When the World Cup XCO season kicks off today in Pétropolis, Brazil, Keegan Swenson, one of America’s fastest and most-decorated cross-country racers, will be thousands of miles away, preparing instead for the cross-country race at the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California.
But Swenson, 28, who stepped away from the World Cup last year, is exactly where he wants to be.
“I’ve been focused on XCO since I was 17 years old,” Swenson said earlier this week, sitting outside the headquarters of Santa Cruz Bicycles, sponsor of his current team, the htSQD. “I went to my first World Cup when I was 17 and since then, that’s been the only goal—sure I’ve done like some Epic Rides and other random marathon races and I think I’ve slowly been like, ‘I really like marathon’—I was just doing XCO because it’s what I did. My identity as a mountain bike racer was racing cross-country, then I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this if I don’t want to do it, there’s other things you know?’”
Last year, those “other things” included a commanding win of the Leadville 100, followed by another commanding victory at the Breck Epic stage race (which started a mere 24 hours after Leadville), and a seventh place at Marathon Worlds, the top American finish. By that time, he’d already won U.S. XC national championships, recaptured his coveted Fastest Known Time title on Utah’s White Rim trail, raced a partial World Cup season in Europe as he vied for a spot on Team USA for the Tokyo Olympics and, oh, became the Utah State Road Champion.
Swenson’s marathon momentum continued into this year—in February, he set a new record at the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, his first time competing in the solo category, by lapping the 16-mile course a mind-boggling 21 times. That means he rode around the clock for an entire day and night, racking up 340 miles and 23,000 feet in elevation.
“I think the solo’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done on a bike. It’s just so long, it’s a lot of fun, but the last six hours were pretty hard. You get to that point, it was like 4 or 5 a.m. and it’s like, shit I still have basically a Leadville and a couple hours left. I’ve got like eight hours of racing left and I’m wrecked, like fully done.”
Two weeks later, he flew to Africa to compete in the grueling Cape Epic stage race with fellow Santa Cruz athlete Maxime Marotte.
“He’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen,” said Jordan Nyugen, Swenson’s htSQD team manager. “His ability to train and stay focused is insane. On top of that, I’ve worked with a lot of strong athletes, not just physically, but mentally, obviously you’ve gotta be mentally strong, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’s more stubborn than that kid. It’s insane. It’s insane how much he can push himself.”
Now, Swenson intends to push himself into a new realm, with his sights set on Lifetime’s new Grand Prix, a six-stop domestic series made up of three mountain bike races and three gravel races with a hefty $250,000 prize purse. It starts with Sea Otter’s fast, tactical 80-kilometer ‘Fuego’ course on Saturday, a race he’s a heavy favorite to win, and continues in June at the 200-mile Unbound gravel race, Swenson’s big target. The Grand Prix celebrates a style of racing that suits Swenson well, and even though he’s never raced Unbound, and most of his Grand Prix competition has, his recent results leave no doubt that his engine is up to the task.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who’s more stubborn than that kid. It’s insane. It’s insane how much he can push himself.
“He was so focused on XCO for so many years, he kind of realized when he took a step back from that, he’s got this six-hour power that a lot of people don’t have. He’s got six-hour power that people can’t do for two hours,” Nguyen said. “And I think he was just kind of getting burned out on the XCO stuff. It’s hard going to Europe as an American and not having a ton of support or a ton of infrastructure. I think he’s been so successful because of the [new] team environment. He’s been able to relax, he’s been able to be himself, we’ve encouraged him from day one to chase what he wants to do.”
Swenson grew up in Park City, Utah, and knew he wanted to be a professional racer from a young age. He rose the ranks quickly, winning his first national championship at 16, and his first U19 title two years later, then spent more than a decade pursuing cross-country podiums and points, as he raced internationally at the sport’s highest level through two Olympic cycles, attempting to elevate the profile of the American men’s team and gain the points necessary to secure two qualifying Team USA spots. Ultimately, they were granted just one for the Tokyo Games, which went to Christopher Blevins, who gained an edge with a top-20 World Cup finish just before the final team was announced.
A change had already been weighing on Swenson, and when Tokyo was no longer on the table, the pressure to make the team, and to elevate American racing in the process, dissipated. He used the opportunity to take a mental reset, to refocus and change directions.
“Whether I’d gone to Tokyo or not, I was kind of thinking it might be time to take a step back and maybe try something different,” he said. “I wasn’t over or sick of XCO but I just really love marathon racing. I also had fun gravel racing, so I thought this could be cool to do something different. … It just kind of worked out that I didn’t go to the Olympics, so I thought, I’ll just do it now. There’s no reason to keep pushing this XCO thing if I wasn’t going to Tokyo,” he said.
He turned his attention toward the Leadville 100, which had long been on his bucket list, and Marathon Worlds; new goals provided new motivation.
“Maybe some people are disappointed that I’m not racing World Cups but for me this is the right choice to have a sustainable long career. I’m not done racing internationally. I want to win Cape Epic, I want to win Marathon Worlds—there are a lot of big intentainal UCI targets I want to hit,” he said. That doesn’t mean it was an easy decision. There were still some results and goals in XCO that he wanted to hit, like landing on the World Cup podium, but he already felt like he’d missed out on a lot, chasing points at obscure races to realize an Olympic goal that didn’t materialize. And if he spent another year on the World Cup circuit, finishing 30th or 40th at the races, he’d be that much farther away from where he truly wants to be.
“I don’t want to race World Cups to finish top 20, I want to race to win, and race for the podium. For me, if the rest of my career, I’m racing to finish top 20 or top 10 that’s not what I want to do. I like to win, I like to compete at the front so if I can’t be there, I want to figure out what it takes for me to be there, and maybe that’s taking a step back and resetting. Maybe that’s more training, maybe for me it’s just not possible, maybe I’m more made for marathon.”
Certainly being able to invest more time and mental space to longer marathon-style races has already paid dividends, both in results and in Swenson’s overall happiness and mental health. And though he’s not feeling the pull of XCO now, he’s also not ready to count it out completely.
“I’m having a good time doing what I’m doing. That said, it’s not impossible that I would want to come back, maybe in a couple years, maybe come back for Paris, give it a go. I’ll see how things are going. Maybe that’s what I need—take a step back and do what I want for a couple of years and then I’ll go race World Cups and try to qualify for the Olympics again, but I’m not gonna focus on it. It’s not going to be a target. I think that’s better–maybe I’ll be less stressed, and I think better mentally.”
No matter what, Swenson’s decision to close this chapter of his career—whether it’s permanent or not—is by no means an indicator that he’s easing off the gas of his already-illustrious career. In a lot of ways, it’s just the opposite.
“He’s a bike rider through and through,” Nguyen said. “I’ve asked him what’s the long-term goal—and this could change—but his answer straight away was like I’m going to try to be a professional mountain biker as long as I can be. We might have another (Geoff) Kabush or Carl Decker on our hands. Those guys are still in the game and still super successful.”
Photography: Anthony Smith