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Keegan Swenson on MTB marathon worlds: ‘If the legs are feeling as good as they have been, I think I have a decent shot’

The American national champ's banner season will be put to the test during Saturday's 115km race in Elba.

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When Keegan Swenson found out that he didn’t make the cut for the United States’ Tokyo-bound mountain bike team, he was understandably disappointed. But, the 27-year-old cross-country national champion was not deterred.

“I switched it up this year after not making the Olympics,” Swenson told VeloNews. “I’ve been doing a lot of long stuff. I’ve been really enjoying it and have been really motivated to race and train. Not stoked to do intervals, just big volume. I raced the Pikes Peak Apex last weekend as last tuneup. Mentally all good and physically feeling really good, so I think I’m in a good spot.”

Swenson’s last race in Colorado Springs was a tuneup for this weekend’s 2021 UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships on Italy’s Isle of Elba. Although Swenson said he’s always felt marathon worlds — with its long distance and abundance of climbing — would suit him, this is the first time that the timing, resources, and his fitness, aligned.

2021 has been a banner year for Swenson, who rides for Santa Cruz Bicycles. His about-face from racing shorter and snappier cross-country races to longer distances and stage races has worked out well this summer — he’s stood atop many of the domestic MTB scene’s most notorious podiums.

In early July, Swenson dominated the U.S. national championship race in Winter Park, Colorado, taking the title for the second year in a row. He then went on to finish top-ten at the 137-mile long Belgian Waffle Ride San Diego. A few weeks later, he traveled to the lung-busting Telluride 100, and victory above the clouds in the San Juans would bode well for his next two high-alpine wins — the Leadville Trail 100 and the Breck Epic Stage Race.

Swenson dropping Lachlan Morton and Howard Grotts on Leadville’s Powerline climb. Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

While Swenson’s flying form has him winning nearly every domestic marathon-distance race at the moment, how he performs in Europe, where marathon MTB is a much more popular discipline, is another story. There will be some familiar faces from the XCO world in Saturday’s race — Nino Schurter, Lars Forster, and 2018 marathon world champ Henrique Avancini will be lining up — but Swenson is counting on his fitness, not his familiarity with the field.

“I don’t know the competition that well, but I know a few and what to expect as far as pacing goes and such,” he said. 

The course on Elba’s southeastern aspect includes steep climbs on mule tracks and fire roads, as well as some technical singletrack. Swenson said that that the terrain is dry, loose, and dusty. He also anticipates that the race might last up to six hours.

mtb marathon worlds

“It’s definitely a longer one — 115km with 4,500m of climbing. I think race time will be between 5:45 – 6:15, so it’s long. Seems like in past it’s been anywhere between four to six hours. There’s nothing that’s super tech but the descents are relatively tricky because they’re fast and there’s some loose turns. A few rock gardens. I will use my full suspension bike with 2.4 Aspens, so it’s still a mountain bike  race. I am taking off the dropper though.” 

Since the marathon world champs was first held in 2003, no American man or woman has won the title, nor stood on the podium. Swenson’s start position — 92nd — doesn’t necessarily bode well but true to star-spangled optimism, he’s taking a positive approach.

“I guess that’s better than 130th,” he said. “It starts on a couple k[ilometer] long climb so I’m not super stressed. If the legs are feeling as good as they have been, I think I have a decent shot. It’s a gnarly course. The longer the better.”

Coverage of the 2021 UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships begins at 6:35AM EDT on Saturday, October 2 on flobikes.com