The wheel deal
Teen graduates from Aspen High School to pro cycling
ASPEN — Two years after catching Lance Armstrong’s eye by beating him in a mountain bike race, teenager and Aspen High School graduate Keegan Swirbul had the misfortune of catching a cold over the weekend.
The timing wasn’t the greatest, as the 18-year-old readied to compete in the USA Pro Challenge cycling race after landing on the Bissell Development Team based in part on the recommendation of Armstrong.
“It definitely is disappointing. I’ve been looking to this race all year,” Swirbul said Monday, only minutes before the week-long race started with a circuit race in Aspen.
Despite the respiratory distress, Swirbul nonetheless has been doing his best to hang with some of the world’s top riders this week in what is only his first year as a road cycling racer. He entered the event after some top-20 stage finishes in the recent Tour of Utah, before he had to drop out of the race with a knee injury.
“He’s a good climber and a great talent, a good kid,” teammate Tanner Putt said of Swirbul.
Swirbul, who lives in El Jebel in the Roaring Fork Valley, was a little disappointed not to be able to climb better in the familiar hills around Aspen on Monday, but he understood that with his cold he had to adjust expectations and just go into survival mode during this week’s race.
Nevertheless, after Tuesday’s 105-mile stage from Aspen to Crested Butte, he was 47th in a 123-racer field, just more than five minutes behind the leader, despite being the youngest rider in the four-year history of the race.
Until this year, Swirbul’s racing successes had come in mountain biking and as a cross-country ski racer. His sister, Hailey, 16, also is a talented cross-country skier, winning a national championship this year.
Keegan Swirbul drew national attention with his victory over Armstrong two years ago in the Power of Four mountain bike race in Aspen, where Armstrong has a home.
“I wouldn’t be here without that. It just got me noticed,” Swirbul said.
In particular, it got him noticed by Armstrong, whom Swirbul thanks for going on to use his contacts in bike racing to help get Swirbul onto a team. Armstrong was gracious enough in defeat to contact Bissell team owner Axel Merckx, leading to Swirbul eventually joining the team.
“Lance told me a couple years back that (Swirbul) was incredibly talented,” said Merckx, an Olympic bronze medalist in cycling and the son of Eddie Merckx, who is widely considered the greatest cyclist in history.
Axel Merckx said he got in touch with Swirbul to express his interest, “and here he is.”
He said Swirbul is “super-young, super-green, and has a lot to learn” about the simple basics of riding in a pack and competing in racing. But Merckx has hopes of seeing Swirbul develop over the next few years to advance beyond his team, which is geared toward young riders, and go on to have a professional career.
“That’s the fun part of this program, is seeing the evolution” of young riders, Merckx said. “... It’s very rewarding.”
Swirbul praised Merckx for his knowledge of the sport and called him “such a nice guy.” He also remains hugely appreciative of Armstrong’s efforts in helping him get into the sport.
“If I ever make it to the Tour de France or something like that, it’s really because of Lance,” said Swirbul, who also voiced disappointment over Armstrong’s downfall from the sport after admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs.
People such as Fritz Carpenter, Swirbul’s former cross-country ski teammate, might argue that Swirbul’s own ability also has a lot to do with his successes at such a young age. Speaking Monday after sharing laughs with Swirbul before that day’s race start, he said he can recall besting Swirbul just once in a ski race.
“He’s so strong — so strong,” Carpenter said with admiration in his voice.