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In the melee of the mass start of the Belgian Waffle Ride Cedar City, Keegan Swenson had his front brake lever snapped off when he tangled bars with another rider. He went on to ride in the elite front group for the next 120 miles of often technical gravel and won the two-up sprint with Pete Stetina to win the day. Alexey Vermeulen was third.
After former world downhill champ Kathy Pruitt had an early lead in the women’s race, mountain bike pro Rose Grant came past at around mile 50 and held on for the win ahead of Pruitt and Crystal Anthony. It was Grant’s first gravel race.
No front brake “just makes you go faster”
More than 600 riders took the start in Cedar City, Utah, and a neutral rollout was carried out until a narrow tunnel, where riders went from about 20 wide to about 5 wide. It was here that Swenson tangled bars.
“I didn’t crash, but it ripped my lever off. It was on for most of the race, but it wasn’t working,” said Swenson, the reigning national cross-country champion. “I saw fluid pouring out. I was stuck with the rear brake for the 200 and whatever K left. I just tried to pay attention to my maps and looked ahead to figure out when to start braking. I tried to stay in the front to set the pace on the descents. But honestly it wasn’t a terrible thing; it just makes you go faster. It worked out okay.”
Vermeulen was part of the elite group of seven riders that came together after the first main climb when Swenson rode hard at the front. “That guy, his technical skills are so good,” Vermeulen said of Swenson. “Our thresholds are about the same, but his handling is just incredible.”
The front group rode steadily, almost as a team, with everyone rotating through, and guys sharing nutrition and even chain lube throughout the day.
Two key factors came late in the race. A 4.4km 10-percent dirt climb split the leading three by a few seconds, with Stetina leading Swenson and then Vermeulen. Then, Swenson reeled Stetina in for the second critical portion, which was a 4-mile singletrack section.
“The final climb is where it all went down,” Stetina said. “I made my move and was able to dispatch both Alexey and Keegan, and I had maybe 20 seconds going over the top on Keegan.”
The last few miles of the course put riders on a bike path, so the leading duo agreed to ride safe and steady there, and then when the race came into the finishing shoot, Swenson took the sprint.
“Second place stings a lot, but it was a great race, and I left it all out there on the climb where I played my card,” Stetina said. “Congrats to Keegan. It was a really, really good battle.”
Grant charges to the win
As in most all gravel races, everyone races together. This adds a lot of dynamics to the overall racing, and particularly so for the women’s field. A number of world-class mountain bike and triathlete athletes took the start.
Grant was competing in her first gravel race, and wasn’t super keen on the mass start with heavy dust affecting visibility as hundreds of racers initially charged up the gravel roads.
“I’ve had too many wrecks in the past to take too many chances, so I let myself fall back, and I really had a bit of a slower start,” Grant said. “And it was fast. Dust everywhere.”
Despite a hard crash in the opening miles, Pruitt took the early lead with Grant and Anthony chasing in a group behind.
“I had a day,” Pruitt said. “After all those early crashes, I decided to go out to the side of the field, and ended up washing out and crashed right where my boyfriend Rob [Wessels] was standing. My bars were sideways, and my derailleur was bent.”
Grant caught Pruitt on a climb at about mile 50, where Pruitt had pulled over to deal with her derailleur.
“I had to find a new group, and never saw Rose again after that unfortunately,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt’s new group contained Anthony, Ironman athlete Heather Jackson, and a number of male racers.
The group Grant was riding with kept the pace steady. “I was able to stick with that group of guys until the last big climb, and they were really good to ride with,” she said.
As for the mixed-group race, Grant said that while she didn’t know what people like, she thought that having separate women’s and men’s races might be beneficial.
“It would be a lot more tactical if the guys weren’t involved as much,” she said. “We have a completely different race. Our strategy is finding a strong guy’s wheel, or a group of guys, and sticking with that.”
Women’s and men’s podiums:
- Rose Grant 6:33:00
- Kathy Pruitt 6:39:30
- Crystal Anthony
- Keegan Swenson 5:55:15
- Peter Stetina 5:55:16
- Alexey Vermeulen 5:59:02