‘As women, we earn a lot of respect out there’ – Amity Rockwell on winning the 360km Traka, equality in gravel and Unbound 200
The American woman impressed when she took victory by 45 minutes in the race known as the 'Unbound Gravel of Europe' few weeks ago, but says she will never sacrifice her happiness for race results
Produced in association with Pas Normal Studios
Amity Rockwell does incredible things. Just a few weeks ago, she won the Traka in Spain, a 360km gravel race with over 4200 metres of elevation gain. Under Girona’s blazing sun, Rockwell finished the route in 15 hours; not only was she the first woman, beating her compatriot Sarah Sturm, she was also 40th overall out of over 300 race starters. It wasn’t the first big win in the American rider’s career, either. In 2020, Rockwell surprised many by winning Unbound Gravel, arguably the biggest event in the world on the gravel calendar.
I manage to find a window to speak to Rockwell over the phone when she can find a slither of quiet in her packed schedule; she’d just spent the week at a women’s mountain bike camp in California and would head to Mt. Shasta a few days later for Grinduro. We start talking about her win in the Traka almost immediately – I’d been excited to ask Rockwell all about it in the days leading up to our interview, because I had, frankly, found it inspiring. I can barely fathom spending 15 hours in the saddle, let alone doing it at the speed Rockwell did.
“How hard was it? You must have been exhausted afterwards? How do you get in the mindset to do that? What an amazing achievement,” are just a few of the things I say to the American woman down the phone.
To my surprise, Rockwell responds to my questions with a tinkling laugh, almost as if she finds my amazement at her achievements bemusing. “I can’t really believe how much coverage that victory has got,” she says. “I really didn't think much of it. I was like, it's a gravel race, how much can people really care, you know?”
What becomes clear quickly during my conversation with Rockwell is that she doesn’t have the usual mentality of an elite athlete. As she speaks, her simple love for riding a bike shines through. For her, riding 360km at the Traka or winning Unbound Gravel is just a product of this, she doesn’t go out on her bike everyday to get faster or fitter, or with race wins in mind, but because it is what, fundamentally, she enjoys spending her time doing more than anything else.
“I tend to just feel better and better as long days go on,” Rockwell says. “Mentally, that makes it all pretty easy to take on these sorts of distances. I know that if I do have a rough patch there's a good chance I'll come out the other side of it. I don't really look at all the data too much, I keep it on the little map screen and try to be present in the moment. It's really just responding to the environment at hand. I have power on my bike but it's not really useful when you're in this constantly developing situation. A lot of the second half of the Traka when I was alone, it was just feeling the line of how hard I can go, but keeping the pace steady.”
Despite her laid-back approach to racing, Rockwell explains she is certainly not immune to the pressures that come with any competitive sporting environment. As a former winner of Unbound Gravel, Rockwell was the hot favourite for victory before the Traka, something that she had to learn to deal with ahead of the race.
“I’d been in Girona for a while before the race meeting new people, and all of a sudden I was like, oh, wait, people are actually kind of expecting me to win this thing. That was a lot to deal with because I didn't have the confidence that I have when I race in the US. Here I know all of the racers well, you can be pretty confident that nobody's going to come out of the blue, whereas in Europe, it could be anyone, I just was careful not to be overconfident going in,” she explains.
Rockwell gives credit to the community in Girona and to the events put on by one of her main sponsors, clothing company Pas Normal Studios before and after the Traka, as helping her take down the stress she felt leading up to race day. “I think they make a pretty big statement that you can have everything, People often like to see it as performance or fun. There's these splits in gravel racing, where it's like you're either like a serious professional or you're there to have a nice time. We showed that you can do both,” Rockwell says.
By the time the morning of the Traka came round, Rockwell explains that she managed to get into a calm and confident mindset as she sat on the start line at 6am ready to roll out. There were a few nerves about the unknown, Rockwell had never ridden further than at Unbound which was 206 miles (320km), so she was unsure how her body would react to the extra distance of the race in Spain.
“I knew I'd definitely felt good at hour 12 before, which made me optimistic, but I was also thinking I might not be a 15 or 17 hour athlete but that's what makes it super exciting and compelling, having this arena to find that out. At the start, I told myself that it was going to be a good ride,” she says. “Of course no one knows what is going to happen in a race, but I knew at the bottom of it, it was a great course in a beautiful place with such nice people. How bad could it really be?”
Evidently, it turned out to be a very good day for Rockwell, as she distanced her closest rival Sturm midway through the race and ended up beating her by 45 minutes by the time she reached the end of the 360km route. At the finish line, Rockwell was met with hugs from her friends and champagne spray.
As well as her ability to tap into the required mindset to complete an ultra-endurance event, Rockwell credits her new coach, professional road cyclist Hannah Barnes of Synergy Coaching, as a crucial element to her good form during the Traka. With Synergy being a female-specific coaching company, Rockwell explains that her training was tailored around her menstrual cycle to help her perform optimally at crunch time.
“I have struggled to be coached in the past because I'm somebody who will just ride all day, every day. Hannah definitely lets me ride a lot and encourages it. We have a collaborative process of me having prepared for this type of thing before, but her having the structure and the knowledge to organise it in such a way that I don't show up tired or burnt out,” Rockwell says. “My period actually started like the morning of Traka and we did talk about that a lot in the week leading up to the event. I was feeling this excessive residual soreness in my muscles and I mentioned that to her and she advised me how to manage it and knew exactly what it was called.”
Rockwell’s experience in races like Unbound Gravel also was an asset in her preparation for the Traka, she notes how important a good pacing strategy is for a long event and cites this as a reason why she finished so highly in the overall standings.
“We start in a combined field with the men which I love. It's certainly nerve wracking, the most stressful part of the race is the first 90 minutes. But I've been doing this for enough years that I can make a bunch of risk assessment decisions. I know if it is worth it to take some chances and stick with these people or if it is time to sit up and let some people go, I’m always like, calm down. It's a long race,” Rockwell says. “I've never been super punchy so I tend to slip a little bit backwards in the beginning but I love being able to be part of a very, very large field. It is an incredible feeling that we don't get when we start to break things down into categories.”
Rockwell’s ability to beat the majority of the men’s field in the Traka as well as take the women’s victory undoubtedly makes a statement to any who may have doubted the ability of female riders to hold their own in such a gruelling event.
“In the first half, I think men are more aggressive, or at least more intent on proving something. But then the opposite happens in the second half, which is actually an amazing feeling,” Rockwell says. “I feel like it makes a huge statement for women's cycling as you meet these guys and they realise that you're doing well and they want to work with you so it actually becomes very collaborative. It's very encouraging, honestly, it's really cool. As women, we earn a lot of respect out there which feels really nice. It feels like I'm actually out here, hopefully improving things for all of us.”
Equal distances for men and women and mass starts as seen in the Traka are part of the foundation on which gravel racing was built and they are something that Rockwell feels is important to continue in the sport. It’s true that this is something that really sets gravel racing apart from road racing, whereby the women’s peloton generally races far shorter distances than the men’s. At the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships last year, the women raced 40km less than the men, something that deterred Rockwell from competing altogether.
“I think last year seeing the UCI give the women a shorter race turned me off in a big way. Maybe they've taken some advice in and changed things for this year, hopefully, but I'm just watching that whole thing play out from the sidelines before I decide if I want to lend my support to it,” Rockwell says. “There are so many races to choose from now and I’m not going to give the UCI any priority just on account of them being a more serious organisation. They don't have any presence in the scene or among our gravel community.”
Rockwell explains that she prefers to lend her support to other gravel events such as the Gravel Earth Series, of which Traka is a part of. “I'm also going to be going out to the Migration Race in Kenya and the Rift in Iceland, and then I'll be back in Spain in September for the series finale,” she says.
Next on Rockwell’s calendar is Unbound Gravel, which takes place at the start of June, an event which she admits she is going to try and take victory in once again. Above all, though, Rockwell explains she puts her morals, happiness and mental well being ahead of anything else when it comes to deciding her calendar and what she wants to do with her career. It’s why she chose sponsors that aligned with her values and allowed her the freedom to do the races that she enjoys. She will always remember that this enjoyment is why she began gravel racing in the first place.
“I follow my gut, I like to go where the energy is and where the good people are,” Rockwell says. “Klassmark does an amazing job of holding these, hopefully, Climate Neutral events in the Gravel Earth Series. Their priorities line up with my own. For me, that's the sort of racing I really want to see succeed. I think the best way for that to happen is for people like me to show up.”