LEADVILLE — Looking back on his 105-mile tour of the “cloud city,” no doubt Keegan Swenson is thinking there was a second or two he left out on the course. Whether it really matters is up for debate.
The Life Time Grand Prix leader demonstrated his dominance over the professional long-distance mountain bike and gravel scene on Saturday, blasting the Leadville Trail 100 MTB’s most elite field in race history with a 14 minute, 30 second win, his second straight. He narrowly missed becoming the third athlete in the race’s 28-year running to go sub-six hours, finishing in a time of 6:00:01.
“It was good. It was a fast one today,” Swenson said. “I felt for awhile I was going to be pretty close to the record. We got close. It was a lot faster than last year and considering I was solo all the way back from Columbine — I was happy with it.”
Swenson made his move shortly after leading a group of 10 cyclists up the famed Columbine climb to the course’s high point and turnaround.
“Going up Columbine, everyone has their place and there isn’t much attacking going up. I kind of knew what I could do and just did that from the bottom and was going to see who could stay,” Swenson said.
“I figured Howie (Grotts) would be there the longest and he was. Alexey (Vermeulen) was also with us for a while. And then eventually those guys kind of fell off and they were solo as well.”
At the top, Swenson was 2:47 ahead of Grotts, who had another 75 seconds on Vermeulen. Cole Paton was in fourth, 30 seconds back of the Boulder-based rider, and Aspen’s John Gaston was 21 seconds off Paton in fifth.
Behind those five, Matthew Beers, Samuel Gilletly, Lachlan Morton, Peter Stetina and Lance Haidet were filed together. UCI World Team EF Education–EasyPost pro rider Alex Howes, who led at the 40-mile checkpoint, lost ground and was separated from the leaders for good.
Turning around, Swenson was able to view the devastation he’d inflicted on the peloton.
“I could see the group was quite blown up on the way back,” he said. “I was pretty confident I could make it back (to Leadville) solo; I didn’t think there’d be any big groups chasing me. There’s really only a few sections of road where it’s straight and fast where a group really makes a big difference, otherwise it’s not too big of a deal.”
When asked if he expected to be riding alone for the final 55 miles, Swenson said, “I wasn’t sure. Howie’s won this race three times and I think he’s also one of the best climbers in the world at this altitude. Yeah, so I knew the pace I could ride and I was like, ‘If Howie stays with me, great, then we’ll go faster on the way back. If not, then I’ll be solo and I’ll see what I can do.’”
Heading out of Twin Lakes at 60 miles, Swenson’s lead had grown to almost five minutes. Meanwhile, Gaston had fought his way back to Grotts — who elected to group up in lieu of riding alone — and Vermeulen along the flat ‘pipeline’ section. Heading up the inhumanely steep ‘powerline’ stretch, Swenson held a nine-minute advantage in front of the trio. In fifth, just 10-seconds back, was Paton.
Swenson gained more ground up the course’s iconic climb. By the time he exited Hagerman Pass onto Turquoise Lake Road, his lead had ballooned to 10:45 with approximately 16 miles remaining. Grotts and Gaston hit Turquoise Lake Road together, in second and third, respectively. Fully aware he was in the midst of the mountain bike race of his life, Gaston said he “tried to not think too far ahead” to prevent the magnitude of the moment from getting to him.
“There’s how many pros here?” he rhetorically asked in a humorously self-depreciating tone of his mindset near the end. “I mean, I’m confident in myself and I thought I’d maybe have a shot at top 10, but to be able to hang in there and keep making the groups was kind of crazy.”
Gaston said he was gapped on every climb throughout the race. He was able to gain ground on the flats and descents.
“Just the way this race works with tactics — I was very fortunate (to come back),” he said.
In the race’s final hour, Gaston hung with Grotts, a three-time Leadville Trail 100 MTB champion from 2017-2019.
“I had zero confidence whatsoever in beating him; I was going to ask for a truce,” Gaston joked.
Going up the gradual grade of the ‘boulevard’ road, just a mile from the finish, the Aspen ski mountaineering star pulled away, notching a shocking second-place finish that even he couldn’t believe.
“Bewilderment. Astonishment,” he said when asked what his thoughts were as he crossed the finish line in 6:14:31.
The U.S. skimo team member said the performance won’t change his priorities.
“I definitely prefer spending my summers on the bike instead of running, and I’ve kind of figured out how to make that transfer to Skimo,” he said.
The Snowmass 50, which he won, and Leadville were the only two races Gaston planned to contest this year on the bike.
“I gotta start kind of gearing up for winter,” he said. “My whole life I never thought I’d ever get a podium at Leadville. Ever. Not even a pipe dream. So this is crazy to me. Honestly, I’m still not even sure how it happened.”
Gaston also raced Leadville in 2019.
“I was in the second group, not the first group,” he said of that year. “This time around, I was like, ‘I’m going to go until I blow.’”
Standing next to Grotts at the finish, the reality of his second-place finish was barely sinking in.
“This was so far beyond my expectations; I mean, I’ve followed these guys’ careers for like a decade,” he said.
With the field comprised mostly of Life Time Grand Prix athletes — the nation’s 30 best males and females competing on a six-race circuit for a $250,000 prize — Gaston’s win is particularly sweet. When asked if he’d compete in the circuit next year if offered a spot, he said, “I would love to do some of it — I mean, I’ve never done a gravel race in my life.”
“Skimo is still my best sport on an international level,” he continued. “For now, I’m still very much focused on that, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t fit in some longer races. This one does fit in really well with building in that big endurance base during the summer anyway.”
In the women’s race, Salt Lake City rider Hannah Otto took down defending champion Rose Grant. Otto finished in 7:24:07 with Grant in second in 7:29:37 and Haley Smith in third in 7:41:53.
Durango’s Alexis Skarda took the race out hard. At 26 miles, she led by 2:20 over a group of three — Otto, Sturm and Grant. Smith sat in fifth going into the pipeline double-track, two minutes off of Grant. By the start of the Goat Trail at mile 48, Skarda’s lead had dwindled to just 28 seconds over Otto, who left Grant and Sturm on the climb up Columbine. At the turnaround, the race had a new leader.
Otto would stretch her lead to 2:40 by mile 74, with Grant gaining ground on the fading Skarda. At the return pipeline visit, the defending champion was just 59 seconds back from the Durango cyclist. Entering the powerline climb, she had moved in front, but Otto, with her 3:56 lead, held too much of an advantage to overcome.