Monday, February 1, 2016

Keegan Swirbul: In Transition

As is know throughout sport and life, many young sensations have a propensity of burning out. Promise turns to what if. People wax about that moment when "they" saw the potential and wonder aloud about how great they could have been. Cycling sees this on a fortnightly basis, it seems like, as young riders turn one big ride into a contract and then try to keep the contracts coming in even if it means transitioning from a young gun to a yeoman.

It isn't often in cycling that a rider is put up on a pedestal at the tender age of 16. Most times, a rider must go through their last two junior years of cycling to be able to get that up-and-comer recognition. Keegan Swirbul certainly got caught up in this. Just a month shy of his 17th birthday in 2012, he beat Lance Armstrong in the Power of Four mountain bike race in Aspen, Colorado. It wasn't a simple sprint win either. Swirbul launched an attack on the final climb and put an aging Armstrong in his place by winning by over 5 minutes. The proclamations began to roll in. Outside ran a headline with "Is Keegan Swirbul the next Lance Armstrong?" and the New York Times even ran a small story on the race. There were quotes about dreaming to race the Tour de France even though he hadn't raced a road bike seriously up to that point.

Before riding up mountain passes and trying to reach pro cycling, the main outlet for the El Jebel, Colorado native was parkour. "I used to do some pretty wild stuff before cycling. I was heavily into parkour and I used to do insane flips off building into concrete and all sorts of wild stunts and somehow, I never got injured." I know there are probably some that will roll their eyes and laugh but see the video below or the countless ones from his old Youtube channel.

While he pedaled the mountain bike and raced to a 2nd place in the 15-16 year old National XC MTB Championship, he was focused on cross-country skiing in the latter portion of high school and won at the National Championships in Alaska. Even with success on the mountain bike and in skiiing, Swirbul was still dedicated to the notion of switching over to road cycling and after Lance Armstrong passed his information to Axel Merckx, Swirbul was all set to join Bissell for the 2014 season. This is what Espoirs Central said upon the signing annoucement.

I'm still scratching my head at Swirbul because I don't know if he has raced more than a handful of road races but I don't his signing was on just a hunch.

What do you do with a rider that has an incredible engine who could probably crack nearly every rider in the peloton if it were on a mountain pass in Colorado? Enter him into Redlands Classic. On the first stage, he finished 199th out of 201 starters. Since then, Swirbul has had up and down results that have had some people scratching their heads. In his rookie season, he was riding well after taking 2nd place in the National U23 RR to teammate Tanner Putt and in the Tour of Utah and finished 21st on the stage to Snowbird, right with now-BMC pro Dylan Teuns. The next day he was out of the race after he had a flair up with tendonitis and was able to just sit in the pack at the USA Pro Challenge.
2015 didn't start off well either. After looking good in pre-season, Swirbul was hampered with overtraining and a knee injury and was on mandatory rest until finally racing at the end of late May, when we won the Iron Horse Classic, the famous point-to-point race from Durango to Silverton, CO. Soon he was back at the Tour de Beauce and going pretty well with an 6th place on Mont Megantic and ending 14th overall. 10 days later, he weathered attacks from BMC Development and Cal Giant and countered on the uphill finish to win the U23 National RR title.

After the national title, his season hit a wall. He was selected for the Giro della Valle d'Aosta and USA U23 director Mike Sayers had high hopes for Swirbul for an overall result. Swirbul wasn't on great form and in his first trip to Europe, he wasn't on his A game. Then at the Trofeo Almar, Swirbul was caught up in the same crash that Alexey Vermeulen broke his scaphoid in and ended up with a concussion. Said concussion took him out of the Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge thus ending his season.

The potential that many were salivating over in 2012 is still a bit of a mystery. Sayers still isn't sure what will come of Swirbul. "He is for sure a work in progress. I am not totally sure what we have in him. Clearly, he is an excellent climber. His descending skills are way above average also so those could lead to some excellent results. He is still extremely "green" but his dedication to training and working, on that side of it, is incredible." Swirbul decided to take a plunge and move over the the more European-focused BMC Development, which he sees as a route that suits him better than staying exclusively in America and fighting on the wide highways in Colorado and Utah.

That dedication to training has been present since his teenage days. Be it parkour, skiing or cycling, Swirbul's focus on training was on a high level. His training for the new season was in full flight but yet another injury caused him a set back. While in Tucson, Arizona, Swirbul had another bout of tendonitis, which he thinks came from a new shoe cleat setup combined with too much low cadence work. Never having any issues in other sports, Swirbul said, "I think that I am just going through a streak of bad luck with these issues as I don't believe I am overly susceptible as many people now believe me to be. The injury this off-season was really frustrating as I came in with incredibly high motivation this year to not make the same mistakes with overtraining and other issues that I made the last winter so it was really hard for me to be off the bike when I desperately wanted to make some progress this winter."

Another step Swirbul is looking to make is to not just be a training champion. "I just have to learn how to arrive at races with my top level versus wasting that shape in training or showing up way tired or whatever and I am hopeful that this year I will be able to put it all together when it actually matters in the races rather than score big time on some local Strava KOMs."

One thing that could certainly help with this is that Swirbul is working with a new coach, which is something that Sayers certainly agreed with. "I think a lot of the negative things he was going through were due to a highly incompetent, borderline masochistic coach that had no idea what he was doing to this kid." Sayers seems hopeful that with Swirbul on a good track, everyone will finally be able to see what Swirbul is capable of.

When asked what he would do if cycling didn't work out, Swirbul was honest saying, "If I went (away from) cycling, honestly I'd give everything I had in another sport. I know it sounds trashy, but my whole life I've dreamed of being a professional athlete at something."

This year isn't make or break for Swirbul but it is certainly important for his development. He doesn't want to be a national level cyclist and plod along on the continental circuit for the better part of a decade before hanging up the wheels to work as a cycling coach. It is World Tour or bust for Swirbul. If he is able to put the training to the road, he could be one of the top U23 climbers on the circuit but alas, the twisting mountain roads of Europe will decide his fate.

Swirbul starts his year in Portugal with the National team before going to Italy for some of the early one day races. His first target race is unsurprisingly the grueling Tour des Pays de Savoie and he will most likely target mountain stage races along with the Tour de l'Avenir later in the season.

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