Caleb Swartz Set for First Elite Season as a Cyclocross Privateer
The Wisconsin native will be racing for Giant / Neff Cycle Service this season
The pandemic was tough for everyone, but it was particularly tough for athletes such as Caleb Swartz, who was entering his final year as a U23 cyclocross racer in the 2020 domestic season that wasn’t. Swartz had won two-straight Collegiate Varsity National Championships for Marian University, and he finished 2nd to Eric Brunner at U23 Nats in Lakewood, so he would have entered the season as a favorite to put on the Stars-and-Stripes.
The native Wisconsinite bounced back from the setback, and when it became apparent there would be a season this year, he started putting together a privateer program to race cyclocross this fall in his first year as an Elite racer.
Swartz’z program is officially called Giant / Neff Cycle Service, but he has a whole host of other sponsors local to Wisconsin and further afield to support him this cyclocross season. The two title sponsors are of note because GO Cross marked the first race since 2014 that Swartz raced cyclocross on a bike that wasn’t a Trek, and Neff Cycle Service is a Madison bike shop run by Isaac Neff, a former Masters and Singlespeed national champion who is isn’t too bad at cyclocross himself.
I chatted with Swartz before the weekend, and he said one of his goals for the season was a top 5 in a C1 race. He was going to achieve that goal on Saturday before a rolled tubular at the end of the final lap dropped him back from 4th or 5th to 8th. Still, a top 10 was also a goal, so it was still mission accomplished for the young rider.
Caleb and I go way back—he was rolling Cat 4 and then Cat 3 fields at like age 14 when I started racing—so I wanted to learn more about his new program and what his mindset is heading into his first year as an Elite.
Interview: Caleb Swartz on His Privateer Program
Zach Schuster: You finished second at U23 Nats in 2019 and were likely a favorite heading into 2020. How tough was it missing that year of racing for you?
Caleb Swartz: It was pretty brutal, honestly. I was immensely disappointed to miss those opportunities to showcase my hard work and have those chances to race in Europe again as a U23. It was my U23 “Cyclocross Senior year” and it definitely stung to not be able to race when I was at the top of my age group and develop more as a ‘cross racer.
That said, the time away from high-level racing presented many opportunities for non-cycling hobbies, personal growth and undoubtedly gave me more time to focus on graduating college. I think I still made the best out of the difficult year.
Zach Schuster: How did you stay sharp and motivated during the year off, especially seeing others get opportunities you didn't get?
Caleb Swartz: When COVID first kicked off, I started putting in big miles and just exploring Wisconsin as much as possible. I did some big point-to-point rides, bike packing, did a 200-mile ride, and aggressively pursued Strava KOMs. I was able to do a fair amount of mountain bike racing which kept me motivated and sharp. I was also able to just take a step back from racing at times and explore other interests and how I could incorporate those aspects of life into my racing/training. I rediscovered my love for camping and other interests that made me happier in general life, which provided me with more energy and motivation to train hard.
Zach Schuster: Congrats on graduating college! You're living in Montana now? What's the story behind the move? Also, tell me more about the van!
Thank you! I am indeed living in Montana. Basically, I have liked the city of Missoula for a long time since traveling to race there starting in 2015. My sister Emma was out there already for work, and we are actually roommates now. There is fantastic mountain biking and tons of opportunities for outdoor recreation with stunning views, which I am a big fan of.
I started dreaming about doing a van build in 2020 after I did a big road trip out west in my minivan. As I started to formulate ideas for the build, I realized I could combine my need for a proprietary race vehicle and desire for an off-the-grid-capable camping/adventure van, which led down the rabbit hole of auto loans, purchasing my first vehicle, and lots of time and lots of time energy on design work and logistics with Open Road Upfitters, who is a sponsor and also doing my build-out.
Zach Schuster: How did your mountain bike season help you prepare for 'cross, especially with the year off?
Racing mountain bikes for the past year and a half or so has helped give my training great structure and provided me with plenty of intermediate goals during our cyclocross hiatus. Having done so many high-intensity, off-road races has kept my skills and fitness sharp. Racing mountain bikes has also helped me to continue growing as a racer and not stagnate whatsoever.
Zach Schuster: You've got a new program this year. Who are your sponsors and how did that come together?
Yes indeed! This year I have partnered with Giant Bicycles, Neff Cycle Service, Englewood Grass Farm, Violich Farms, Industry Nine, Styled Aesthetic, Enve, Challenge Tires, Wiscanna CBD, Open Road Upfitters, GU Energy Labs, Forward Endurance, as well as Endurance Physio and MTCX back in Missoula.
In January I realized that nobody was coming to save me, there were not a lot of options for elite cyclocross, and that my phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook with opportunities. I needed to make my own opportunity or quit the sport. So, I got to work. I reached out to friends, mentors, sponsors, etc in my network and figured it out as I went.
Zach Schuster: Being on the Bear National Team is one thing but putting together a privateer program is a whole different animal. Why did you want to put in that work to keep racing 'cross at the Elite level?
Yeah, it is definitely a different gig. Being a professional cyclocross racer has been my dream for over a decade and I was simply not willing to give that up yet. I am no stranger to hard work and will do whatever it takes for the things I love. I love riding my bike, racing, and cyclocross. Additionally, I looked back at what I accomplished in 2019 and at Worlds in 2020 and felt strongly that I have not begun to hit the ceiling of my potential as a cyclocross racer yet.
Zach Schuster: With a few races under your belt, how was it riding a Giant versus a Trek? When is the last time you raced 'cross on not a Trek?
It was definitely a bit strange at first to not be on a Trek, but it has been great so far and I’m loving my Giant TCX Pro Advanced. Sponsor transitions are simply a part of my job and something I am well accustomed to. I think the last time I raced ‘cross not on a Trek was on a Cannondale Super-X back in 2014!
Zach Schuster: I think when we look at U23s, we can always say, Oh, they still have time to develop. Now that you're an Elite, are you feeling that pressure that the future is now? How are you handling it in terms of your expectations?
Honestly, I feel like there is less pressure now. I no longer have that four-year U23 clock ticking. If I chose to, I could race in these same Elite fields for another decade or more. I am quite young still and have plenty of development left to do. Since I am running a privateer program, I have no team director or manager placing expectations on me. I obviously have sponsor obligations, but I am in charge of my own goals. The only pressure on my shoulders is what I put there myself and I’m not terribly stressed about finding my next team contract since I don’t intend to cut myself from my own program.
Zach Schuster: You had some solid results at GO Cross and Rochester. What are your goals and expectations for your first Elite season?
Thank you! It was solid start to the year. I’d really like to take my first C2 win this season as well as knock off my first top 10 and then top 5 at a C1 event. Making selection for the U.S. World Cups is also a major goal. As I’m sure the case is with most U.S. ‘cross racers this season, the ultimate goal is to make selection for the World Championship Team and race Worlds stateside.
Beyond that, I expect continued growth from myself as a racer in terms of results and the many facets within the sport where improvements can be made. I’m excited to have all the pieces come together for this season and I look forward to contesting the majority of the domestic calendar!