Historic Gravel National Championships Crown Swenson and Stephens

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GERING, Nebraska (September 9, 2023) In a groundbreaking display of grit and determination, 39 amateur cyclists clinched their place in the annals of American cycling history at the inaugural Gravel National Championships held in the heart of Gering, Nebraska. The USA Cycling Gravel National Championships, a first-of-its-kind event, unfurled in grandeur on a crisp Saturday morning, spanning various distances—131.4 miles, 88 miles, 52.6 miles, and 24.8 miles—across four challenging courses. The event boasted a star-studded lineup featuring elite riders such as Keegan Swenson, Lauren De Crescenzo, Lance Haidet, Lauren Stephens, Peter Stetina, Alexis Skarda, Payson McElveen, and Alexey Vermeulen. With lucrative prize money at stake, these elite fields brimmed with top-tier gravel talent, seeking glory on the gravel.

2023 USA Cycling Gravel National Championships Elite Womens Start. Photo by Tyler Phillips/USA Cycling

Elite Men’s Race: A Battle of Endurance

The men’s competition commenced with a neutral start through Gering’s picturesque town, affording riders like Keegan Swenson and Peter Stetina the opportunity to find their rhythm. However, approximately 30 miles into the race, the tranquility was shattered by a dramatic crash that eliminated several contenders from contention. From that point onward, it was a war of attrition, with the harsh course conditions testing the mettle of these athletes. Stetina’s unfortunate mechanical failure further thinned the field, as the race continued to unfold against the backdrop of gusty winds and treacherous, loose dirt.

Swenson encapsulated the challenges, remarking, “It was a tough course. It was windy, and the dirt was really soft and loose. It was a strange surface all day.”

At the 60-mile mark, a breakaway group of nine riders surged ahead, featuring Swenson, McElveen, Vermeulen, Tobin Ortenblad, John Borstelmann, Brennan Wertz, Ethan Overson, and Daxton Mock. By the time the race reached the 100-mile mark, this group, except for Vogel, remained largely intact. Over the subsequent ten miles, the contenders were reduced to Swenson, Vermeulen, Wertz, and McElveen.

A decisive moment arrived at mile 126 when Keegan Swenson launched a powerful attack, closely shadowed by Alexey Vermeulen. Vermeulen recounted the intense duel, stating, “We went hard on the climb, with four of us reaching the top together. I told myself not to underestimate Keegan (Swenson), and once again, he snuck through the inside, and we never saw him again until the finish line.”

Swenson managed to maintain his lead and completed the race in a remarkable time of 6 hours and 24 seconds, etching his name as the inaugural Elite Men’s Gravel National Champion. The battle for the remaining podium places unfolded in a thrilling group sprint, with Vermeulen seizing second place, followed by Wertz in third, and McElveen in fourth.

USA Cycling Gravel National Championships: Race Day – Civic Center in Gering, Nebraska, USA on September 09, 2023. (Photo: Craig Huffman / Craig Huffman Photography)

Later, on his Facebook page, Keegan Swenson wrote: “Proper day of bike racing out at @usacycling Gravel Nats! Tactical, windy, and flat … three things that I’ve really grown to appreciate in a bike race nowadays. After hours of crosswinds and echelons the race really kicked off on the final short climb when @alexeyvermeulen hit the gas. From there to the finish it was just a dog fight with Alexey, @brennan.wertz, and @paysonmcelveen. I played my cards right with an attack about 5k out and was able to solo in for the win at the first ever USA Gravel Nationals.”

Swenson’s next event, in his thus-far undefeated 2023 season, will be the Chequamegon 48 Mountain Bike Race.

Third-place finisher Brennan Wertz had the following to say, “The race went really well. It wasn’t the smoothest sailing, but in gravel racing, it never is. It was a solid group of us fighting the wind, battling it out. Really, really tough conditions, a really harsh wind. We had good cohesion. Everyone was working well together. It was fun to get to race with a good crew of the American guys. It was really an honor. It was cool to be here for the first-ever national championships in this discipline. I can’t wait to see where the sports going and to be part of it.”

McElveen, a crowd favorite, acknowledged the significance of this championship for the gravel community, remarking, “It has a certain excitement about it, for sure. It’s been a little while since I raced a national championship. I’ve been lucky enough to know how it can change your career if you win one. It’s been a few years since I did one, but I definitely had that little extra level of butterflies this morning knowing what was on the line.”

Elite Men’s Results:
  1. Keegan Swenson (Heber City, Utah; Santa Cruz Bicycles/SRAM)
  2. Alexey Vermeulen (Pinckney, Mich.; Jukebox – ENVE)
  3. Brennan Wertz (Mill Valley, Calif.; Mosaic Cycles)
  4. Payson McElveen (Durango, Colo.; Allied Cycle Works)
  5. John Borstelmann (San Luis Obispo, Calif.; Ventum / Voler)

Elite Women’s Race: A Tale of Tenacity

Offering a staggering $30,000 prize purse, the morning’s women’s race drew top talent from across the nation. Their race commenced 15 minutes after the men’s, adopting a similar neutral start format. Once the race hit the gravel, the pace accelerated swiftly, and what began as a cohesive group swiftly fragmented, particularly in the face of challenging terrain. At the forefront emerged a quartet of formidable riders—Lauren Stephens, Alexis Skarda, Crystal Anthony, and Jenna Rinehart—as they neared the halfway mark of the grueling 131-mile race.

Notably, gravel sensation Lauren De Crescenzo followed closely behind. Stephens, fresh off a demanding stint that included competing in the UCI Road World Championships, became a standout contender for victory if the race came down to a final ascent.

As the race unfolded, the quartet’s unity gave way to separation, leaving Skarda and Stephens to wage a gripping battle for the gold. Despite contending with a slow tire leak, Stephens was compelled to make repeated stops to replenish air. Skarda, demonstrating sportsmanship, opted to await her competitor, recognizing the strategic advantage of collaboration in the challenging conditions.

Skarda explained her strategy, stating, “I was trying to feel out how I felt and how (Lauren Stephens) felt. She was having some issues with her front tire, so I ended up waiting for her a couple of times within an hour to go. I knew it might be to my benefit because I didn’t know how close the other girls were behind. So, I didn’t want to be alone in the wind. I knew there was something wrong with her tire, so when we got to that last climb I was like ‘well I’m going to attack her, and see if I can hold it,’ I didn’t quite have that edge for a good attack and she was able to hang on my wheel and then she counterattacked. I was too tired to respond at that point and she just slowly rode away from me.”

Stephens ultimately triumphed, crossing the finish line solo with a remarkable time of 6 hours, 45 minutes, and 33 seconds.

USA Cycling Gravel National Championships: Race Day – Civic Center in Gering, Nebraska, USA on September 09, 2023. (Photo: Craig Huffman / Craig Huffman Photography)

Reflecting on her victory, Stephens expressed her elation, stating, “It feels amazing. I had no idea what would happen. I haven’t been racing gravel very much, so I didn’t know very many of the girls. It was an awesome race, and having our own start was pretty cool too.” Prior to this race, Stephens had only contested one other long gravel race, just a week earlier in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The podium was rounded out by Skarda, Anthony, De Crescenzo, and Rinehart, securing second, third, fourth, and fifth places, respectively.

Elite Women’s Results:
  1. Lauren Stephens (Dallas, Texas; EF EDUCATION-TIBCO-SVB)
  2. Alexis Skarda (Grand Junction, Colo.; Santa Cruz Bicycles)
  3. Crystal Anthony (Bentonville, Ark.; Liv Racing Collective)
  4. Lauren De Crescenzo (Atlanta, Ga.; CINCH Racing)
  5. Jenna Rinehart (Mankato, Minn.; Nicollet Bike)

 

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