Amity Rockwell’s unconventional path to becoming pro

After she won the 2019 DK — now Unbound Gravel — Rockwell was ready to race professionally. Then, the pandemic shutdown forced her to examine the social side of her new career.

Photo: @andychasteen

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Since becoming a professional cyclist, Amity Rockwell has had more time to think than to actually race her bike.

After her win at the 2019 DK — now Unbound Gravel — the California-based rider was primed to put her head down and ride her way into a new career. No more barista’ing, no more trail running, just a good, solid go at being a professional gravel racer. Then, COVID shut it down, and so the relative newcomer to the bike scene was forced to examine her professional persona off-the-bike as well, a position she wasn’t quite prepared to defend.

“Probably the biggest shock to my system was a few weeks after DK, fielding all these phone calls and then realizing that everything you do on a bike is in the public eye,” Rockwell told VeloNews. “It was like, ‘Holy shit — this is everything I ever wanted, and holy shit do I really want this?'”

Suffice it to say, the last two years have been nothing short of interesting for Rockwell, who currently rides for Pinarello, Easton, and Castelli. The 27-year old who just wanted to race her bike has instead had a crash course in content creation, advocacy, and engagement.

Related: The Grasshopper Adventure Series is a hit with female cyclists. Here’s why.

Among the small group of North American elite gravel racers, Rockwell is a bit of an anomaly. Whereas most of the names at the pointy end of the races — Stetina, King, Tetrick, Nauman, Rusch —  were known on the road or elsewhere before they came to gravel, Rockwell stepped up to the plate without any palmares in cycling. Yes, she’d been a stalwart at the northern California Grasshopper Adventure Series for years, but it was her win in Kansas in 2019 that literally projected her into the spotlight.

When gravel racing disappeared from the collective radar in 2020, Rockwell’s new success was put on pause and her lack of previous racing experience was evident. For Rockwell, this lack of racing exposed the preexisting chasm between her and the former WorldTour pros turned graveleurs.

“Those people had already retired,” Rockwell said. “Pete, Ted — they’re really good at what they do, creating something out of not racing. For me, I was just getting launched as a competitive racer and now I’m in this pseudo-retirement until racing happens.”

Rockwell said that the things had made her attractive to sponsors — at the time she had been picked up by Canyon bicycles — like being young and new to the sport — were suddenly a handicap. She didn’t have anything to fall back on.

“I’m definitely my own person and have my own opinions and tastes,” Rockwell said. “The part I struggle with is sharing all that. I think racing was an ideal fit, to begin with, because all I had to do was show up and do well and talk about it. I’m slowly working through how to talk about myself and not feel weird about it.”

Related: What if gravel doesn’t go? Most pros have a backup plan

Yet 2020 — and now 2021 — served up plenty for Rockwell to talk about. Last summer there was a call to change the name of the DK. In the fall, the conversation pivoted to whether or not it was socially acceptable to travel to gravel races given the ongoing pandemic. Every issue was tinder for a fire, and there were seemingly thousands of cycling fans lurking behind screens, waiting to fan the flames.

Rockwell witnessed her fair share of it, but it was never black and white. She was praised for not traveling to race and shamed for centering herself in the DK name change debacle. Nevertheless, she said that she only wanted to share her side of the story just in case others needed validation for their own opinions or decisions.

“I think that context of it being a hyper-judgmental place meant it was going to be toxic from the beginning,” Rockwell said. “Our entire experience of COVID has been under the social media microscope.”

Although the social media microscope is still bringing attention to the issues of inequality, injustice, and illness that know no calendar year, Rockwell seems to have decided where she — a professional bike racer who hasn’t yet had the opportunity to really race — is going to focus.

She’s jettisoned her earlier disappointment of having committed to a new career only to have it replaced by an expectation that she suddenly pull a handful of FKTs and DIYs out of her content creation backup plan (remember, she didn’t have one). Yet, she hasn’t eschewed community engagement altogether.

In January, Rockwell started a channel on the voice-messaging platform Discord for women-identifying riders called ‘Fast Friends.’ The objective wasn’t to hand out advice or issue goals-based challenges. Rockwell said that she just wanted to encourage non-judgmental conversation focused on bikes.

“I do think that the lack of information sharing between women in cycling at this point is such a hurdle,” she said. “On Discord, it’s like, ‘just talk to me. I’m seriously no different than you and probably in 50 percent of cases, less experienced than you.'”

On Discord, Rockwell can embrace her position as a professional — and she frequently gives away kit and bike parts — as well as find people to ride with, or learn nutrition strategies from. It’s a positive spin on something that used to be distressing: Rockwell isn’t a retiree from the World Tour; she’s a gravel newbie.

As far as the return to racing is concerned, Rockwell is taking a similar approach. Yes, she was forced into a temporary “pseudo-retirement” after she’d really only just earned her first paycheck, but it’s as if everything that happened subsequently — the social media shitstorm, Rockwell’s realization that she could catalyze conversation among women riders and her continued love of riding her bike — has fired her up even more.

“I think if anything has kept me sane through this it’s this belief I hold that I haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg in my potential,” she said. “Basically I see leagues of improvement for every single aspect of the bike if I just apply myself.”

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