The first-ever USA Cycling Gravel National Championship was held in Gering, Nebraska, on Saturday, Sept. 9. On the line was not only the coveted Stars-and-Stripes jersey but also the largest gravel prize purse yet as well as an automatic entry into the UCI Gravel World Championships.
The inaugural field drew competitive fields for the elites and amateurs alike with gravel pros like Keegan Swenson, Alexey Vermeulen, Pete Stetina, Payson McElveen, Lauren De Crescenzo and Lauren Stephens all vying for the honors and a slice of the $60,000 Elite prize purse.
"I think gravel has quickly become some of the most competitive racing in the U.S., and I cannot wait to give it my all," said 2022 LifeTime Grand Prix winner Swenson ahead of the race. Swenson has dominated the gravel scene for two race seasons now and entered the race a the top-favorite.
The men's and women's elite races received their own start times but raced on the same course for equal distance —131 miles— and an equal prize money. The top three finishers of each race also automatically qualified to take on the world's best at the UCI Gravel World Championships in Venetia, Italy, on October 7 and 8.
The men's title was won by —who else— Keegan Swenson (Santa Cruz Bicycles/SRAM), and former US national road champion, Lauren Stephens (EF-Education Tibco-SVB), took the honors in the women's elite race.
Keegan again soloes to the finish
Racing started in the early morning hours with the men’s elite field leaving the start/finish line at 6:30 a.m.
After a neutral start through town, the peloton took some time shaking out the race nerves and getting used to the sandy and loose surface.
“It was as expected at the first gravel nationals — a bit negative [racing] at times. It started a little bit soft but then as soon as we hit the wind it got pretty hard,” Alexey Vermeule (Jukebox - ENVE) commented post-race.
An unfortunate crash just an hour and a half into the race took out quite a few contenders, including Pete Stetina (Intergalactic Trash Pandas).
From that point on, it was a race of attrition.
“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.
Battling the winds, a selection of the peloton’s best got away at some 60 miles into the race. This breakaway included Swenson, Vermeulen, Payson McElveen (Allied Cycle Works), Tobin Ortenblad (Santa Cruz, SRAM, htSQD), John Borstelmann (Ventum/Voler), Brennan Wertz (Mosaic Cycles), Ethan Overson (Scuderia Pinarello), and Daxton Mock (Bear National Team).
Slowly but surely, the pace would see riders fall off the back until only Swenson, Vermeulen, Wertz and McElveen remained at mile 110.
As with so many races this season, when Swenson attacked at mile 126, no one could respond.
“We went hard on the climb, with four of us reaching the top together. I told myself not to underestimate Keegan, and once again, he snuck through the inside, and we never saw him again until the finish line,” said Vermeulen.
Swenson crossed the finish line solo with a time of 6:00:24 to become the first-ever US national gravel champion. Behind him, Vermeulen, Wertz and McElveen duked it out in a three-up spring with Vermeulen coming out ahead. Wertz rounded out the podium and McElveen finished in fourth place.
"Boy that was a grind. As mentally challenging a race as I've had in a while," said Payson McElveen. “[The national championships] has a certain excitement about it, for sure. I definitely had that little extra level of butterflies this morning knowing what was on the line."
Elite Men's Top 5:
1. Keegan Swenson (Santa Cruz Bicycles/SRAM)
2. Alexey Vermeulen (Jukebox - ENVE)
3. Brennan Wertz (Mosaic Cycles)
4. Payson Mcelveen (Allied Cycle Works)
5. John Borstelmann (Ventum / Voler)
Stars-and-Stripes again for Lauren Stephens
The women’s elite race started 15 minutes after the men’s race went underway, giving them a race to themselves. After a neutral start on pavement, the pace picked up rapidly as soon as the peloton hit the gravel.
Still, a large field rode together until the roads started pointing up. Into the hills midway through the race, a four-rider group broke off the front. This breakaway was led by WorldTour road racer Lauren Stephens, back home after the UCI Road World Championships in Scotland. Also part of the break away were Alexis Skarda (Santa Cruz Bicycles), Crystal Anthony (Liv Racing Collective) and Jenna Rinehart (Nicollet Bike). Potential race favorite Lauren de Crescenzo had missed the break but was chasing behind closely.
As Stephens motored on into the wind, Anthony and Rinehart dropped off the back but Skarda continued to keep Stephens company even when Stephens stopped several times to fill up her tires as she was dealing with a slow leak.
“ 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,” Skarda explained post-race.
On the last climb, Skarda chanced an attack, hoping to put some daylight between herself and the punctured Stephens.
“I didn’t quite have that edge for a good attack and she was able to hang on my wheel and then she counterattacked. I was too tired to respond at that point and she just slowly rode away from me,” said Skarda.
Like Swenson, Stephen rode across the finish line solo, completing the 131-mile ride in 6:45:33.
“It feels amazing, I had no idea what would happen. It was an awesome race and having our own start was pretty cool too,” said Stephens at the finish.
Skarda crossed the line 2:45 minutes later. And Anthony rounded out the podium in third place.
Elite Women’s Top 5:
1. Lauren Stephens (EF Education-TIBCO-SVB)
2. Alexis Skarda (Santa Cruz Bicycles)
3. Crystal Anthony (Liv Racing Collective)
4. Lauren De Crescenzo (CINCH Racing)
5. Jenna Rinehart (Nicollet Bike)
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