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Gravel

Can Keegan Swenson win Unbound Gravel?

If the current situation is any indication, then the answer is a resounding 'yes.'

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Keegan Swenson has been winning a lot lately.

It started last summer when the 28-year-old won a double header in Winter Park, Colorado, becoming the national champion in cross-country and short track. Then, he won the notoriously difficult Telluride 100. After that, he crushed the field at the Leadville Trail 100 and followed that up with a win at the week-long Breck Epic.

This year, Swenson set a record at 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, lapping the 16-mile course 21 times in 24 hours. He’s at the top of the Life Time Grand Prix series standings after his win at Sea Otter, and on the last day of April he won the Epic Rides Whiskey Off-Road.

And so I have to ask — what’s it like to keep winning everything?

“Every race is a new challenge, it’s not like you go into every race thinking you’re going to win,” Swenson said. “It’s always the goal. At all of them there’s been good competition, but a lot has to be aligned pretty well to make it happen. I’ve started to figure out what works for me and how to race more to my strengths versus racing to other people’s. I guess I’ve just started to figure out what it takes for me to win.”

So, what would it take for Swenson to win Unbound Gravel in Emporia, Kansas is exactly one month? He seems to be well along the yellow brick road.

‘I’m not worried about the distance, if anything it helps me.’

Confidence — versus overthinking or guessing — has been one of Swenson’s recent revelations.

“Listening to my instincts, not hesitating,” he said. “Before, I didn’t have the confidence of ‘oh this move won’t work,’ or ‘it’s too early.’ I’ve worked on that with my coach — he says ‘if you feel like it’s time to go, go.'” 

Of course, Swenson also has the motor to match. For the people that put the Life Time Grand Prix riders into two boxes —  ‘gravel rider’ or ‘mountain biker’ — and assume that the mountain bikers don’t have the endurance for the long gravel events, Swenson is here to correct that. 

“I actually think that’s [endurance] one of my strengths,” he said. “It seems like a lot of people doubt the mountain bikers on the distance thing. Think about it — a lot of the mountain bike races are really long — Leadville, Telluride, and then obviously 24HOP, that ended up being some 360-miles. I’m not worried about the distance, if anything it helps me. I think the longer the better for me, if it’s long it’s gonna come down to who’s strongest and who has the best endurance engine.”

Swenson has been tuning his endurance engine for a few years now, making the transition away from World Cup XCO racing to focus on marathon distance mountain bike events. He’s found his niche, much more so than he did in shorter-format events, and his ability to go hard, over long periods of time has naturally translated well in gravel.

Although he hasn’t lined up for that many gravel races, he’s done well when he has. In late 2020, he won Belgian Waffle Ride Cedar City without a front brake, in a sprint.

So is he a roadie, too?

To dispel any doubt that Swenson knows his way around the peloton and the dynamics of road racing, there’s that.

“I’m pretty comfortable riding in bunches,” Swenson said. “I haven’t done a ton of road racing but a fair bit. Some crits, some gravel. Even World Cup short track, you’re pretty bunched up and it’s even harder with wide bars, you get caught and tangled up. When you get into a bunch with curvy drop bars it’s easier or less stressful.”

Swenson is currently living in Tucson where he’s a regular at the (very fast) weekly Shootout group ride.

“The Shootout has been good to practice different techniques and tactics and how to read a bunch — the way the pack moves and those things,” he said. “So I think I’m pretty well prepared for that.”

Mental status?

So, with endurance and tactics under control, what does that leave for Swenson to work on? I ask about his mental game. Does he use visualization as a tool? Spend hours on the phone with other riders who’ve done Unbound, picking their brains for beta?

“Not really,” he said. “I’m pretty good at memorizing courses and tracks, key sections anyway. I wouldn’t call it visualization, but I kinda know key moments. Like being in front at a feed. I don’t actually visualize it but more or less race in the moment, go by feel. Otherwise I think I psych myself out. You can overthink it.”

While Swenson regularly rides Shootouts, lives with pro (and fellow Grand Prix participant) Sofia Gomez Villafañe, and trains on a regular basis with friend and competitor Russell Finsterwald, his vibe is a bit lone wolf. Whether or not it’s the low-key team he’s landed on for the year (the Santa Cruz htSQD, with fellow national champ Alexis Skarda) or the fact that he’s blazing a super unique path through the landscape of pro cycling, whatever Swenson is doing seems to be working.

So, he’s not going to change anything as he rides closer to Kansas.

“I do almost feel like I’m doing my own thing,” he said. “Just because people are doing it one way doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do things. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, you know? I feel like a lot of people doubted me at the 24hr race, ‘he’s not gonna be able to do it, he’s never ridden this long.’ Sometimes not knowing what you’re getting into, as long as you have a general race plan and your nutrition dialed, sometimes it’s a good thing.”