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Sarah Sturm proved pretty hard to tie down. She and I spent a few days trying to find a moment to talk with vast time zone differences and her busy schedule travelling to and preparing for Unbound working against us. When we finally catch up she is walking her dog, Norman, who she brings to most of her races in a converted bus.
“I don’t know why I think it’s going to be chill, it’s never chill,” she says as we reflect on our failed attempts to connect while she attends to Norman’s…needs. “If only people knew this was the true side of being a bike racer,” she jokes. Thankfully, it is not a video call.
While Norman turns his attention to sending off the local rabbits (“It’s quite the scene. I wish you could see this”), Sturm tells me about her preparations for her first foray into Unbound Gravel. A race, she says she has “always sort of avoided” in the past.
“I don’t know why, a while ago when I first heard of Unbound in 2017 I was like ‘oh that sounds cool and totally random, like, people ride 200 miles in Kansas?’ and that was sort of when I was racing cyclocross so it just seemed insane to do something like that. And now here I am.”
Here she is. In the middle of Kansas, with her boyfriend and her dog and her converted bus, preparing to race 200 miles on Saturday. “I’m actually way more excited than I thought I would be,” she says.
While many gravel racers either come across from the road or go straight into the discipline as a first choice, Sturm’s cyclocross background gives her a fresh perspective on the gravel racing scene.
Her move from cyclocross to gravel was less of a conscious decision and more a twist of fate. “They folded our ‘cross team on Specialized, the Tenspeed Hero team, and they were like, ‘but you can still ride for Specialized and there’s this race called the Belgian Waffle Ride if you want to go do it we’ll let you use a bike,'” she says. “And then I just happened to win it and then that is why I race gravel now,” she explains, laughing at the simplicity of it.
She may have had little choice in her pivot from one discipline to the other, but she hasn’t looked back. “I just weirdly was better at like the longer endurance stuff and I do tend to like gravel races that are a bit more technical and climby, so not so much Kansas. But yeah it’s been fun to be a part of like a growing scene, because it’s even changed a lot since 2019 when I started.”
For Sturm, the appeal of gravel is the relatively straight-forward racing compared to many other cycling disciplines. “I do sort of like the wild west of gravel where you just kind of like, roll up to the line,” she says. “You don’t need a mechanic or like anything you just like, you bring a pack full of snacks, and then you just ride for a really long time.”
Sturm is on good form at the moment having come second at Gravel Locos three weeks ago despite being recently hampered by a case of Covid. “It was some mandatory rest which I honestly think it might be better for me than going in overtrained, it sort of chilled me out,” she says before reflecting on how strange that might sound. “God, athletes are so messed up. Like we have to be like broken and sick to like, chill.”
The event took place just days after the murder of Sturm’s fellow gravel racer and Specialized athlete, Mo Wilson, who was shot and killed in Texas where she was staying ahead of the race. Sturm describes how she had started to form a friendship with Wilson and the pair had started to plan future bikepacking trips together.
Wilson’s death, says Sturm, has given her a new outlook on racing. “I think it’s sort of shifted my perspective on enjoying what I do instead of just being nervous about everything all the time and just fearing and wanting to win everything as the point,” she says, “I think it’s actually just let me enjoy it a bit, like the process and just seeing if I can do it.”
Wilson was one of the gravel racing scene’s most promising riders and part of a growing group of talented female cyclists who have turned their attention to racing gravel. “To be honest I was really looking forward to watching her probably win and that’s just a massive loss on so many levels,” Sturm says. “You know, we lost someone who actually was a really lovely person, who also happened to be an amazingly talented athlete.”
The growing number of women taking up serious gravel racing is part of the reason for Sturm’s continued enthusiasm for the sport.
“It’s awesome to see so many more competitive women racing and like that’s initially why I signed up for the [Lifetime] Grand Prix because I was like, ‘man, this is going to be kind of cool to see how mountain bikers and road racers like everyone has sort of come from different backgrounds,’” she says. “Some people like Amity [Rockwell] have pretty much only been gravel racers, which is cool. But everyone sort of comes together just to see who does the best.
It has been cool to see more and more women, like very competitive, fast women come into the sport. You know, it’s nice to not just always follow some dudes wheel.”
She describes how, usually, the women’s field have to race these events differently, essentially just hanging on to the men “and you have no idea if there’s any other women also hanging on because it’s a massive group,” she says. “And then people get shelled and you sort of lose track of who’s where and so that’s why even when I was winning BWR I didn’t know that I was winning until like, more than halfway through it because it’s just so hard to know, and keep track of where everyone is.”
She would like to see the women given their own separate start in races like Unbound. “I would never have said that last year,” she says, but “there’s enough women now and and we’re all sort of matched in speed that it makes more sense to start us together because so much can impact our race that doesn’t have anything to do with the women’s race at all.”
Sturm explains how she doesn’t get too hung up on tech, but, she tells me that she prefers her Specialized Crux “because I come from a cross background, maybe that’s why I like it more.” “I really loved the Diverge as well, but it’s sort of my like fun, hit some single track on the gravel bike kind of bike. And then I feel like the Crux is just, it’s super light and I’m pretty short, so it definitely helps. I have a 49 so it’s pretty small.”
For the much-needed race nutrition she has a Revelate Designs top tube bag “that I use for bikepacking so I’m super used to it. It just kind of like has a magnetic clip that I can like, grab snacks easily.” She will also be using hydration packs, something which she does not usually bother with “but I think you kind of have to at this race.”
The course has been reported as having a lot more mud than usual, an ex-cyclocross racer’s dream. “Everyone’s freaking out about it but I’m like, ‘great. It’s like a 200 mile cyclocross race,’” Sturm jokes. It has made little difference to her tyre choice, 38mm Specialized Pathfinders, “I’m not gonna stress about it because I think if it’s super muddy everyone is just gonna have to deal with the mud.” She will also use a 42 1x front chainring and a 12-speed Sram Eagle Cassette.
It is the mental fortitude, however, not just the tech, that makes the difference in a race like Unbound. How does Sturm plan to approach such a long race in that sense?
“I kind of go back that BRW race that I won. I’d never even ridden over 100 miles and I think it was like 140 and that has always proven to me that your brain is so much more powerful than we think,” she says. “And so I try to just not stress about like the marginal gains or like the little things like tire width, or if it’s muddy on course, or you know, how many calories I’m eating. I just sort of feel like my mind is capable of pushing my body a lot harder than I think it is. And I focus on, honestly, just like letting my body do what it can do.”
Luckily, Sturm is equipped with the mental tools that are essential to pushing yourself over 200 miles of dirt roads.
“I actually inherently like to ride hard. And I think part of me just likes to suffer and see how much I can push and some days that’s harder than other women and other days it’s not, but I think I mean, really, all we can do is push ourselves as hard as we can it’s kind of actually really simple.”