Keegan Swenson: ‘I’m at Gravel Worlds to race for the win or the podium'

The American is the ultimate dark-horse leading into the UCI Gravel World Championships after dominating the US gravel scene. Here's what he told GCN before the race

Clock21:30, Wednesday 4th October 2023
Keegan Swenson winning Unbound Gravel this June

Courtesy of LifeTime

Keegan Swenson winning Unbound Gravel this June

After forgoing the inaugural UCI Gravel Worlds in 2022, Keegan Swenson (United States) is looking to make a strong impression when he lines up for the men’s race on Sunday.

The American has been in near unstoppable form this year with wins in BWR Arizona and the Sea Otter Classic's Fuego XL in the spring, followed by titles at Unbound Gravel 200, Crusher in the Tushar, and the coveted Leadville Trail 100 MTB/SBT GRVL double.

Read more: SBT GRVL: Keegan Swenson and Sofía Gómez Villafañe victorious in Steamboat Springs

Now also a national champion on dirt, the 29-year-old will start Sunday’s race in Veneto as one of the main contenders alongside Wout van Aert (Belgium), Matej Mohorič (Slovenia) and defending champion Gianni Vermeersch (Belgium).

Last year Swenson missed the UCI Gravel Worlds in order to concentrate on the governing body’s road championships, but this year his focus is fully on Italy and has set his sights on at least a podium finish.

“The build up has gone well with a nice training block since Steamboat. There’s been some decent intensity in there and I’m here to race for the win or the podium. Top–three is the goal and while it’s definitely a big goal, it’s also within reach,” Swenson told GCN from his temporary base in Italy.

“It’s been nice to get over here, get everything sorted and adjusted ahead of Sunday. I’ve had a look at half the course and I’ll see the rest today. It’s a good course with the first 20km on track and there are some washcrossings and good sized rocks. There are a few decent climbs and pavements and I’m looking forward to seeing the second part, with a couple of climbs at the end.”

Predicting the outcome of Sunday’s race, and the women’s race on Saturday, is incredibly difficult. These are one-off events in which form and reputation can count for little, where the discipline is still growing and even the athletes themselves are still learning on the job. Swenson expects a race in which super domestiques, who are typically loyal to their leaders on the road, could embrace the chance to ride for themselves. With a stacked field that also includes gravel experts and mountain bikers, the outcome is wide open.

Read more: Race Preview: UCI Gravel World Championships

“The startlist is strong, with a handful of guys from WorldTour and then top European gravel pros, elite mountain bikers, and there are over 200 riders. It’s a proper field,” he said.“There’s a lot of horsepower and I think what’ll be important is that a lot of these guys now have the chance to race for themselves, whereas on the road they're domestiques and have a job to do.”

The American upper-hand

The influx of road racers could also have a major impact on the race and potentially distort how both the men’s and women’s events unfold. The style of racing could be quite different to the typical North American encounters Swenson and his US teammates regularly face-off in.

“I think that the style of racing will be different compared to the US. The start will probably be more intense, especially with how the course is. There are some early bottlenecks and it’ll be hard from the start, with positioning being key. It’s not going to back off, in terms of pace, and because it’s not that long I don’t think there’s going to be much messing around out there,” he told GCN.

“Team tactics will come into it a bit but not a huge amount because of the design of the course and the pace we’ll be racing at. It might be helpful having guys around you at the start but there are so many climbs, turns and accelerations, with really narrow sections, that it’ll be an individual effort.”

Read more: USA Cycling announce teams for UCI Gravel Worlds

Individual tests are something Swenson is used to but his armoury is such that he should be in contention for Sunday’s race right from the start.

“For me, my advantages are that I know how the race will change across different terrain. I think bikehanding is crucial too,”  he said. “Obviously all these guys from the road or mountain biking are good but handling a gravel bike with the tyre aspect and the conditions is a unique skill set that’s often overlooked.

“I think protecting equipment is going to be key too because everyone is going to be racing on light tyres. The gravel here is relatively tame compared to what we’re used to in the US with Unbound, but it’s going to be hard out there because of the field.”

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