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Finding the Spirit of Gravel

American gravel masters Keegan Swenson and Russell Finsterwald take a band of brothers on a 5-day journey through the Sonoran Desert.

America's gravel scene is thriving to say the least. A fringe discipline less than 8 years ago, gravel has quickly become the most exciting cycling discipline in the US, and is quickly gaining traction around the world as evidenced by the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships late in the 2022 season.

Two names that are synonymous with the American gravel and mountain biking scene are Neversecond Athletes Keegan Swenson and Russell Finsterwald. Snowbirds who spend the winter months in their second homes in Tucson, Arizona, we sat down with Russell and Keegan to talk to them about their recent winter training camp through the Sonoran Desert - aptly named "The Spirit Tour."



N2: So how did you two meet?

Keegan: Russell and I met in 2009, so almost 13 years ago. We met racing as juniors at national mountain bike events.

Russell: Yea, we have been good friends and training partners ever since.

N2: And you guys are living in Tucson now. How did you find your way to Tucson and where do you consider home these days?

Keegan: I've been in Tucson for maybe 4 years now - during the season I live near where I grew up in Heber City [Utah] with Sofia [Gomez Villafane] when I'm not traveling for races. Russell told me about Tucson and it made a lot of sense to me to come down half the year so I'm not training in the snow and cold. The training's more consistent too! I bought a house down here and then rent it out during the rest of the year when I'm not in town.

Russell: I came down to Tucson maybe 11 years ago. I'm originally from Colorado, but have slowly been spending more and more time in Tucson over the years. It's pretty neat to be able to spend 6 months in the desert and 6 months in the mountains. The training is really good here too. There is so much great terrain between asphalt, gravel and single-track. A lot of endurance athletes have discovered Tucson.

N2: Yeah it seems that way. Tucson seems to have become a real hub for mountain bikers, gravel riders, cyclists and triathletes where Flagstaff seems to be a magnet for the runners.

Keegan: Absolutely. There are so many top triathletes and riders down here. We have weekly rides with a big group. Sometimes we get as many as 70-100 riders who come out for it.

N2: I've heard about those "Shootout Rides." Some guys call your 5-hour pace a bit hard to handle Keegan. Care to comment on that?

Keegan: [Laughs] Keeping them sharp I guess!

N2: You're two of the strongest mountain bikers in the US. How did you two get into gravel? It seems you also both spend a lot of time on both mountain and gravel bikes. And do you have a preference now?

Russell: Both of us have only been riding gravel only for a few years. I think our first gravel race was Belgian Waffle Ride [Cedar City] in 2019. But speaking for myself - I love it!

Keegan: It's hard to talk preference to be honest, but gravel offers this total unique challenge. You can still cover a lot of ground similar to a road bike, but you can go on terrain that road bikes can't. So it really opens up the opportunity for new adventures and a new form of racing that combines both the technical challenges of mountain biking with the the tactics of road cycling.

"[Gravel] opens up the opportunity for new adventures and a new form of racing that combines both the technical challenges of mountain biking and the tactics of road cycling."

N2: Speaking of adventures - you guys just got back from a 5-day training camp in southern Arizona. Tell us about that.

Keegan: We did this training camp as one of the last less-structured training blocks before we start sharpening up for the season. We called this camp "The Spirit Tour." A lot of base miles on some terrain that was new for us.

N2: Who came up with the name?

Keegan: I guess we both did. We kept hearing people talk about the "Spirit of Gravel." We weren't exactly sure what that meant. So this is our version - going on a long multi-day adventure with a great group of guys not knowing what will happen exactly - emptying the tank every day.

N2: I can only imagine - what sort of stats did you guys manage on this one Keegan?

Keegan: Maybe 850 miles. 55,000 feel of elevation I think. We rode for 6 to 10 hours per day.

N2: Geez. Russell - I hear you are the organiser of a lot of these rides - you're kind of the planner right?

Russell: [Laughs] Right. I'm the party planner I guess! We rode for 5 days along the very southern edge of Arizona and stayed in hotels in Bisbee and Patagonia. I love to chart adventure rides that I'm not exactly sure what we'll encounter. A lot of this ride was on unmapped state land. We did it on gravel bikes, but a lot of the terrain was really steep and rocky - and probably more suitable for mountain bikes. We had to walk some sections.

N2: Where did you sleep? Any camping?

Keegan: [Laughs] No. We wanted to the training level to be solid, so good sleep was a must! No tents. We had some support - and ate real meals at the end of each day - burritos, pizza, barbecue ...

N2: Yeah that sounds smart. You you guys are pretty hard to hang with on any ride, much less a multi-day outing. I heard that 4 other guys were brave enough to go on this camp with you.

Russell: We had 6 guys total - Keegan and me, Kerry Werner, Ryan Standish. Griffin Easter and Cody Cupp. A solid group. Everyone in the group is solid.



N2: Did you guys have any support?

Keegan: We mostly carried our own food and fluids during the day. [Neversecond] gels and drinks, Hostess Cakes, some Little Debbie, Powerade, Gatorade. You name it. We hit a few gas stations. The intensity was not super high - so you can handle more normal food. We did have some help from Myron.

N2: Who's Myron?

Keegan: Myron's a good friend who does a lot of the support at Santa Cruz. He met us at the end of most of the days and rode a bit too. He brought the beer!

Russell: Yea. He built a pyramid out of beer cans at the bottom of the days' final hill climb we race up. It made our day!

N2: Love it! So you guys are among the best endurance mountain bikers and gravel racers in the world. Keegan you even threw your hat into the mix at the World Road Cycling Championships in 2022. How would you guys describe yourselves as athletes now that you compete in MTB, gravel and sometimes road?

Russell: Off-Road Racers.

Keegan: Yeah. That sounds about right!

N2: Fair enough. So you guys both had an unbelievable 2022 season - even by your own standards. Keegan you won the Life Time Grand Prix and US Elite XCO Nationals convincingly. Russell you had an amazing late season with a key win at Big Sugar and an overall third place finish at Life Time Grand Prix. What do you attribute your incredible success to at Life Time and the big gravel events.

Keegan: Before 2022 started, there was a lot of noise around how mountain bikers would do against the cyclists and gravel specialists. I think the mountain bikers did really well because we are really well-trained at finding the best lines and protecting our gear.

N2: Protecting your gear? Explain that.

Russell: A lot of the gravel courses have sharp and chunky gravel that shreds tires if you hit it wrong. We're kind of used to that on mountain bikes. So we're able to protect against punctures than most.

N2: Got it. That explains a lot - thanks. So for two guys that have accomplished so much, what are your big goals for 2023?

Keegan: Win Unbound 200 and Cape Epic. Break 6:00 at Leadville.

Russell: Unbound and Gravel Worlds.

N2: Damn. Lofty goals. But I guess we expected that! You guys do so much racing all over the world. Do you have a favourite race or ride?

Russell: Rule of 3 and The Whiskey 50.

Keegan: I love mountain racing. Probably Leadville 100 if I had to choose. But I really love all-day adventure rides like the Spirit Tour.

N2: Like your "Spirit Tour." So many riders look to you guys as machines who do the impossible. Do you have any advice to give anyone who sees the incredible stats from your Spirit of Gravel Tour?

Keegan: We love adventure as much as racing. Anyone can go on a long adventure and challenge themselves. Just do it at your speed and surprise yourself.

"We love adventure as much as racing. Anyone can go on a long adventure and challenge themselves. Just do it at your speed and surprise yourself."

N2: I like that. As two guys who are among the hardest workers on two wheels, what's the philosophy that drives you guys?

Keegan: "Nobody cares. Work harder."

Russell: "Hard work beats talent."

N2: Words to live by. Thanks guys.

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