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Once just ‘the kid who beat Lance,’ 18-year-old Swirbul takes USAPC start in hometown

Once known as a 16-year-old who beat Lance Armstrong in Aspen, 18-year-old Keegan Swirbul took the start in his hometown

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ASPEN, Colorado (VN) — Keegan Swirbul.

Ringing any bells?

When he was 16, he beat Lance Armstrong in a mountain bike race in Aspen, and was hailed as something of a revelation.

He’s 18 now, and since that moment, things changed. At this moment the rangy Swirbul is draped over his top tube, waiting for the USA Pro Challenge to begin in his hometown.

“Without that whole deal I would have never been here. I owe it all to Lance. He talked to Axel [Merckx], and Axel gave me a shot, and here I am. Especially in this town that’s kind of the reputation I have,” Swirbul said, his shocks of his blond hair sprouting out of his helmet.

“It’s crazy, man. I remember when this race first came here. And I was just like, dang,” he said. “Riding against them? It’s just a dream come true, man.”

It’s the first true road season for the Bissell Development Team rider, meaning that no matter how big the engine, it’s usually running in the wrong place and using too much gas.

“Huge engine. Huge engine. I think it’s just more like trying to steer it in the right direction,” Bissell director Axel Merckx said. “He’s really young. Really green. Coming from the mountain bike world, the first year on the road basically ever. He’s got to learn from scratch. He’s got to learn it all. All I can say, he’s got a huge engine. He’s super talented. … It’s going to take two, three years, whatever it’ll take. But the heart’s there.”

If anyone would know that, it’s Merckx. After a solid career as a pro, he’s worked with young riders at Bontrager-Livestrong and now Bissell. He’s tutored Nate Brown (Garmin-Sharp) Joe Dombrowski (Sky), and Lawson Craddock (Giant-Shimano), to name a few. All that’s great for Swirbul, and will pay off, but there’s no way around the very simple truth that in this moment, he’s going to have to figure it out the hard way. Knocked off lines, out the back. Wherever he is, he’s fighting for it.

“Everywhere except the climbs it’s crazy for me. Once you get to the climbs it’s straightforward, and you just send it. It’s the positioning. The crashes. The scary downhills and that stuff. It’s treacherous. But I’m getting used to it,” Swirbul said. “Just riding in the bunch. Not being nervous all the time and wasting energy. Gripping my bars really hard. Holding a position. If I try to go to the front, I just suddenly find myself at the back again. It’s just really hard for me to stay up there.”

Omer Kem, also a director at Bissell, said any pressure one of his young riders feels comes from within the rider himself, and that Bissell doesn’t lean too hard too soon. “He’s nervous. But I think it’s a good anxiety. There’s really no pressure, this program. There’s no pressure from us for these guys,” Kem said. “It doesn’t really matter if it’s hometown race or not. Any pressure he has comes from racing in front of his family and friends and all that.”

Swirbul put college on hold, and will try to make a go of it in the road world. Maybe move somewhere warm and stop skiing all winter.

“The plan is to try and move this winter to someplace warm, cause I didn’t really bike that much this winter. I just skied a lot. So that was kind of hard,” he said. “So hopefully I’ll be able to get to California or Spain or somewhere where it’s warm and I can do better training. No college for the time being, and just try and make it to next level.”

And with that, he was off, to continue his education, nudge by nudge and inch by inch.