Keegan Swenson repeats victory at the Fuego XL at Sea Otter Classic

Russell Finsterwald and Christopher Blevins are 2-3, with Cole Paton and Alex Wild rounding out the top five.

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At the Sea Otter Classic on Saturday, Keegan Swenson rode to a repeat victory in the Fuego XL cross-country race, putting himself at the top of the leaderboard of the Life Time Grand Prix series.

It was nearly a two-up sprint between Swenson and Russell Finsterwald, but Swenson was able to overtake his friend just before the sharp left-hand turn into the finisher shoot.

Read also: Sofia Gomez Villafañe wins Fuego XL at Sea Otter Classic

2021 short track world champ Christopher Blevins finished third, while Cole Paton and Alex Wild rounded out the podium. Finsterwald and Paton are second and third in the Grand Prix standings.

The men's field at the start of the 2023 Sea Otter Fuego XL in Monterey, California, the first race of the 2023 Life Time Grand Prix series. Saturday April 22, 2023.
The men’s field at the start of the 2023 Sea Otter Fuego XL in Monterey, California, the first race of the 2023 Life Time Grand Prix series. Saturday April 22, 2023. (Photo: Will Tracy)

Creating separation early in order to make it to the singletrack first is the key to success in the Fuego XL, a 60-mile race with over 8,000 feet of climbing. According to multiple riders, it was Christopher Blevins, World Cup XC pro and recent Cape Epic champ, who pushed the pace to form a group that would separate from the rest.

“I went as hard as we could for first 30 minutes and we got a good group,” Blevins said. “We didn’t really slow down too much.”

“Chris was racing like it was the Cape Epic, full gas,” Swenson said.

Ultimately, a group of seven formed; in addition to Blevins and Swenson, it was Finsterwald, Alex Wild, Howard Grotts, Andrew L’Esperance, and Cole Paton who came through the start/finish together after the first lap.

The chasing group was an international contingent — Kenny Looser of Switzerland, Aussie Brendan Johnston, Dutch rider Jasper Ockeloen, and Aussie-American Ryan Standish were about two minutes back. Tobin Ortenblad was hustling to catch the chasers.

By the 47 mile mark, the lead seven had whittled down to four — Swenson, Blevins, Finsterwald, and Paton.

For Paton, the only one of the four on a multi-sponsor privateer program, the day was hugely rewarding.

“I felt like I was dangling off Chris, Keegan and Finsty most of the day,” Paton said. “I couldn’t quite follow their accelerations up the steep climbs but I was just really focused on riding consistently and trying to carry my speed. I knew the course really well so I just slowly clawed back every time until the very last climb — then my lights just went out.”

The final climb up Lookout Ridge has proved decisive in both the men’s and women’s races year after year. Blevins said that after throwing down some attacks on the singletrack before the final climb, he started to cramp. Swenson sensed it, said he could also feel Finsterwald fading, and said he “slowly and steadily rolled up the climb.”

“Going into the final climb it was Chris, Russell and myself and Cole,” he said. “We took turns, but eventually it was just Russell and I at the finish.”

russell finsterwald and keegan swenson
A fight ’til the end, then back to friends. (Photo: Will Tracy)

Although Finsterwald was in front of Swenson when the duo rolled into the finish area, Swenson had enough saved up to power past his friend in the last meters. Finsterwald, who won Belgian Waffle Ride California a week prior, was admittedly “bummed” with the result.

 “I felt the best out there,” he said. “I could tell those other guys were hurting, and I was the most aggressive throughout the day but I just didn’t play my cards right at the end.” 

Both he and Swenson, who often train together in Tucson, have said that they’re so attuned to each other’s riding styles that they often sort-of work together in races. However, Finsterwald said that wasn’t the case on Saturday.

“Everyone was against each other out there. There was cohesion the first lap. We were just trying to drive that gap and make sure our group was the group that made it to the end, that nobody else came on. The second lap there was a lot of cat and mouse. It was definitely like we were all racing against each other.”

2023 Fuego XL men elite results

1. Keegan Swenson, 4:03:41
2. Russell Finsterwald, 4:03:44
3. Christopher Blevins, 4:04:08
4. Cole Paton, 4:04:26
5. Alex Wild, 4:08:01
6. Kenny Looser, 4:09:40
7. Andrew L’Esperance, 4:10:36
8. Brendan Johnston, 4:10:41
9. Howard Grotts, 4:10:41
10. Bradyn Lange, 4:10:50

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