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Keegan Swenson heads to the 2022 UCI Road World Championships as one of the most anticipated riders to watch in the men’s road race, and with the off-road ace buoyed by how much gravel has taken off in recent years.
Swenson was a surprise call-up for the men’s road race in Australia but has been a dominant presence in the off-road scene. This year alone he has won Sea Otter, Crusher in the Tushar, the Leadville Trail 100, and SBT GRVL, as well as the U.S. national championships.
USA Cycling studied Swenson’s power data and decided to take a punt on the 28-year-old at worlds, and with Swenson eyeing a possible move into the WorldTour for next season he has an excellent chance to demonstrate his skillset in front of road team bosses in Australia.
The depth in gravel has grown massively in the last few years, with European road riders and high-profile domestic riders raising the standards of competition. Racing infrastructure and organization have also come on leaps and bounds, and in many ways, Swenson personifies the importance of gravel and off-road racing when it comes to finding talent and transferring it to the road.
“It’s super cool how in the U.S. the gravel scene has really developed in the last couple of years. I think, right now, it’s the most competitive form of racing in North America,” he told VeloNews.
“There are cross country races that are pretty big but in general I think that the gravel races have deeper talent and the demands of gravel racing is similar to road racing. Steamboat was more or less a road race with a fair bit of gravel. I raced small tires and it was bunch racing, so I think that simulates close to road racing, and there’s not a huge amount of racing in the U.S. right now.”
Road racing in the U.S. has taken a significant hit in recent years. Major events have disappeared off the calendar, while teams have folded to leave a small crop of stage races, the Maryland Cycling Classic and a criterium scene.
The improvements in talent within gravel racing has encouraged organizations such as USA Cycling and pro teams to follow the scene.
“There’s more talent in gravel right now and numbers with Strava are pretty transparent. Everyone can see what we’re doing and see that the numbers we’re doing aren’t that far off what they’re doing in the WorldTour. They can see if a rider has the motor, so it’s just about whether they can do it on the road as well.”
Swenson has never raced an elite championship on the road and counts the Valley of the Sun road race as the biggest road event of his career so far. The road race at worlds will signify a huge step up in terms of quality, but it’s the tactical and positional sides where Swenson sees his biggest areas of improvement.
“I think it would be just racing in the bunch. We do that in gravel but we’re more spaced out. It would just be about getting used to that. In the mountain bike starts we’re packed in tight so I’m used to being in bunches. It would be just a matter of getting used to a different sort of bunch. I have the skills to figure it out pretty quick. On the road bike I can descend fast and I can corner well. It would be about learning to read the bunch, when to move up and those nuances that are really important in road racing,” he told VeloNews.
It’s still unclear what success would look like for Swenson regarding racing worlds. Neilson Powless is likely to lead the line for the men’s team after finishing fifth last year, while Magnus Sheffield will be hoping to make up for his crash in the individual time trial.
“At worlds I’d love to try and get in a breakaway and see how long that lasts. If I can finish in the lead bunch, that would be great. USAC would be extremely happy with that too and while I don’t have the tactics or maybe the punch to be with the lead guys, just making it over the climbs would be great,” he added.