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

Vakoč and Vermulen take the podium spots for the men, while Cromwell and Oliveira finished second and third in women’s race

Clock12:00, Tuesday 22nd August 2023
The riders tackled 142 miles of gravel roads in Colorado

© GCN

The riders tackled 142 miles of gravel roads in Colorado

The fastest couple in gravel races were at it again, with partners Sofia Gomez Villafañe and Keegan Swenson both winning the SBT GRVL elite race in solo fashion on Sunday.

Of the three biggest tests of the American summer, the two racers have won five out of the six available titles for the men and women at Unbound Gravel, the Leadville Trail 100 MTB and now SBT GRVL in Steamboat, Colorado.

Read more: When Unbound Gravel detonated

Swenson was there waiting for Villafañe when she crossed the line in just under seven hours and the two embraced and shared the first bits and pieces of their races in front of the media at the finish. While the two did not say much, their banter gave a glimpse into the world of the two best gravel racers.

“She was talking shit about my plan yesterday,” Swenson said after the line, half to Villafañe and half to those eavesdropping. “But it worked!”

Clearly, for the both of them, the planning was good enough – even if they may have disagreed on the details.

Keegan Swenson takes down another course record

Out of Steamboat Springs in the crisp summer morning air, over 100 riders took to the front as the pace lifted and the grip of the asphalt turned to the slip and slide of the 'champagne of gravel' around fields, forests and gentle Park Mountains of northern Colorado. After just over an hour of racing, the lead bunch hit Fly Gulch around mile 21 and the key contenders in both the pro men's and pro women's field took charge with Keegan Swenson, Peter Vakoč, Vermeulen, Peter Stetina and Payson McElveen all showing their form on the early climbs.

While he was rumoured to be making his American gravel debut in Steamboat, unfortunately, Alejandro Valverde could not make the startline because he could not sort out the logistics of child care. Nevertheless, with plenty of former World Tour talent in attendance, and Keegan Swenson having a season that is reshaping the landscape of American off-road racing, there was plenty to be excited about.

In the men's race, the race was on from the word go, with Swenson attacking on the first gravel rise. Swenson’s early pace was so intense that it drove a wedge in the peloton and dragged five other riders off of the front with him. By Fly Gulch, the main group behind the breakaway was already down to around 25 riders. The six out front were Swenson, Payson McElveen, Brendan Wertz, Peter Stetina, Peter Vakoč and Adam Roberge. While the six riders all committed to the efforts, the group behind were able to keep things from going out over the minute mark as the various other contenders rallied to the cause of chasing.

Into the first aid station, the breakaway became five as Peter Stetina opted to apply chain lube on the dry dusty day. GCN spoke to Stetina after the race and he said that he almost dropped out at that point as he was experimenting with new chain tech that he thought might have been faster, but instead “felt like riding with my brakes rubbing”. Nevertheless, Stetina went on to hold onto a top five result.

The rest of the large groups rolled straight through, which would prove to be a theme of the day, with most riders favouring wearing hydration packs. With the favourite Keegan Swenson stating his intentions on social media pre-race, there would be no stopping at any aid stations throughout the 142-mile race, at least if one wanted to keep up with the flying Santa Cruz rider. Ted King was the other rider with an issue as he called for a pump after an apparent rear-puncture.

Eventually, the two groups became one as the race doubled back on itself and headed for the southern 'lollipop' of the parcours. Yet, Swenson was not done and after a flurry of attacks from the likes of Lachlan Morton, he kicked again and this time for good. Swenson forced the pace with Vakoč following, with Adam Roberge and Alexey Vermeulen joining the two ahead of a flagging peloton. Vakoč and Swenson would then go again over the top of the course's high point and the pair worked hard to extend their lead over Roberge and Vermeulen into the town of Oak Creek.

While the climb out of Oak Creek proved to be decisive with both the men's and women's winners establishing their gap at around mile 115, it was the town itself that caused some issues with Roberge crashing out dramatically on a left-hander turn into the town, followed metres later a slide out from Zach Calton on the transition from dirt to pavement. Calton was able to quickly remount and finish the race. The duel between Vakoč and Swenson took place on the 3 km climb with Swenson finally making the separation with only the final climb of the corkscrew and then the infamously technical sector of Cow Creek left to race. At that point, all that was left was another Keegan coronation in Steamboat.

“It was a little bit early, but I figured [Vakoč] was chasing, and we’d both be solo so it’d be kinda an even fight to the end," Swenson said after the finish about his decision to force the split with Vakoč when he did. "And I know he’s got a pretty good kick so I didn’t want to risk it til the finish. He almost got me at Unbound so I wanted to try a different tactic this time.”

Keegan Swenson crossed the line in a blistering 5 hrs 57 mins setting a new course record. Petr Vakoč came in some 2 minutes 30 seconds back and was the only other rider to clock a time under six hours. Behind, things were hotting up as Vermeulen, who was languishing alone behind the front two after Roberge crashed out with a suspected concussion, tried to fight for the final podium spot. Stetina and Morton took the sweeping left onto Yampa Street sprinting for the final spot on the podium with Alexey Vermeulen edging out over Pete Stetina and Lachlan Morton for third, with Stetina in fourth and Morton finishing fifth.

Villafañe outlasts the rest in the women’s contest

In the women's event, it was clear that Sofia Gomez Villafane was there to continue her summer of success, with herself and Alexis Skarda holding the pace at the front, despite a spirited chase from Ruth Winder and Flávia Oliveira on the northern part of the course.

Winder looked in good spirits on the tarmac section returning from Steamboat Lake on the north side of the course, but the gaps were looking sizeable. However, Tiffany Cromwell’s WorldTour road racing pedigree would win out as she made up places, despite later commenting that earlier in the race she was unsure if she’d be able to finish.

The duo of Skarda and Villafañe worked tightly together in a race-long battle that would define the result, both going deep to hold the gap over the chasers balancing stopping for water with the need to hold their strong advantage. Oliveira remained strong in the chase for the win, coming into Trout Creek but the strong wind saw Cromwell surge forward past her into the podium spot, meanwhile further down the valley Skarda and Villafañe entered Oak Creek but the savage climb out of town with gradients of up to 11%. Despite her fueling and strong work for the previous 5+ hours, the power of Skarda faltered as Villafañe rode strongly into the corkscrew climb.

After the race, Villafañe broke down the chaotic dynamic of the race for the front two women, who rode the majority of the race almost as de facto teammates in the different splintering groups of men around them.

“Alexis wanted to go hard up Oak Creek when we thought we had ten minutes and I was like ‘No, chill.’ Then we were told it was one minute 45 and she was like ‘We gotta go,’ and I was like no we don't.”

In the end, Villafañe’s cool head prevailed and Skarda’s impatience ended up costing her a place on the podium. Even with the disappointment, SBT was another positive step forward for Skarda as she builds her skills in these long drawn-out off-road races. Furthermore, after the race, Villafañe was quick to point out that the win was as much Skarda’s as it was hers because of the strength and effort Skarda put in to establish the lead amongst the women.

Behind, Cromwell had a second wind, aided by a tailwind and the will to win, riding the gap down significantly over the final 25 miles with Skarda, Cromwell and Oliveira joining up to form a strong chase. The advantage was around 35 seconds and Villafañe was clearly within their sights.

Villafañe used her technical skills to extend her lead on Cow Creek, the roughest section of the course with large 'baby head' rocks, meanwhile behind it was Cromwell who would force the issue on the final tarmac section returning into town and consolidating her advantage to the chasers. Oliveira was left to chase the final podium spot.

Crossing the line at just under seven hours Sofia Gomez Villafañe took the win, the only female rider to go under seven hours. On crossing the line she commented that she wasn’t aware of her advantage and as such had to push hard to the finish line. Despite Cromwell’s not-ideal start, her return to second place was indeed one of the rides of the day, finishing just over one minute down on the winner with the podium rounded out by Oliveira who rolled in some three minutes further back, even with a bee sting to the neck disrupting her last hour of racing.

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