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Down but not out: Keegan Swirbul is fighting to keep his pro career alive

'I can come back': Dropped by his current team in September, the American rider is fighting tooth and nail to find a new squad for 2023.

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For every exciting transfer announcement, there’s another side to the story.

Often it’s a tale of disappointment and discouragement because when a team welcomes a rider through the front door it’s often at the same time as letting another athlete know they are surplus to requirements.

If you’re one of those unlucky riders then the degree of desperation you face when it comes to finding a new team comes to a number of factors: stature, results, age, wages, and the demand you carry on the market.

For a rider such as Keegan Swirbul, it’s an incredibly difficult position to be in.

A few years ago the American was a U23 national road champion and a runner-up in the Tour de Langkawi. However, it’s been a rough period since then for the now 27-year-old. At the end of his current deal at Human Powered Health, he has been told there’s no spot for him on the squad in 2023.

Like everyone else, Swirbul had to muddle through the global pandemic as best he could, but freak illnesses, collarbone breaks, and crashes certainly haven’t helped his progress. When speaking to VeloNews from his base in Switzerland, the one word missing from the American’s vocabulary is momentum. That’s because he simply hasn’t had any.

“The COVID year in 2020 screwed everything for everyone and then in 2021 I had an infection. Then I finally made it back to racing and broke my collarbone in a crash,” he said.

The infection Swirlbul mentions cost him almost half a year and began in strange circumstances.

“I got sunburned on my lips in January 2021 and over the next two or three months it turned into these bizarre infections. We tried all these treatments and antibiotics but nothing was working. It was making me feel ridiculously tired. It was totally leftfield as a setback and it wasn’t until June that I was able to feel myself. I changed my diet, but at that point I’d barely trained or ridden my bike for three months. It was pretty weird. It makes me cringe just telling the story.”

Also read: How a Strava KOM helped save Keegan Swirbul’s pro career

This year Swilburl finally managed to regain his health but by the time he found his best legs, Human Powered Health was about to take a summer break during July. Come early autumn, and with the season almost complete Swirbul found himself out in the cold when it came to contract negotiations.

He initially thought that the team would offer him a contract extension after a few decent races following his comeback but the results weren’t quite what they could have been – even though he was the team’s top finisher in CRO Race, the Tour of Portugal and the Tour de Slovaquie.

He was eventually told that there wouldn’t be a spot for him in 2023, and while the team can’t be faulted for deciding to go in a different direction, the timing of its decision was a tough blow to the rider they had supported for the last two and half years.

“I found out maybe two weeks ago. It wasn’t long ago and that’s why it’s especially difficult because if I’d known earlier on then there would have been time to talk to teams. I’ve gone to a couple of other Pro Continental teams and they’ve told me that they would have been interested in a rider like me but that it’s way too late. For me being told so late it’s been really difficult in that respect,” he said.

“I’m very disappointed with them in that respect. I know it’s a business but they were telling me all season, and to quote them, ‘that it was heading in the right direction,’ and so I definitely had a better second half of the year. I felt secure, maybe falsely secure, and then I got the chop.”

According to Swirlbul, his current team is pivoting away from climbing races and GC, and instead focusing on sprinters and their accompanying leadouts.

“They told me that they are moving away from climbing races and climbers in general,” he said. “If you look at the signings that they’ve recently made it looks like they’ve signed 15 sprinters for next year. So clearly they have a new strategy moving forward and I wish them all the luck but I also know that every bike race in Europe has a lot of climbs. I’m not going to say that I was getting big results but often I was the only guy from our team in the group. I thought that would mean something but I guess not.”

The problem facing Swirbul is that most teams at Pro Continental level are indeed at capacity for next season. Doug Ryder’s squad is full, a number of French squads are also full. Even several of the Continental teams looking to step up a division have already closed their doors for the coming season.

There are still a couple of options Swirbul could pursue. There’s a possible spot on a U.S. team, and there’s another European team that has declared a degree of interest but there’s nothing in the Pro Continental ballpark at this point in time.

“Honestly, it’s not going great,” he says.

“I have a couple of teams that I’m talking to but you know how it is. It’s not an affirmative answer and I’m going to be losing money, and dipping into my savings if I continue racing. Which I am. I have a couple of teams that are plausible but nothing right now but I definitely want to stay in Europe. I love it over here and generally much prefer to be in Europe. I’ve not gone back to the U.S. apart from a couple of weeks with nationals.”

Despite the setback and the nature of the situation he currently finds himself in the American rider has no intentions of stopping just yet. He will endeavor to find a new team in 2023, even if it does come at a loss in terms of both status and finances. The plan is to use next year as a change to recalibrate, focus, and bounce back up to the Pro Continental ranks.

“I’m going to keep going. I feel like I’ve had a really tough couple of years with some health issues but in the last six months I’ve had good health and a good racing block. Last year I hardly raced due to weird health issues, crashes, and broken bones. Next year is my chance, assuming all goes well, is for me to have a full year of racing, and prove I can come back.”