My first contact with Keegan Swirbul, a 26-year-old rider from Human Powered Health, was through a work by Portuguese Cycling Magazine previewing the 82nd Volta a Portugal, which aimed to collect testimonies from foreign riders about the uniqueness of the race. The availability and friendliness shown by him from the beginning allowed us to exchange countless messages throughout the year and, ultimately, to meet personally during the current edition of the ‘Grandíssima’.
Keegan’s interview began with the connection he already has with Portugal and Volta, since his first participation in 2020, when he was still a stagiaire at Rally Cycling (currently Human Powered Health): “This was the race that secured my spot on the team. It’s an insane race, super hard, a huge deal for all the riders, specially the Portuguese”. In addition to the projection he gained, the ‘Grandíssima’ also contributed to his development as a rider: “I am a stage racer, which means I improve day-by-day as the race goes on. Besides Volta, there aren’t many races this long, so it’s a unique test”.
After performing well in the mountains of the Tour of Switzerland (25th and 26th), Swirbul’s objective for the Volta is the top 10 in the general classification, although he is aware of the difficulty of the feat. The heat doesn’t bother him, much less the heights, as he practiced both skiing and professional parkour before dedicating himself entirely to cycling. The main obstacle he still has to overcome is… riding in a peloton: “I’m absolutely not better at it (laughs). The thing about riding in the peloton is trusting people that I don’t know, while in the other sports it was just me – if I crash, it’s all in my hands”. This explanation surprised me, as I had never thought of the matter in this fashion.
The result that launched Keegan Swirbul to the spotlight was a 12th place in the Torre mountain finish, almost 3 minutes from the winner, Jóni Brandão, so the conversation soon reached the mythical climb and this particular experience: “They (Efapel) just hit it so fast at the beginning, and back then I just didn’t have the confidence to follow that pace. So I rode my own pace and when the climb flattened out, I made it back to a small group. Once we got up high, I felt pretty good and I did a good ride”.
I explained to him that any rider who survives the high pace exiting the town of Covilhã, as well as the initial attacks of the favorites, can recover when the slopes soften and even take advantage of a certain indecision to attack, as Alejandro Marque did brilliantly last year. Thus, the strategy for today’s stage is set: “If I have good legs, I will try to be in that group of leaders, and then give it my all in the high altitude”.
Then I told him about the other side of the climb, from Seia, which he did not know and did not suspect it had decided many Voltas a Portugal in the past, and I shared with him a memory from the distant year of 2013, one of my first as a cycling spectator: the morning enthusiasm of an 11-year-old boy going to his first mountain finish, the stop at Sabugueiro to buy lunch, Lagoa Comprida seen from my parents’ car, the race against the clock to get up there before the road closed, the 5 hours of waiting for the riders and in the end, the people’s party when Rui Sousa conquered the yellow jersey, which he would end up losing in the time trial to Alejandro Marque.
After we discussed our predictions for the stage, the conversation continued beyond cycling, but I can’t help but mention cycling as the starting point. Because it is the magic of cycling that allows a rider born in Basalt, Colorado, USA (2015 meters above sea level) and a young man born in Setúbal, Portugal (0 meters above sea level), to know each other, share their stories and ultimately, become friends.
For the opportunity to experience this magic first hand, I would like to issue a special thank you to my parents, Volta a Portugal and of course, Portuguese Cycling Magazine. Thank you all!