Keegan Swenson's Santa Cruz Stigmata: UCI Gravel World Championships bike

The American, who has dominated the domestic gravel scene in 2023, teams up with Santa Cruz's gravel bike in hunt for rainbow jersey

Clock12:17, Saturday 7th October 2023

Daniel Benson

The foundation of the UCI Gravel World Championships led to the clash of two differing cycling worlds. On one side there’s the pure gravel racers; riders who have honed their skills and earned their stripes on the tough American gravel scene which is the spiritual home of the discipline. On the other side are the WorldTour riders.

In the inaugural edition of the event last year, those two worlds didn’t fully collide, at least in the race. Many of the biggest stars of the American gravel scene shunned the opportunity to claim the rainbow jersey, deterred by what many fairly believed to be a route unworthy for the discipline.

This year things are different. With a tougher, more fitting parcours, both worlds will properly lock horns at the World Championships for the first time. Leading the charge for the gravel specialists is Keegan Swenson, a name familiar to many having completely dominated the American gravel scene this year.

After forgoing the first edition of the event, Swenson will take to the start line in Italy atop his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike in an attempt to add a world title to his list of gravel honours. We caught a glimpse of the bike ahead of the race.

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

The Stigmata

Compared to lightweight gravel frame models, with fully integrated cockpits and narrow clearance, the Stigmata does not sacrifice capability for marginal games. Since Santa Cruz refuses to enter the road bike market, that capability is not going anywhere, and that seems to bother Swenson very little.

As we have seen from Conor Dunne's recent exploits – both on YouTube with his gravel versus road bike comparison, and the mud stumping him at Unbound – that might be the right call in most cases. Furthermore, as Swenson told GCN after Unbound, he made it through the mud that stumped Dunne without much walking or clearing at all. Undoubtedly, his wide clearance frame – and the slick tyres he prefers, which we will detail later – helped immensely.

Yet this isn't Unbound, so the Stigmata frame will not be ideal for the World Championships. Then again, neither was it ideal for SBT, yet he still managed to ride the course at around 40kph. He seems ok with a couple of cables showing.

Read more from his exploits in American gravel:

Gravel gearing

One of Keegan Swenson's reoccurring bits this season has been built around the size of his chain ring. At each of the big races, Swenson has caused a stir before each event as he unveils his chainring choice that seems always to be a couple of sizes too big.

And then he wins, by a lot.

This round, his ring is not quite as big as Wout van Aert's 50-tooth front chainring, but Van Aert is running 2x. Swenson is once again running his SRAM 1x setup, this race with 48 teeth, paired with the SRAM GX Eagle Transmission Rear Derailleur, ranging from 10-52t. The chainring, of course, is the top of the line SRAM Red aero crankset.

With Jumbo-Visma bringing the SRAM 1x setup to the road, which Van Aert is strangely shunning in favour of road gears, it is the obvious choice for Swenson. The only question: will he regret not matching Van Aert's 50-tooth?

Tyres: the slick gamble

Swenson has picked, out of the full Maxxis line-up of gravel tires, the Velocita AR 40mm tyre. The Velocita is a nearly full slick tire that Swenson has ran at races like SBT.

With handling and technique playing an obvious impact in gravel racing, there is often a desire to run at least some side knobs to increase traction through the turns. Yet any amount of tyre knobs or other corrugated edges on the tread will increase the all important rotational weight and aero-dynamic drag. Thus, if you can ride a slick tire, at lower pressure to have enough handling, the system is more efficient.

The problem is that it is much more difficult to handle the bike and a riders skill needs to compensate the handling advantages that his competitors with knobs will have, plus the rider will need to avoid flats with the lower relative pressure.

Swenson, with his experience on the rough stuff, has that handling advantage over the road racers, which in this case is also an advantage in aerodynamics.

Road pedals

In an interesting twist, Wout van Aert – the road star – is running the off-road pedal spec, while Swenson – the off-road star – is running the road pedal spec.

Nevertheless, for those who have been following along on Swenson's season, that is not surprising at all. Swenson has proved he will run road shoes basically all the time, and only mountain bike style pedals in the rare events that turn to slop – i.e. Unbound Gravel, where he appeared to run road shoes with mountain bike pedals using a conversion kit. With the dry gravel of northern Italy on tap for Sunday, road pedals are the way to go for a rider who ran those at the Leadville 100 mountain bike race.

While these are just three elements of the build, one of Swenson's distinct benefits is his command of the gravel specific equipment and choices that he has made, especially in terms of tire pressure and how his bike setup effects his riding position to allow him to be light on the bike and avoid punctures.

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