Amity Rockwell etched her name into the gravel racing history books when she won DK in 2019 – a race which is now called Unbound Gravel. It was one of those moments that completely altered the American rider’s trajectory. A race where Rockwell felt good, and things just went well. A moment which she’ll always remember as the day that changed her life.
That elusive victory meant the 28-year-old could wave goodbye to early morning shifts as a barista, saving every dollar throughout the winter to fund a summer of gravel madness, and say hello to a professional contract. A chance to commit herself full throttle to racing, with nothing to hold her back.
How it happened
“That win was 100% what made me able to take [gravel racing] seriously as a career,” explains Rockwell. "It was really just a perfect storm. I think in those like longer endurance races, especially gravel, there is no clean race. I was lucky to not to flat that day. But that isn't to say nothing went wrong.”
“I was super nauseous. I think a lot of the coverage says how much I threw up, and I crashed once pretty hard,” she says.
Being a relative newcomer to racing compared to some of her competitors, Rockwell explains that she struggles with the mass starts that are customary in gravel racing. With hundreds of competitors sprinting from the gun aiming to secure the best position, the beginning of the race is a true test of bunch skills and bike handling. “I was terrified at the start,” she admits. “I was 13th at mile 50 or something. It was not, by any means, sailing away to the wind.”
Amity Rockwell at Rouleur Live 2021 (Image: Sean Hardy)
Rockwell’s ability to persist against adversity and slowly work her way up the rankings over the 200-mile event is something that she puts down to a long term love of the sport, endurance riding specifically. “I just ride like a lot, a lot, a lot,” she laughs. “Whoever your friends are that ride a lot, I just try to ride a little bit more than that. I think ultimately that's just what prepared me so well for that race.”
Though the big 2019 win is what projected her to the spotlight, Rockwell is quick to explain that it didn’t come by some magic legs showing up when she needed them. Instead, the barista’ing, long training days and learning her trade in smaller gravel races all accumulated to a victory that had been in the making for a couple of years. “I didn't just decide to show up and take it,” she says. “I think from a personal level it feels like a lot of slow, hard work.”
The next chapter
With her newfound fame and offers of support of globally famous brands like Pinarello, Easton, and Castelli, Rockwell looked ahead to her chapter as a full-time cyclist with excitement ahead of 2020. After years of hard work, she’d achieved a big dream and wanted to make the year one of her best. What was out of her control, though, was the global pandemic wiping out all potential gravel racing for the year. That meant that, although she’d secured big sponsors and professional wage, there was no season for Rockwell to compete in.
Despite a drought of racing, American rider didn't completely escape the spotlight. In June 2020 she published a statement on her Instagram which detailed a list of requests to the organisers of DK. These included a change in name to Unbound Gravel and a BIPOC athlete-sponsorship program. Rockwell's position was met widely with support, and she was praised by many for actively trying to create a change.
The long break from racing meant that when the newly-named Unbound Gravel came around again in 2021, the pressure was sky-high. With Amity entering the race as defending champion, she was hellbent on proving that the 2019 win wasn’t any type of fluke.
“You don't really realise how much pressure you're under and how much stress you're dealing with on a day by day basis,” she says. “I felt such a crazy flood of relief [afterwards], especially getting a good result.” Rockwell finished 2nd behind eventual winner Lauren De Crescenzo in 2021.
“It was validating and I think it cemented my place in the sport as a professional. With COVID it was like: you're kind of training but you're not training at the level you would if you were racing and you never had a space to compare yourself to anyone. So you like to think you're going hard, you think you're strong, but without competition, there's no way to be certain of that.”
Ultra-endurance races like Unbound Gravel are events which Rockwell believes suit her best due to her innate love for riding. Spending hours on the bike is the American athlete’s favourite pastime, and she’s been doing it for years, regardless of if she had an event to train for or not.
Amity Rockwell on stage at Rouleur Live 2021 with Ian Boswell and Omar di Felice (Image: Sean Hardy)
“I've always had the feeling like I’m not more talented than anybody, I just really enjoy putting in the work. I go on a lot of 150 or 170 mile training rides and those are my favourite days on a bike, I just love it,” she says.
“I don't know why I love it so much. Maybe I'm just crazy. I just really love it when it crosses over into being as much or more so a mental battle than a physical one, because that's what it is about. It's about getting three quarters of the way through the race and being able to just convince yourself that you feel better than anyone and you feel strong.”
“I love playing those mental games and I love those long days. I think that's when you truly get to know who you are, as a person and as a cyclist.”
The changing gravel scene
As well as thriving in the tough distances that gravel racing presents, Rockwell also explains she has a love for the gravel scene and the atmosphere that comes with it. A far younger sport than road racing, gravel appears to come without archaic, unwritten rules or cliques that are difficult to break into. Instead, it’s a discipline which aims to be open to all.
In recent years, retired and current riders from the WorldTour have entered gravel races, including Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM) who won the Belgian Waffle Ride in Kansas a few months after competing in the Tokyo Olympic Road Race.
“People do sometimes create a bunch of fuss and complain when the WorldTour riders show up to gravel because they're like: you don't belong,” explains Rockwell. “But I feel like we have to carry over that whole welcoming energy to road professionals too who are at the total other end of the spectrum.”
“But I do see that the years you spend in the sport doing specifically gravel, it does totally pay off. We had a few WorldTour guys show up to Kansas this year and I don't even know if any of them finished,” she says.
“You need to know all the things that make a difference, like positioning into deep sandy corners and how to start and how to mitigate your effort over 200 miles and how to fix your own bike when things go sideways. I guess I've never been overly threatened because I feel like all the races that I value the most are the races that are hard enough to create a selection that benefits the time I've spent doing it.”
Rockwell’s certainty that gravel racing should be open to WorldTour road professionals made us wonder if she’d ever switch to the other side and consider some road racing in the future. “I am never one to say no to anything. I'm signing with some pretty exciting new sponsors that hopefully give me an opportunity to do some different stuff,” she says.
“Probably not road, but hopefully some mountain biking. I did Leadville this year [The Leadville Trail 100 MTB, a 100-mile marathon mountain bike race] and I did terribly, but now that I know what to expect, I think I could get a result there.”
Above all, though, Rockwell’s not finished with her work in Kansas, and has a special place in her heart for Unbound. “I won there in a somewhat unexpected way in 2019, and then got really, agonisingly close to winning again but didn’t. I think, more than anything, that convinces me that it is very attainable for me. So that'll be the number one priority until it happens.”
Cover image: Sean Hardy