Words: Betsy Welch
The last time Keegan Swenson raced the Downieville Classic was in 2012 when he was 18-years-old. His recollection is this:
A quick scan of the event's results page shows that junior Swenson's memory serves pretty well: he finished eighth. Now 29, Swenson is coming back to race Downieville for the second time this weekend, although he said he always wanted to race it again. For the past decade, Swenson always seemed to have conflicts with the California event, whether it was domestic cross-country racing (when that was more of a thing) or being abroad for World Cups.
Now, Swenson is firmly based in the U.S. — Tucson in the winter and Park City, Utah in the summer — and happens to have a free weekend in his busy racing calendar. He has also become the most dominant cyclist in the blurred-lines discipline being referred to as endurance off-road, a combination of gravel and cross-country mountain bike racing made official by the Life Time Grand Prix series that debuted last year. Swenson began to pivot toward gravel a few years ago, out of curiosity and a search for something that might put him on the podium instead of mid pack in the World Cup. He was immediately successful, winning Belgian Waffle Ride Utah in 2020 after riding more than 120 miles of rough gravel roads and singletrack without a front brake.
Then, in 2022 along came the Life Time Grand Prix, a race series launched by fitness center and event giant Life Time. The series took six races from the brand's off-road portfolio — three gravel and three XC, including the already epic Unbound Gravel and Leadville 100 MTB race — and offered up $250,000 to the ten men and women with the best results out of five races. Swenson not only won the series but he won three of the races outright and barely missed the first step of the podium at two others.
This year, Swenson has won all of the Grand Prix races thus far (Sea Otter, Unbound, and Crusher in the Tushar), as well as the Whiskey Off-Road cross-country race and the UCI XCO race at the Soldier Hollow Bike Fest. So what about Downieville, where riders vying for the all mountain title race a 26.5 mile point-to-point cross-country race with 4,500 feet of ascent and 5,700 of descent on Saturday, followed by the Downieville Downhill, which drops 5,000 vertical feet in 15 miles, on Sunday.
Can Swenson still send enough to win it?
Swenson is fresh off a win at the Crusher in the Tushar on Saturday, where he set a record for the fastest course time ever, completing the 69 mile up-and-down gravel race (some 10,000 feet of climbing) in just under four hours. The Downieville prep plan? Ride the mountain bike this week and remember how to go fast downhill. Swenson is confident going into the cross-country race and said that he'll be good enough on the downhill. It's not crazy technical, he said, more old school super D than super chunk DH. He does know, however, that the competition will be stout.
The men's field for the all mountain title is stacked, and the stoke is high for the 25th anniversary of the event that has been on hiatus since the last edition in 2019. Davoust won that year, Geoff Kabush ( who won in 2018 ) was second, and Carl Decker, who won back in 2012, was fourth. All of them will return this year. Riders vying for the all mountain title must use the exact same bike for both races. There's a mandatory bike weigh-in and a parts check prior to both races, and the bike must weigh the same each day, or the racer is bumped from the all mountain class.
Swenson's weapon of choice is a Santa Cruz Blur TR. He'll ride a Maxxis Rekon 2.4 in the front, and the same size Rekon Race in the rear. He's got them lined with Tannus Armour inserts for increased protection and stability. Aside from the tires, inserts, and 120mm Rockshox Sid Ultimate fork, this is Swenson's typical XC rig. The all mountain race at the Downieville Classic may not be Swenson's typical race these days — he really does love gravel — but it seems unlikely that he won't win it.