The most dominant marathon mountain biker and gravel racer on the USA competitive circuit this year is, without a doubt, Keegan Swenson. Currently undefeated in the 2023 season, the 29-year-old Santa Cruz-sponsored athlete from Heber City, Utah, is putting the screws to his competitors and shattering course records at the same time.
Leadville Trail 100 Course Record
First up, Keegan absolutely crushed the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike course record with a time of 5 hours, 43 minutes, and 31 seconds. That's an astonishing 15 minutes faster than the previous record, which has stood since 2015. 2023 was Keegan's third time in a row winning the Leadville Trail 100, and in 2022, he came very close to the record, but "it was kind of an afterthought," he said. Last year, "the main goal was to win the race, and if I happened to get the record, then that'd be a bonus."
But heading into 2023, Keegan, his couches, and his teammates doubled down, focusing their energy on figuring out exactly what it would take to break the Leadville 100 course record. But he didn't want to beat it by a mere minute—he wanted to shatter the record. "That was really the focus this year. After Unbound, everything was on that," said Keegan. "So I went to Leadville a bit early this year. Sofia [Gomez Villafane (his partner and the winner of the women's 2023 Leadville Trail 100)] did the stage race up there, so I went up and just trained and pre-rode the course and tested different bikes and tires and wheels and all that stuff, and just started to dial it all in."
Keegan went into the race with a goal of hitting a 5:50 finish time, with his target splits taped to the top tube of his bike. To get a healthy start on his desired splits, his sole teammate, Tobin Ortenblad, led him out from the start line to the beginning of the first major. In the end, the minute or two saved by drafting Tobin off of the startline didn't make or break the course record, but Keegan didn't want to leave anything up to chance.
From there, Keegan worked with a strong group of racers who were pushing the pace and comfortably hitting his 5:50 splits before eventually breaking away at the bottom of the Columbine climb—the most infamous climb of the race, gaining over 3,000 vertical feet and topping out at 12,516 feet above sea level. He rode off the front of the pack for the rest of the race, crushing both his target time and the course record, which had stood for seven years.
LeadBoat Changes and SBT GRVL Course Record
In previous years, the Leadville 100 mountain bike race and the SBT GRVL race in Steamboat Springs took place on back-to-back days on the same weekend. Athletes competing in mountain and gravel biking disciplines have given the two-race combo the affectionate moniker "LeadBoat." This year, the two events took place a week apart, giving racers time to recover in between. While some people might think a week of recovery would be helpful, Keegan wasn't so sure.
"Last year, having 'em back to back on the same weekend, in some ways, for me it was almost easier—less stressful because you race Leadville, and then you really just eat as much as you can, sleep, and you get up and race and there's nothing you can do. You just have what you have. Whereas when you have five days, six days between, then it's a little more stressful because I feel like there's a little more pressure. It's a fine line between resting but also not letting your body shut down completely between the two events. For me, I have to do a little bit of work to keep the motor running, which is obviously quite easy to do if you just race the day before. So it's just a balance of recovering but also getting opened back up for another hard effort a week away."
Still, Keegan said that the extra time between the two events made the SBT GRVL race more exciting: "I was more willing to push early and attack a few miles in, and guys [were] willing to go with and ride hard. So I think it made the race a little more exciting in some ways."
While Keegan posted an impressive repeat win, defending his victory from last year, the most remarkable accomplishment is that he broke the 6-hour barrier on the 142-mile black course (breaking his own course record of 6:16:12 from 2022). Second-place finisher Peter Vakoc also broke the 6-hour barrier, but Keegan's new time will stand as the course record for at least another year: 5 hours, 57 minutes, and 10 seconds.
The rest of Keegan's season holds a slew of stellar events as he finishes off the Life Time Grand Prix series, which boasts a healthy $250,000 prize purse (split evenly between men and women). Remaining in the series are Chequamegon 40 in Wisconsin and Big Sugar Gravel in Arkansas. While in Arkansas, he also plans to compete in the Little Sugar mountain bike race for good measure.
Gravel Nationals in Nebraska is Keegan's next major objective for the year, and he also plans to race Gravel Worlds in Italy. Will Keegan be able to complete an undefeated season with such significant events still on his calendar? Are other course records on the chopping block? Be sure to follow Keegan on Strava to see how the rest of this incredible racing season turns out!