Naturally, Sarah Sturm has just returned from a bikepacking trip when we speak. Having recently been vaccinated, she is visiting her mom at her home for the first time in a year. She describes this most recent bikepacking trip — in Arizona — as, “One of those trips where just the logistics were kind of crazy… it snowed, which is really unusual at this time of year, but it was good”.
Sturm usually embarks on several such trips every year but has taken to bikepacking with even greater fervour since the pandemic started, especially in the absence of races. “I've been trying to just do the rides, and see the places — respectfully — that I wouldn't otherwise have the time or space in my life or my calendar to do,” she says. “So I've actually been able to do some really cool adventures over the last year to places and challenges that I definitely wouldn't have the space for had there not been a giant pause in the year.”
With all of the usual caveats added, the “giant pause” was a welcome one for Sturm, for whom 2019 was “my biggest year as an athlete, just results-wise and in terms of the opportunities that I’d had to race, I felt like I came onto the scene.” Although she was grateful to be in the position she was in, the busy schedule she had been balancing meant that she was relieved that there was a pause. “I had felt super overwhelmed,” she explains.
Most people who balance a job with their cycling pursuits might wonder what makes a life of bikepacking trips and gravel races so overwhelming, but Sturm strikes her own balance, working as a graphic designer. “I'd say I split it like 60/40, so 60% cycling and 40% graphic design,” she says. “I like the pursuit of design, I get the same thrill when I'm talking to a new client or a new project. It's exciting and fun.”
For Sturm, her design career is more than just a job, it provides a necessary mental break from a life of cycling, “I have so much respect for the women and men that can be just fully 100% focused on being an athlete,” she says. “That is not me. I had to learn that the hard way.”
The mental strain of being an athlete has, in the past, led Sturm to give up racing completely. “I got into cycling in college,” she says. “I started with road and then got into cyclo-cross and then later on got into mountain biking.” Sturm’s MTB career led her to start racing for a team, and eventually, the pressure of racing took the enjoyment out of cycling for her.
“I did marathon nationals on the MTB,” she says. “And my partner was like ‘are you having fun doing this?’ and I was like ‘no, biking isn’t fun, racing isn’t supposed to be fun. Mountain biking is supposed to be full of fear and dread and self-criticism.’” In the end, “I just wasn’t having fun doing it,” she says. This realisation led her to quit racing for “a pretty significant chunk of time,” she says. “I just rode my bike and got into bike packing.”
After a break from racing, Sturm signed up for the single-speed cyclocross world championships which she calls, “a nutty event, mostly about partying and drinking more than racing.” Her sartorial choices provided a visual reminder to Sturm that she wasn’t taking things so seriously, “I signed up for some local races but I always just raced in jean shorts as a kind of a reminder to myself that I was choosing to be there, I wanted to do this for fun, no one was making me do it.”
As well as racing the “nutty” singlespeed cyclocross events, Sturm turned her attention to long-distance bikepacking. She rode the Colorado Trail, “I was like ‘woah this is super hard’ and there’s also nobody at the finish line, so no one cares if you finish,” she says. “But it’s still really hard and pretty rewarding when you do finish a massive day like that, especially when no one gives a shit if you finish the day.”
Her new-found love of bikepacking proved to be pivotal for her. “I was finally riding a bike that I felt safe on and I wasn’t just feeling so terrible about my descending skills. There was no attachment to any part of it, it was just what I wanted it to be.”
When she isn’t focusing on her own cycling or work, Sturm coaches and mentors a group of young girls in her home town of Durango, Colorado. The programme, called Devo, is something she has taken part in since college. “We go and just hang out and ride together. And I finally figured out that you don't really coach them, you just listen,” she says.
The coaching is as much for Sturm as it is for the kids themselves, “Especially in the pandemic, it's been so hard for the kids, but they’re so much more positive,” in the last twelve months in particular, she says, “I just was really relieved to be around young people. They're just funny.”
Sturm is tentatively planning her races for 2021, with new sponsor Rapha on board. “I just do so many different types of riding. I do mountain biking most of the time for training, but then I'll do these massive bike trips and then I'll also race ‘cross in a skinsuit,” she says. “So it's really nice to work with a brand that fulfils all of those pieces of cycling”
Her provisional calendar includes some of the biggest gravel events in the US: Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder, Unbound Gravel, and Leadville Trail 100, as well as some cyclo-cross later in the year. She is also hoping to head to Iceland for The Rift. “That's one that I'm like, ‘I don't know if that's gonna happen or not’,” she says, adding that any races in the US she will try to drive, rather than fly to.
Although racing mountain bikes caused Sturm to burn out of the sport for a while, bikepacking and gravel, she says, are different. “That's what has always attracted me to fringe events like gravel and singlespeed cross,” she says. “It's like, all the rules — at a certain point, I just can’t handle it. I have to have some freedom and creativity in the things that I do.”
She particularly rejects the mores of road, and especially road racing. “I see how it's just like the good old boys club, you know and it has been for a really a really long time.” Gravel, she says, is “a lot less intimidating because you don't have to be in this massive group of people that are judging you if you have black socks or white socks, or how tall they are.”
It's telling that Sturm's ambitions for the discipline she takes part in mirror her own approach to life, “I do feel really hopeful for gravel. And I think a lot of a lot of people are looking at it, hopefully it doesn't get too much pressure,” she says. "I hope it just has time to blossom into its own thing, because people are really stoked on it."