Aspen’s Keegan Swirbul pedals in USA Pro Challenge
Keegan Swirbul wakes up every morning and lives his dream.
The 18-year-old graduate of Aspen High School who counts on his cycling resume a victory over none other than Lance Armstrong, will pedal into his biggest, most Technicolor dream ever next week in the USA Pro Challenge — the Colorado cycling stage race that begins with Monday’s Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race.
The first-year professional road cyclist for the Bissell Development Team will race in front of family and friends Monday afternoon (2 p.m. start) in the 68-mile opening circuit race that features three laps on the Aspen-Snowmass Village-McLain Flats-West End course.
He’ll also be at the starting line with his Bissell teammates Tuesday morning (11 a.m.) for the start of the historic stage 2 that will begin in downtown Aspen and finish in Crested Butte after a tour of Basalt, Carbondale, Redstone, McClure Pass and Kebler Pass.
“This is more than I could have asked for,” Swirbul said of his first season as a pro cyclist with Bissell. “This is perfect … racing here in Aspen. On this team, we are so lucky. We get to do these big races in the U.S. Very few people our age are able to do this.”
Swirbul and his Bissell buddies are coming off the rugged Tour of Utah, which concluded last Sunday with a second consecutive overall title by Tom Danielson of Garmin-Sharp — one of the general classification favorites in the 2014 USA Pro Challenge.
“The Tour of Utah was a really cool course,” Swirbul said. “It was a great course for me … steep climbs and long days.”
Swirbul, who beat Armstrong two years ago to win the Power of Four Mountain Bike Race, said that he got stronger as the seven-stage race took the cyclists from Southern Utah’s mountains up into the Uintah Mountains and the Wasatch Front, including the big climbs over Guardsman Pass and Empire Pass.
“I was definitely pleased with the start,” said Swirbul, who rode among the lead groups and recorded a couple of top-20 finishes.
A bit of knee tendinitis flared up on the sixth stage, he said.
The team opted to pull Swirbul for the final stage to allow him to recover and race in Colorado.
“This team … they are all really strong riders,” Swirbul said of the collection of young pros on the Bissell squad, a UCI Continental division team. “The main difference is their ability to recover every day and ride every day.”
Swirbul’s Bissell Development teammates include Nicholai Brochner, 20, of Denmark and Nathan Van Hooydonck, 18, of Belgium along with James Oram of New Zealand. He’s 21.
The rest of his teammates on the under-23 development team are Americans — Chris Putt and Tanner Putt (Park City, Utah), Daniel Eaton (Mesa, Arizona) and Gregory Daniel (Englewood).
Swirbul said the Bissell team has been doing training rides this week in the Aspen area.
They’ll check out parts of stage 2 up McClure Pass and the dirt/gravel section of Kebler Pass as part of their preparation.
They also are likely to preride parts of the crucial third stage of the USA Pro Challenge that will feature a mountaintop finish at the Monarch Ski Area atop Monarch Pass.
The Bissell boys will do a full team preride of the Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race over the weekend, in advance of the Monday 2 p.m. starting time for stage 1.
Swirbul said stage 1 should set up for the sprinters again this year. The nature of the course — with short, punchy climbs — includes long stretches of McLain Flats where teams can pull their sprinters back into contention at the front.
That’s where Cannondale set up Peter Sagan for the victory last year in the first Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race.
“The second day is a really interesting stage for sure,” said Swirbul, who has ridden McClure Pass many times in his young cycling career.
The natural stretch of Kebler Pass will be another test for the teams to protect their top riders, said Swirbul, the son of Brick and Rebecca Swirbul of El Jebel.
Younger sister Hailey Swirbul, a national champion cross country ski racer, is a senior at Basalt High School this year.
Swirbul, in an interview with The Aspen Times, said it is special to race in his hometown because of his vivid memories of the first three years of the USA Pro Challenge.
“When the first race came to Aspen, I said it is so cool to see those big teams racing here,” Swirbul said.
The sophomore at Aspen High School watched from the front row as George Hincapie of BMC won the 2011 USA Pro Challenge stage that finished in downtown Aspen in the rain.
One year later, Swirbul watched Tom Danielson of Garmin-Sharp ride a solo breakaway on Independence Pass and finish with a dramatic victory on Aspen’s Main Street.
“Tom Danielson … I do remember that,” Swirbul.
Then, last year, Swirbul watched cycling superstar Peter Sagan of Cannondale train in the Aspen area and win the first-ever Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race.
This year, Swirbul won’t be watching Danielson or any of the other pros.
No, this year, Aspen native Keegan Swirbul will be racing alongside Danielson.
He’ll be racing alongside defending champion and Aspen resident Tejay van Garderen of BMC, Italy’s Ivan Basso of Cannondale, Australian Michael Rogers of Tinkoff-Saxo and recent Tour de France top climber Rafal Majka of Poland — not to mention the 42-year-old Jens Voigt of Trek Factory Racing, who recently rode in his 17th Tour de France.
One of the most popular riders in the pro peloton, Voigt will be riding in his final professional stage race at the USA Pro Challenge.
His appearance in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley next week will be among his final rides ever as a professional.
Meanwhile, Aspen’s Keegan Swirbul — 24 years younger than Voigt — will be riding in his first USA Pro Challenge.
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