Swenson And Stephens win first-ever Elite U.S. Gravel National Championship Titles
39 amateurs earned national titles at the inaugural USA Cycling Gravel National Championships in Gering, Nebraska across four different courses and thousands of dollars in prize money.
With 544 participants from over 42 states represented, the inaugural USA Cycling Gravel National Championships saw riders from Florida to Alaska take on the challenging courses in Gering to earn their Stars-and-Stripes.
The first-ever USA Cycling Gravel National Championships kicked off on Saturday morning in downtown Gering, Nebraska. In total, 41 separate categories competed for the opportunity to earn a gravel national title across four different courses: 131.4 miles, 88 miles, 52.6 miles, and 24.8 miles.
The inaugural event brought top names including Keegan Swenson (Heber City, Utah; Santa Cruz Bicycles/SRAM), Lauren De Crescenzo (Atlanta, Ga.; CINCH Racing), Lance Haidet (San Luis Obispo, Calif.; L39ion of Los Angeles), Lauren Stephens (Dallas, Texas; EF Education-TIBCO-SVB), Peter Stetina (Santa Rosa, Calif.; Intergalactic Trash Pandas), Alexis Skarda (Grand Junction, Colo.; Santa Cruz Bicycles), Payson McElveen (Durango, Colo.; Allied Cycle Works) and Alexey Vermeulen (Pinckney, Mich.; Jukebox - ENVE).
With the opportunity to earn thousands of dollars in prize money, the elite fields were loaded with top gravel talent.
The day kicked off with the Elite Men’s race. After a neutral start through town, top riders like Swenson and Stetina had plenty of time to settle in. Approximately 30 miles into the race, a crash took a handful of riders out of contention. From that point on, it was a race of attrition. Shortly after the crash, and before the race was past the second aid station, Stetina suffered a race ending mechanical, forcing him to withdraw from the already reduced field. The course conditions were challenging but made for an exciting day, “It was a tough course. It was windy, and the dirt was really soft and loose. It was a strange surface all day,” said Swenson.
A group of nine riders pulled away from the rest of the pack at 60 miles. That group included Swenson, McElveen, Vermeulen, Tobin Ortenblad (Santa Cruz, Calif.; Santa Cruz, SRAM, htSQD), John Borstelmann (San Luis Obispo, Calif.; Ventum/Voler), Brennan Wertz (Mill Valley, Calif.; Mosaic Cycles), Ethan Overson (Superior, Colo.; Scuderia Pinarello), and Daxton Mock (Lake Mills, Wisc.; Bear National Team). At approximately 100 miles in, the group remained the same except for Vogel, who had dropped off. Over the next ten miles or so, the group dwindled down to Swenson, Vermeulen, Wertz, and McElveen.
Swenson attacked at mile 126. Vermeulen had his eye on Swenson, saying, “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 was able to maintain his lead and finish in a time of 6:00:24, becoming the first-ever Elite Men’s Gravel National Champion. It came down to a group sprint for the remaining podium spots where Vermeulen, Wertz, and McElveen sprinted in for second, third, and fourth, respectively.
McElveen, a fan favorite, understood the significance of this championship for the gravel community, saying, “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)
With $30,000 on the line, this morning’s event attracted talent from around the country. The women’s race started 15 minutes after the men’s race with a similar neutral start format. The pace rapidly picked up as soon as riders hit the gravel. While the group stayed together at the beginning, it quickly changed heading into the hills. A four-rider group consisting of Stephens, Skarda, Crystal Anthony (Bentonville, Ark.; Liv Racing Collective), and Jenna Rinehart (Mankato, Minn.; Nicollet Bike), sped away together as they approached the halfway point of the 131-mile race.
Following closely behind was gravel superstar De Crescenzo. Coming off a heavy block of racing, which included a stint at the UCI Road World Championships, Stephens was one to watch if the race came down to the final climb.
As racing continued, the group separated, leaving Skarda and Stephens to battle it out for gold. After having issues with a slow leak, Stephens had to keep stopping to refill it with air, but Skarda chose to pull to the side to wait, knowing it was better to work together than be stuck in the wind alone. “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 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 counter attacked. I was too tired to respond at that point and she just slowly rode away from me,” said Skarda. Riding into the finish solo, was Stephens who completed her 131.4-mile race in a time of 6:45:33.
When asked about her win she said, “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 done one other long gravel race which was last week at an event in Lincoln, Neb.
Skarda, Anthony, De Crescenzo, and Rinehart rounded out the podium finishing in second, third, fourth, and fifth place, respectively.
In Anthony’s post-race interview, she said, “I’m super happy to make the podium and the World’s selection. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’m glad they had a separate women’s start and a protected field. We usually get integrated [in with the men], and there is no rule against working together so I knew it would be a very different dynamic. So, I just tried to keep a pretty open mind about how it was going to go. Fortunately, I made the right break. We had four riders and were together most of the race. We worked super well together. Lauren and Alexis were clearly the strongest, so I was happy to hang on for third.”
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)
For the full 2023 USA Cycling Gravel National Championships results, please head over to USA Cycling.
USA Cycling will return to Gering, Nebraska in 2024 for the second edition of the event.