“It felt like five different races,” says Sarah Sturm reminiscing about her Unbound debut in June. “There were definitely some moments where I was like ‘alright, I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m going to tell my sponsors sorry, I’m going to be a teacher’,” she describes with a big laugh.
Having contracted Covid-19 a few weeks before the savage 200-mile Kansas gravel race, Sturm’s appearance on the start line didn’t come without its challenges. “The whole season this year has felt a bit different. There’s been a lot of pressure that I’ve put on myself,” she explains. There’s a dip in Sturm’s sunny demeanour as she reflects back on that period: “When I got Covid, and a friend had passed away in that same time, it all just sort of came to a head right before this massive race.” The personal loss - the death of talented gravel rider Moriah ‘Mo’ Wilson in May - had also sent shockwaves through the cycling community. “I think had the race been a month earlier…I don’t think I would have done as well, even without getting Covid before,” she shares.
A talented cyclo-cross racer turned pro gravel rider, 31-year-old Sturm is regarded as a latecomer to the sport, having started cycling at college. Prior to that, she’d competed in a variety of sports and recalls at one point thinking triathlons were her calling: “I really thought that was going to be my thing.” Road racing came next, and although she had successes, off-road riding is where her heart truly lay.
“Road riding, I was always sort of natural at but not off-road,” she says with a chuckle. “That was a slow, painful process for me.” As well as being a two-time US Single Speed Cyclocross National Champion, Sturm’s 2019 saw her standing on the podium at numerous races, including the Belgian Waffle Ride, SBT GRVL and the Sea Otter Classic.
But even with those accolades under her belt, Sturm still felt apprehensive ahead of the gravel race that shreds over the Flint Hills of Kansas: “I remember hearing about Unbound long before I’d ever heard about gravel racing or was interested in any sort of endurance sport…the thought of riding for 200 miles in Kansas, it was like ‘what are those idiots doing over there?’”
She admits that her impression of the event was that it was a “cool guy race scene” (“there is that for sure,” she grins) but she was also happily surprised by the vibe. Amateur or pro - the 4,000 riders that head out on Unbound, are united in one thing she says: “Really once you start everyone’s out there just trying to finish.” For someone who thought they would never do Unbound, Sturm is enthusiastically eyeing up the 350-mile category for next year having come seventh in this year's flagship 200-mile race.
Although Unbound takes riders to places, they’ve “never seen mentally” before, says Sturm, riding the waves of emotion means there are also highs as well as the lows. Riding alongside Canadian mountain biker Hayley Smith and fellow American cross-country mountain biker Leah Davidson for around 50 miles of the race was a true highlight for Sturm. “We were all laughing at the fact that we were there and it was just this really lovely several hours of the race,” she describes with a huge grin. “I think that’s kind of the coolest part about endurance sport: there’s lots of moments in between racing where you’re sort of working together.”
It’s the off-road riding community, surroundings and challenges - ideally all mixed together - that Sturm seems to flourish in. “You really can escape and get out into these amazingly beautiful places… and it’s really hard,” she muses. “I think I have just always really enjoyed that.”
Durango, Colorado, where Sturm lives, is one of her favourite places to ride her bike. When her packed schedule of racing and travelling around the country allows it, she loves to take to the surrounding mountains and trails. When we speak, she’s at home in Durango having just come back from racing the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder, where she placed third. Racing is a small part of that event, she says modestly, describing the atmosphere as like “hanging out with people at camp”.
“I feel like I’m never home, so whenever I get to ride here, I’m super stoked,” she says. Durango, Sturm explains, is also home to a number of other top-class athletes so training rides and races in the area are plentiful. Tonight, for example, she’s hoping to head out for a local group road ride dubbed Tuesday Night Worlds (“which is pretty much a race…and it’s often a lot of dudes”) that meets at a different spot nearby each week. Local doesn’t mean the calibre isn’t high though, she points out, commenting on how two of the regulars in the "star-studded cast" are currently away racing in the Tour de France.
It’s interesting to also hear her speak of her time riding during the Covid-19 pandemic and quarantine. “I honestly really thrived when there was no bike racing. I rode so much more than I’ve ever ridden and my nervous system was way chill,” laughs Sturm. Off the bike, she’s still working on relaxing she says. Having been a professional graphic designer, Sturm is now trying to utilise her creativity and artwork as a means to decompress. “[Chilling] doesn’t come naturally to me,” she grimaces.
Most recently, Sturm has helped her clothing sponsor Rapha design "The Sturm Collection", inspired by her own perspective; bold, bright and a little bit different. The kit incorporates playful colours and exaggerated ‘storm’ graphics in a nod to her last name.
Sturm's energy and drive might make downtime tricky but it’s also what fuels her on the bike and is set to keep her busy this year. “There’s [always] something to work on because you’re never perfect at it,” Sturm explains. “You never have a perfect ride. It’s always kind of entertaining for me. I haven’t gotten bored of it yet.”
Shop Sarah Sturm's collection on Rapha here