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Swirbul shines as Jelly Belly awaits sponsor decisions

Keegan Swirbul is having the ride of his career at the Tour of Utah while his Jelly Belly team hopes to re-sign with their longtime sponsor.

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PARK CITY, Utah (VN) — With one stage left to race at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, Keegan Swirbul (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) is one of just two Continental-level riders holding a top 10 spot in the general classification. Swirbul climbed to ninth overall in Saturday’s stage 5 at Snowbird Resort.

His strong week in the Utah mountains comes at a fine time for both rider and team.

The 22-year-old Colorado native looks to be rounding into long-awaited climbing form just in time for the biggest stretch of racing on his calendar. And thanks to that climbing form, his team has a GC rider in the mix in a nationally televised race while waiting for word from Jelly Belly regarding continued sponsorship next year.

“I should know something in the next two weeks. We usually get a two- or three-year deal from Jelly Belly and then all our other partners follow,” Jelly Belly team manager Danny Van Haute told VeloNews this week.

Between the wait for sponsor commitments and the bike races on the menu this month, it’s a pretty important time of year for one of the oldest teams in pro bike racing.

Jelly Belly may not get to race the now-WorldTour Amgen Tour of California these days, but the squad is currently in the heart of the biggest block of racing on the calendar for domestic Continental outfits. The Tour of Utah and the Colorado Classic allow third-division riders to square off against top-tier teams in front of fans and prospective sponsorship partners alike.

For now, Swirbul is doing just that, whether he holds on through stage 6 or not.

“We’ve got Mike Woods, Jack Haig, some of these guys are going to leave here and lead their teams at the Vuelta [a España]. I finished right behind Mike Woods, so I can be proud of that,” he said after stage 5.

Swirbul first made headlines as a 16-year-old when he beat Lance Armstrong in a mountain bike race. He went on to spend a few years racing the road with development teams, and won an under-23 national road title at just 19 years of age. Since then, victories have been hard to come by. He joined Jelly Belly last year. Top 10s at the Tour de Beauce in 2017 and 2018 have been his only major results in UCI-level races.

Jelly Belly knew the potential remained.

“He’s had a fair bit of pressure on him,” said sports director Matt Rice. “He’s had a long road back from some injuries earlier in his career and he’s finally putting it together now. We’d been waiting for everything to peak for him and luckily this week it has.”

Swirbul was probably hoping for more out of his first season and a half with the squad, but it’s hard to argue that there is any better time for him to be hitting his peak than right now. He says the Utah field ranks well above any pro road events he’s raced before. That hasn’t stopped him from mixing it up with the main GC contenders.

With that comes significant exposure. That’s good news for the emerging climbing talent, whose contract with the team runs out this year. According to Swirbul, he has not signed a deal for 2019 just yet.

It’s good news for Van Haute too.

Jelly Belly has been the title sponsor of the squad he runs for 19 years. It’s been a fruitful partnership, and one that has helped launched the careers of numerous racers who have gone on to success at Pro Continental and WorldTour teams. Van Haute explained that the team is at the end of its current arrangement with Jelly Belly and waiting for the company to make the final call on renewing for a further few years. It’s a process that repeats every few seasons, one that Van Haute joked tends to give him “grey hairs.”

Fortunately, a number of smaller sponsorship deals are already in place for next season, assuming the title sponsor deal goes through. That at least allows Van Haute to focus more on racing than scrambling to patch countless deals together, although he did say he was always open to new co-sponsors regardless.

In any case, Jelly Belly’s current status makes Van Haute one of several North American team managers that find themselves in a holding pattern at the moment, although his situation seems less dire than that of UnitedHealthcare and Silber. Both are hunting for sponsors and uncertain about the possibility of continuing into 2019.

Fortunately for all three squads, the Tour of Utah and the Colorado Classic make for an excellent showcase of talents, and of the marketing reach that a bike racing team can offer.

Jelly Belly has worked hard to take advantage of the opportunity with Swirbul in Utah. Van Haute said the team’s central objective this week has been working to set Swirbul up for GC, even if it means the rest of the squad sacrificing themselves and finishing “10 minutes down or in the gruppetto.”

It’s worked out so far, and whether he holds on through Sunday’s finale in Park City or not, Swirbul and his squad will have another chance to shine in just a few days at the Colorado Classic.

“Everybody is waiting right now for the big answers,” Van Haute said. “Hopefully after these two races, the corporations understand that this is a good investment.”