Just last year, German rider Carolin Schiff was considering stopping competing in cycling altogether. Then riding on the road for UCI Continental team, Andy Schleck-Immo Losch, she’d had a season plagued with injury and was concerned about the risks that come with competing in the women’s professional peloton.
“Road cycling was too dangerous for me with all the crashes,” she explains. “Last year, I was injured the whole season and I wanted to stop cycling completely. I wanted to just do it like a hobby and go back to my normal job full-time again.”
It was one phone call from the world-renowned German bike brand, Canyon, that changed everything. New for 2023, Canyon was setting up its gravel ‘CLLCTV’ (collective) and was looking for riders to be part of it. Schiff’s domestic results in both road and cyclo-cross had put her on Canyon’s radar and they offered her a chance to ride a comprehensive gravel calendar in the upcoming season.
“I used to do triathlons and I trained for them with road cycling and cyclo-cross during winter,” Schiff says. “I think that's a good combination for gravel because you have the technical skills and the power from the road. Canyon called me and they asked me if I would like to race gravel for them. And then I thought about it and decided it was a great opportunity. We arranged everything and now I'm here. It's crazy.”
It’s true that since she decided to take up gravel racing, Schiff’s progression in the discipline has been meteoric. Crazy, in fact, is an apt description for the last couple of months of the 37-year-old’s career. It kicked off with a victory in a UCI Gravel World Series race in Berja, Spain, where Schiff won the women’s race solo by almost 15 minutes. Then came the Traka 100, one of Europe’s premier gravel events and with it another dominating victory for the German woman. A few weeks later in another UCI Gravel World Series race in Aachen, Schiff took second place, beating Team SD Worx rider Lorena Wiebes who finished in third.
Schiff during the Traka 200 2023 (Image: The Traka)
Gravel racing in Europe is one thing, but it’s a known fact that the off-road discipline was born in the United States. Much of the terrain in America is tailor-made for fast gravel races on wide stretches of open farm tracks – a very different style to that seen in the majority of European gravel races which tend to be more narrow and technical. The popularity of gravel racing in the US is continually growing too, leading to extremely competitive and high-quality fields in the majority of races. At the pinnacle of the US gravel calendar is Unbound Gravel, known by many as the unofficial World Championships of gravel racing. The 210-mile course is tough and gruelling, made even harder if inclement weather arrives on race day as it did in 2023. Schiff’s trip to race gravel in the US would be a true test of how she fared compared to the best gravel riders in the world.
Perhaps surprisingly to those who had never heard of her – and unsurprisingly to those who had seen her race in Europe – Schiff kicked off her US campaign with a victory at Gravel Locos in Texas, a de facto warm-up race for Unbound Gravel. Her win in Texas may have got her name out there, but Schiff still headed to Kansas for Unbound as a relative underdog a few weeks later.
Despite being featured in only a few pre-race previews by the most attentive of gravel-focused journalists, Schiff explains that she was headed into Unbound confident – an important trait for a professional athlete. “I went there to try and win, that was my goal,” she explains. “But for sure, it was a shock that it worked out so well.”
The German rider’s description of the race turning out ‘well’ is a colossal understatement. In hellish conditions under thunderstorms that caused rider’s bikes to clog with thick mud, Schiff found herself in the lead group of women, alongside multiple previous Unbound winners. With 150km of the 320km race remaining, she decided to make her attack – a brave move so far from the finish.
“I had some really bad moments when my back started hurting,” Schiff says. “At that moment, I wasn't sure if I could finish the race because it was really bad. It was better at the end of the race so that was good. I started my attack with 150km to go and I wasn't sure if I could stay that long distance alone, but it worked out. I was able to increase the gap.”
After nearly 12 hours of gruelling racing under stormy Kansas skies, Schiff ended up crossing the finish line of Unbound Gravel 14 minutes ahead of last year’s winner, Sofia Villafane, to take the biggest victory of her career.
“I still can't really believe it because I did not expect it,” she says. “It was just like a dream that it happened and that it happened in that way.”
Schiff explains that many were shocked to see her cross the finish line first ahead of the pre-race favourites. “I think a lot of them did not know me so there were a lot of different kinds of spellings of my name going around,” she jokes. “I think that's always a nice thing when you surprise people. They look at you and say, ‘What's going on?’”
“People in America were really nice and happy for me,” Schiff adds. “In the airport, people I didn't know came to me and asked me for selfies and it was really nice, I enjoyed that.”
Schiff explains that it's not only her fame that her win in Unbound Gravel changed. She still currently works part-time both running a bike shop in Germany with her partner and in a marketing job. Her big victory in the States could make gravel racing a viable full-time career option for her.
(Image: The Traka)
“Luckily, I can do my job from the road. With our bike shop, I can do a lot from the computer because I do the back office things. At the moment, with all the travelling, it's really hard to combine it and I give my best but sometimes it's really not working. We’ll see how that might change now,” Schiff explains.
In the more immediate future, Schiff is targeting FNLD GRVL, a new event in Finland that has been created by Formula 1 driver Valtteri Bottas and his partner, Canyon//SRAM professional cyclist, Tiffany Cromwell. She expects the fast roads and rolling gravel of the Lathi forest to suit her well and is dreaming of another victory to add to her growing list this year. After that, Schiff also has her eyes set on The Rift, a gravel race in Iceland, as well as the UCI Gravel European and World Championships.
While her rise to the top this year might have looked relatively seamless to some, Schiff is still aware that she has elements of her performance that she can still improve on. Gravel racing is known for its mass starts whereby all riders (amateur and professional) roll off the line together. This can lead to hectic and big fields at the start of gravel events before the course splits things up.
“I still try to avoid those big bunches, I try to go alone, because I don't like it. I'm always happier when I am one hour into the race and everybody is already a bit tired and not so motivated. And then it's easier for me,” Schiff explains.
Even if, according to her own high standards, Schiff still has elements of her performance she wishes to improve as her career progresses, she can only be elated with this season so far. I ask her what she would have responded if she was told at the start of the year that she would win Unbound Gravel, arguably the biggest gravel race in the world. “I’d say, ok, I’ll start dreaming, because that would have only been a dream,” she responds.
And has the German rider’s life changed since that day in Kansas when she shocked the gravel world? “Yes,” she responds, assertively. “It’s a big, big game changer.”Cover image: Wilhelm Ohman