Parkite Keegan Swenson wins first national mountain biking championship
Park City has a national champion in mountain biking.
For native son Keegan Swenson, the long journey from Elite Junior champion to winning his first Elite Pro national championship has been full of triumphs and tribulations.
The 25-year-old Midway resident has won numerous events, including U17, U19 and U23 championships, and different events on the Elite Pro circuit. But he has never been a USA Cycling National Champion at the Elite Pro level, coming close a few times but never crossing the finish line first.
That all changed on Saturday, July 27 in Winter Park when Swenson beat out longtime rival, and good friend, Howard Grotts, 26, to capture the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships pro men’s cross-country race.
“It’s awesome, it really has been, because I’ve been chasing gold for so long and to finally end up on top of the podium was great,” Swenson said. “This has been eluding me over the past five years, so, to finally get it, yeah, it feels real good.”
Swenson completed the five-lap course in 1 hour, 50 minutes and 26 seconds, holding off Grotts, the four-time champion who’d held the title since 2015 who finished in 1:52:08.
“This is the first time I’ve beaten him (Grotts) since the U23 national championships, so it felt really good to do it again, even if it has been a long time,” Swenson said. “He’s a good guy, a good friend, someone who’s helped me become better by being himself. The competition with him is always good.”
Being a national championship, the race was considered one of the more difficult ones throughout the circuit, according to Swenson. It began at 9,000 feet and topped out at just under 10,000 feet, making the race more about strength than speed, something Swenson used to his advantage.
“The climbs weren’t insanely steep but still, nobody wanted to go out super hard because if you do that, you pay for it later on in the race, especially at this altitude because you can’t recover,” he said. “I just paced myself till the last lap when I felt strong enough to pull away at that point and distance myself. … Then I was able to just hold on till the end.”
The technical portion of the race is where Swenson and Grotts excelled, pacing with the leaders for the first three laps before pulling away on the fourth lap, making it a two-man race for the final lap.
But it was Swenson who ended pulling away to secure the victory with a blistering final lap. After both riders taxed themselves on the final climb, Swenson reached the peak first and was able to finish strong the rest of the descent, although he never felt comfortable.
“Once I came out of single track I knew I had it. … It was technical and tight and because I couldn’t see him and didn’t know where he was, I was never able to relax,” Swenson said. “Anything could’ve happened last minute, whether it was a crash or a flat tire, and I would’ve lost it. It was definitely a little nerve-wracking because I thought I had it on the descent but I just had to stay dialed in the whole way to make sure.”
Swenson traveled to Winter Park on the Wednesday before the competition, thus giving him plenty of rest time between his race the previous weekend and the championships that were awaiting him. The reason for the early arrival was to get acclimated to Winter Park’s altitude, giving him a solid three nights to get adjusted.
“This may sound weird, but my only concern was just getting acclimated to the elevation and altitude. … If I could get acclimated the right way, I knew I would be able to do well and would be ready,” Swenson said. “I normally don’t have that big of a problem with the altitude because I grew up in Park City but with this being so high, it was the only thing I was concerned with.”
For Swenson, his finish helps him quite a bit in his quest to qualify for the Olympics with team USA. Even if Team USA doesn’t get two selections for the upcoming Olympics, Swenson’s national championship victory holds him favorably in the eyes of the selection committee.
“This shows more than anything that I’m ready to compete at the highest level with the best riders in the world,” Swenson said. “If the Olympics comes down to a selection, having the title of ‘national champion’ gives me some serious clout and will make the U.S. cycling panel really consider me. But still, I’m hoping we get two riders in.”
After conquering his first goal of the season, Swenson is now looking ahead to the World Championships in Quebec the first weekend in September.
“I’m definitely going to race one more time before worlds comes around, but I feel like with this win, I’m a different racer now,” Swenson said. “This was a huge confidence boost for me and has now given me a few extra points going into worlds.”
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Over the last 12 years, the National Ability Center has funded organized and hosted the Summit Challenge, a bike ride for participants of all abilities.