have the opportunity to mark it.”

You’ll have about seven hours from start to finish to figure it out.

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

It will help that this is not a world championship in Flanders or Italy as well. Wollongong’s roads are wide and the city circuits in particular give the feeling of racing in a giant American criterium. Wet roads won’t bother anyone with his off-road pedigree, and he already spends countless hours training on a road bike.

He made some small changes to suit, relative to his gravel race setup, going a little lower but not much more. He races for Santa Cruz and his owners, PON, also own Cervélo and the Reserve wheel brand, so here he is on an aero S5 bike with a couple of wheel options that shipped quickly once he joined the equipment. A combination of SRAM’s tier 1 and tier 2 Red and Force components point to the fact that this is no WorldTour steed.

What would success look like? “I never show up to lose a race,” she said. But it is realistic. “I want to see how far I can go. Maybe that’s on the break, maybe that’s on a late pick. 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 has been some talk of Swenson’s ability to make a more permanent switch to road racing. He is no longer a young man, but neither were riders like Mike Woods when he broke into the WorldTour in 2016 at the age of 28. The earnings of a solid career path can be tempting.

“Maybe not. We’ll see how it goes here,” she said when asked about a possible switch to skinnier tires. “There has been a lot of talk about me going on the road, but I think it depends on what happens here. I think there might be some options later, maybe, maybe not. And so maybe I like it, maybe I hate it, that would be nice to know.

“If it was the right team, the right offer and the right environment, I would consider it,” he added. “Maybe there is an option to do a bit of both, like Van der Poel and Pidcock. It’s fun to do a little of both. I’m open to everything, I’ve had a good time racing on dirt 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 bit struggling to find some odds and ends for the road bike” after his invitation to Worlds, but sponsors Cervélo and Reserve Wheels teamed up to get a Worlds-worthy bike in a few days. Two sets of wheels were delivered to him overnight and he will make a decision on which one to race before the start on Sunday.

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