Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
The WorldTour, as many of the riders involved will tell you, is something of a rat race.
There’s little breathing room within a hectic calendar that’s set against a backdrop of cutthroat managerial decisions, while freedom and fun are not instant word associations.
Frankly it’s somewhat of a surprise that more riders haven’t switched to gravel at this point, but while a handful have made that transition they’ve all taken their time to strike the right balance between competitiveness and liberty.
Ruth Winder is no exception. As she told VeloNews, if you pin a number on her she will still thrive in a competitive environment; however, striking the balance between success and flexibility can be a harder act than the racing itself.
“I think that it’s been really fun to just learn to have some freedom,” Winder told VeloNews when asked about her favorite aspect of her debut gravel season.
“I’m really grateful that Trek, SRAM and Castelli still support me even though I say that I’m not going to train as hard as I did before. I wanted to discover where I want to take bikes in the future and for me that meant taking a step back from high performance. I think that they and I still knew that I would perform well because I’d spent 15 years training and racing as a pro. I’m still really fit but I’ve enjoyed learning mental flexibility.
“It’s been fun to ride for myself. I can still kill myself in a race if I want to but that’s not really a position that I’ve been in before. Previously, bikes for me meant showing up and doing a job, and this feels different. I’m still trying to figure out that part of it but it’s really nice to have that space to figure it out.”
- Life Time Grand Prix mid-series update: the mountain bikers are winning
- Endurance racing and motherhood — Erin Huck’s new adventures
- Peter Stetina finds perspective and balance as a participant at LeadBoat Challenge
While Winder’s above summary on the differences between road racing and gravel are clear cut, her debut season on dirt has been anything but. A crash took her out of Sea Otter, while a serious bout of COVID meant that she could not race in Unbound in June. She returned to competition at Crusher in the Tushar in July and took a credible fourth, but this weekend sees her taking on the mammoth back-to-back challenge of Leadville Trail 100 and SBT GRVL — or as it’s now commonly known, the LeadBoat Challenge.
“I haven’t done either Leadville or Steamboat before and I didn’t really compute what it meant until just the other day when someone pointed out that I was going to ride more than they did over a week in just two days. It’s 15 hours in two days. I didn’t think about it that way. That’s a lot of bike riding in two days. When you think about 15 hours in two days, that’s definitely more than I do in some weeks,” she said.
In terms of her overall experience it’s hard to say whether the former US road champion will have more success at Leadville or SBT. She has a handful of gravel races in her back pocket, but she also raced mountain bikes at high school level around ten years ago when NICA was broadening out across California.
“I guess that I have more experience on gravel roads from riding in Boulder more but I ride my mountain bike all the time, and I raced mountain bikes at high school. If you look at pure race days then I’ve done more mountain biking as I’ve only actually done three gravel races,” she said.
“My general approach to the gravel stuff is that if you put a race number on me I’m going to go as hard as I can. This is a new space for me and I’m a new Ruth in that I don’t train like I used to, and I don’t really know what to expect of myself, but I do expect myself to go as hard as I can and then whatever result I end up with, then that’s what it is. I think I should get a top-ten but I don’t know.
“I’m not saying I think I can win the LeadBoat Challenge because I’m not sure about that. There’s a lot of climbing. I’m fitter than I was at Crusher in the Tushar, but Haley Smith beat me by ten minutes or something. Top-five would be a really good day for me. I was thinking top five at SBT and then a top-ten at Leadville. That might put me in the top-five overall in the Leadboat thing.”
You can take the rider out of the WorldTour but taking the WorldTour out of the rider is a completely different challenge — that competitive edge is still there in Winder’s every objective.
“At the same time, I’m trying to not put that level of pressure on myself but my natural state is to think about how I’m going to race and where I’m going to finish. I can try and tell myself that I’m just there to have fun, and that’s cute, but I’m just too competitive.”
One competition Winder isn’t getting hung up on at this point is the Life Time Grand Prix series. Her bad luck and illness saw her score no points in the first two rounds and she is off the pace in the overall standings.
Maybe that will help her this weekend. It might allow her to continue to explore new boundaries and stretch herself in ways that the structure and rules of the WorldTour simply won’t allow.
“I’m excited for this weekend because people have talked about it so much, and two it’s a big one in the series. In terms of the series, because I’m so far down after my poor start I don’t really think about it too much. It wasn’t necessarily a goal for me at the start of the season. I’m trying to be less goal oriented, but whether that’s realistic or not, I don’t know. When this all started I didn’t want myself to be overwhelmed with high performance goals.”