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Russell Finsterwald is one of the best off-road endurance racers in the country, but he’s been a bit frustrated this season.
Like many of his peers, Finsterwald’s primary focus in 2022 was the six-race Life Time Grand Prix series. After a wicked-fast second-place finish at Sea Otter to open the season, Finsterwald has found himself outside of the top five at subsequent events. While his results (seventh at Unbound, 12th Crusher in the Tushar, ninth Leadville, 10th Chequamegon) are impressive by most standards, they have not lined up with his expectations.
“The last three or four Grand Prix races I feel like I’ve had really good fitness, but something has happened every race,” Finsterwald said. “That’s why I’ve been bummed, I’ve had good fitness but everything just hasn’t been coming together. Honestly, I’ve just been bummed on racing in general after Chequamegon. It’s [the LTGP] been fun but it’s a lot of pressure compared to normal racing.”
Nevertheless, in the past month there have been bright spots. Finsterwald won a hometown race in his favorite discipline at the four-day Pikes Peak Apex mountain bike stage race. The following weekend, he traveled north for Gravel Locos Pueblo, where he not only won, but more importantly had a great day of racing.
“It was actually a super exciting race for me because I raced it pretty aggressively,” he said. “I didn’t care if I got 10th or I won, I just wanted to try new things in gravel racing. For me, it was one of the more animated races of the season. I spent a lot of time off the front and threw down some fun attacks, it was really fun.”
Despite Finsterwald’s frustration with his individual Grand Prix race results, he’s currently sitting in fifth overall headed into Big Sugar, the last race of the season. He trails second-place Alexey Vermeulen by just eight points — “I’m still not giving up on that second spot,” he said.
The first spot in the series belongs to an unassailable Keegan Swenson, Finsterwald’s close friend and training partner. While you could ask anyone in the elite men’s field about what it’s like to keep not beating Swenson, with Finsterwald it seems particularly poignant.
And so I have to ask — what’s it like when your good friend is that good?
“If you’re super competitive, when one of your good friends is beating you you’re like, ‘I’m training just as hard, working just as hard, and it does get frustrating,'” Finsterwald said. “Especially with Life Time, feeling like I’m doing everything right. At the same time, I really appreciate the relationship and our friendship. We both really build each other up.”
Finsterwald and Swenson go way back.
The friends first raced against each other as juniors on the domestic cross-country MTB scene. Swenson’s first memory of racing with Finsterwald was at USA Cycling Mountain Bike Nationals in 2009 — “I think we were both on the podium,” he said. (His memory serves, although it was Finsterwald who won the race.)
The pair continued to compete on the same circuit, although a three-year age difference meant that Finsterwald became a U23 while Swenson was still a junior. They traveled to Europe together and both signed with factory teams. Finsterwald said that Swenson wasn’t as dominant back then as he is now. “We used to go back and forth,” he said.
For the younger Swenson, Finsterwald was carving a track that he wanted to follow. In 2009 after US nationals, Finsterwald traveled to Canberra, Australia for the mountain bike world championships.
“In my mind, that was so far the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” Swenson said. “I aspired to do what he was doing. He was on Trek Factory, I was on Cannondale, and in a way, I wanted to emulate him.”
After some “decent successes as a U23,” and then a few years pursuing XCO racing as an elite, Finsterwald decided to transition to marathon-style racing, in the vein of the Epic Rides series in the United States. He said that both he and Swenson had similar experiences with mid-pack results on the World Cup scene.
“For some reason, we could never really put it together,” he said, “for the most part fighting for 40th or 50th position. You can’t really make a career out of that.”
Nevertheless, Swenson stuck around the World Cup scene for a few years after Finsterwald. Eventually, he started to add more marathon-distance events to his program. His first Epic Rides event — and the first time he’d raced anything “longer than a few hours” was in 2015.
As each of them navigated their way in the pro mountain biking scene, both riders were also growing up and their relationship was evolving.
In 2017, both Swenson and Finsterwald found themselves without a team — Finsterwald’s SRAM/TLD outfit shuttered, as did Cannondale-3Rox, Swenson’s squad. While Swenson found a new home with Stan’s Pivot Pro Team p/b Maxxis, Finsterwald was left looking. Swenson, he said, was a big help.
It’s a relationship of mutual benefit that continues to this day.
“We were trying to build a program together then that never came to fruition,” Finsterwald said. “He landed on Stan’s and I hadn’t found a team. He helped me navigate different leads and was pretty helpful through that. We often bounce ideas off each other — ‘what do you think if I do this?’ Keegan has had a lot of tough decisions to make this year, I feel like I’ve sorta helped him navigate that a little bit, too.”
Although Swenson and Finsterwald are not teammates, in many ways, they function as such. In addition to bouncing ideas off one another about career things, they also often talk equipment and bike set-up. In fact, it was Finsterwald’s suggestion that Swenson run a narrower tire at SBT GRVL (his partner Sofia Gomez Villafañe gave the same advice).
When Swenson won, it gave Finsterwald a certain sense of satisfaction.
What adds even more depth to the relationship is the time that Finsterwald and Swenson spend together on the bike. Both spend winters in Tucson, Arizona where they frequently pair up on training rides.
Although they have different coaches and workouts, training together creates a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts situation.
“We train similarly,” Swenson said. “Similar hours, similar mentality. We both ride hard and don’t like to stop and mess around. We don’t love to ride with big groups that often. A lot of training rides, we’ll both be riding with music doing our own thing, but it’s nice to have someone else there especially when it’s a harder workout. We can push each other too. Some days when I’m hurting and Russell is pushing the pace and vice versa. It goes both ways in training.”
Finsterwald said that an extra benefit to training with Swenson is the insight it gives him on how to race against him — “I learn more about how to beat him by training with him than by racing him,” he said.
Yet, beating Swenson isn’t necessarily some underlying motivator for Finsterwald. If anything, the two agree that it behooves them both to stay in the race as long as possible, together.
“I think we think the same way in terms of how to win a race,” Swenson said. “It’s unique in that we’re not teammates, but we want the best for one another. It works out in our favor to both be in the race longer. We both know how we each race.
“In the end, we still race, and in the last few miles we’ll race as if we’re not friends at all,” he added. “In the end, we’re still there to race and race for the win. It’s cool that we can separate those two relationships.”
Somehow, they have figured out a way to keep a potential conflict of interest — friends, competitors — out of their unflagging friendship.
And, neither says that there have been issues of jealousy or friction, despite the fact that in a race, they both want to win.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been upset with Russell for making a questionable pass or whatever, it’s more like, ‘oh shit he got me,'” Swenson said. “Maybe some other guys hold grudges more. I know he isn’t doing anything maliciously, it’s more like what he had to do or what I had to do to win a race.”
“Honestly no, we’ve never gotten mad or tense with one another,” Finsterwald said. “Maybe small things like, ‘dude you didn’t put your dishes away.’ But, we’ve never had racing incidences where we’ve taken each other out.”
(Small disclaimer, from Swenson: “I did crash Russell out of BWR. It was a full explosion, ripping down a gravel road. It was 100 percent my fault but unintentionally, and we just got back up and basically laughed about it. He even waited for me for a second but it was taking me too long to fix my bars and chain so I told him to leave.)
While Swenson is arriving in Bentonville for Big Sugar this weekend with a certain sense of ease having sealed the overall in the Grand Prix series, Finsterwald still has a lot to gain. Nevertheless, the two will race in their typical triad — not-quite-teammates, intimate friends, and ultimately, competitors.
For Finsterwald, Big Sugar could be the opportunity to offset some of the seasonal frustration with a podium result — which may or may not include beating Swenson.
“He’s really on another level this year, and you’re like ‘what do I need to do to get there?'” Finsterwald said. “I’ll be pretty stoked when I beat him. And I also know Keegan, and that would just fuel the fire.”