Three years ago, a lanky teenager defeated Lance Armstrong at the Power of Four 36-mile long mountain bike race that took place in Aspen, Colorado. Surprised, but also impressed by what he’s seen and the potential of that kid, the 1993 world champion gave Axel Merckx – Bontrager-Livestrong’s sports director – a call and told him to keep an eye on the 16-year-old. Just one and a half year later, Merckx offered the young rider a place in his team and so Keegan Swirbul embarked in a new adventure, with one of the best development teams in the world.
Stoked, but at the same time nervous about being a newcomer to road racing, Keegan Swirbul took each thing at a time, his first races providing him a massive learning experience. Once things began to fall into place, the Colorado native began to show his talent by finishing second at the National Championships, in 2014, following a great ride. One season later, he won the title after an excellent race, taking his biggest result to date and thus confirming his huge talent, which makes him one of the most interesting prospects of the U23 scene.
Despite this success, Keegan Swirbul – who is a natural born climber – remains with his feet on the ground, as he knows he’s just started the road leading towards a pro career in the years to come. That’s why now he’s focusing on improving and making sure he’ll add other big wins to the victory he notched in June. Before the first big appointment he has in the second half of the season – the Tour of Utah – Axeon’s cyclist sat down and talked for Cafe Roubaix about his results so far and his future goals
– Keegan, what do you feel you’ve improved since coming to Axeon?
I’ve improved in every aspect as I was starting from scratch, but I’d say my biggest improvement would be my general strength power wise. I am now able to ride harder, longer and recover quicker than I expected. When I was first offered the place on Axeon in the fall of 2013, I wouldn’t have even been able to complete even the lower level American races, so I actually made pretty crazy progress that winter and similar percentage gains during the 2014 off-season. I have also made some progress with my pack skills, but I’m still working on that aspect.
– Last month you won the U23 national title. Were you expecting such a great result?
Nationals was a good memory for me. Going in, I was confident as I had been feeling consistently good during training the weeks before. I am more happy with the long climbs, and the final one at the Nationals was under two minutes, so I wasn’t thinking of myself as the top favorite at all. But, I attacked hard in the finale a few times and no one was able to follow.
– What did it mean for you to take the victory?
I was seriously stoked on that win. Probably the single best moment of my life, if I’m honest. I have dreamed of that jersey for years.
– When it comes to stage races, which was your highlight so far?
Stage race wise, my favorite moment was probably the fourth stage of the Tour of Utah in 2014. The first few days of the race I was hanging for dear life and I was questioning my place at this level of the sport, so to have a decent ride that day really helped my moral.
– Besides road cycling, you’re also into mountain bike and cross country from time to time. How do these three get along?
I had been into mountain biking and building trails and all that jazz for a long time. It was good fun, and honestly I didn’t take it too seriously really. I was interested in a lot of other summer time activities that made being a top rider impossible. During high school, I quit freestyle skiing and began XC skiing. My junior year, I stopped screwing around and set the goal of winning the Nationals and I ended up doing it. I stopped skiing after that.
– Giro della Valle d’Aosta was your first European race. With what thoughts did you go there?
Heading into Aosta, I was pretty stoked. It was the first time that I would do a true mountain race. I trained pretty dang hard for a good while before the race, and I was feeling way good. Numbers were way higher than I had ever seen, so I was very confident. When I arrived to Europe, something was missing though. I felt bad in the training the week before and couldn’t produce the same numbers at sea level that I was producing at altitude a week earlier. I went terribly the first days of the race and I was very upset with myself. The last few days I somewhat found my legs, but still not the level I know I’m capable of. Not the best way to start in Europe, but I certainly am incredibly motivated to try and do everything perfectly this winter to hopefully avoid these bouts of inconsistent form next year.
– And what’s next for you?
Next up for me is Tour of Utah. I’m heading into Utah with questionable form. Utah has always been a big target for me, and I hope to be going well. But after the bad sensations in training and a bad performance at Aosta, I’m not sure what kind of shape I will arrive with. Regardless, I’m sure Axeon will have some riders up there on GC, so hopefully I’ll be going well enough to help them do a good ride.
– I know it’s still early, but did you give a thought what races would you like to win?
I really have no idea what races I’d like to win. Winning any race is massive for me. But certainly, I would love to win any race in the mountains. Hopefully, next season I can try to target as many European mountain races as I can. Also, I’d really like to try and get in some races that aren’t my speciality, in order to learn the ways, but in the end of the day, my program is not designed by me, so who knows. If I were to say one country in which I dream of taking a big win, that would be Italy, because I really love the races there. The mountains of Italy are the most spectacular I have ever seen, and the roads are very appealing to my characteristics as a rider.