When he found himself chasing over 15 seconds after one lap of Friday's Collegiate Varsity race, the last thing Caleb Swartz (Marian University) did was panic.
Thanks to Marian's luck of the draw, Swartz was gridded on the third row, and the Marian sophomore got caught in traffic in the tight spots early in the first lap. However, with the course completely unrideable in many spots and slick and technical in others, Swartz calmly rode the course that played to his strengths.
Midway through the second lap, Swartz had already bridged to Brannan Fix (Colorado Mesa University) and Tyler Clark (Brevard College) at the front of the race. The third-row start was quickly a distant memory.
A lap later, Swartz was off the front with Scott Funston (Colorado Mesa University). One more duel to close the afternoon appeared to be in order.
Swartz, however, did his best to make sure it would not be a duel. He opened a gap on the (relatively) clean power sections on the top of the course, only to have Funston bridge in the first technical section in the bowl. Heading into the bell lap, just a second separated the two.
Swartz again powered away early in the lap, but Funston closed to within striking distance at the bottom of the final climb. As Funston tried to ride, Swartz faced the longest run of his cycling career.
He reached the coveted crest first and powered back to the finish to take home the Collegiate Varsity National Championship.
"I just had to keep going, I just had to keep turning my legs," Swartz said about that final climb. "Scott was running as fast as I was. I knew if I could accelerate out I would be alright."
A Very Muddy Final Exam
The Collegiate Varsity races at Nationals are always a fun part of the weekend thanks to rowdy teammates lining the course and the team omnium points on the line.
The Men's Varsity race on Friday was no different, with fans gathering on the muddy descent that took riders on a harrowing ride to the bottom of the bowl.
Early on, Brannan Fix led a group of four riders into the first trip down the chicanes. Clark, Reno champion Henry Nadell (Fort Lewis College) and Funston joined him snaking down the muddy descent.
At the end of the first lap, those four riders were still at the front, with about six seconds between each rider. Fix led Nadell, who in turn led Clark.
Early in the second lap, Fix looked like he wanted to take control of the race and force the others to sort things out. He led by 10 seconds at the stairs, as Swartz bridged to join Nadell and Funston in the chase.
By the end of Lap 2, Swartz's charge to the front was complete. He crossed the line with Fix and then charged ahead to take the lead heading into the bowl. Funston bridged up and the three were together heading down the chicanes.
"I started third row, I had a lot of traffic the first two laps so I just rode consistently," Swartz said. "I went down once in the first lap and after that I never crashed."
Thanks to the rain, large stretches of the bowl became runs. The stretch from the chicanes to the second climb became a run, as did the final climb up to Pit 2. With running skills at a premium, Swartz and Funston shined in Lap 3. The two dropped Fix and hit the line together with two to go.
The top part of the course was largely rideable, and Swartz used the power sections to get a gap on Funston. He led by eight seconds heading into the bowl, but Funston closed the gap on the off-camber and chicane descent to again join Swartz at the front.
The two used slightly different styles on the final climb, with Funston trying to find places to ride while Swartz went straight to the run. Swartz's strategy appeared to be a bit better, as he gained a few seconds on the slog up to Pit 2. However, Funston hopped the barriers and closed a few seconds, putting the two within a second or two heading into the last lap.
Swartz again turned up the power at the top of the course. When he cleared the sandpit, he again had a 10-second advantage heading into the bowl. The announcers counted off a seven-second gap at the stairs, indicating the race as still very much in play.
Swartz held his lead down the second descent on the far side of the course, but Funston started to close some of Swartz's lead by riding the lower part of the climb while Swartz ran. It set up a thrilling final climb—or as thrilling as a vertical trudge carrying a bike can be.
Funston tried to find traction to ride, while Swartz put his head down and ran. At the top, Swartz still had the lead and with two power sections left, his victory was secure.
Swartz's strategy for securing the Varsity jersey? "Just knowing how to keep suffering, keep hurting, really helped," he said.
Funston finished in second right behind Swartz and Fix held on for third.
For more from the Collegiate Varsity race, see the winner interview, photo gallery and results below.
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Caleb Swartz: Winner Interview