From commuter to Unbound 200 winner: Meet Rosa Klöser

The German rider won the world’s biggest gravel race despite having only started cycling competitively in 2022 – all while completing her PhD at the same time

Rosa Klöser believes in destiny. It was a day four years ago, when she had her town bike stolen in Copenhagen, which she thinks changed hers. 

“It was late summer of 2020 when it happened. I’d seen people able to commute faster to work on proper road bikes, so when my town bike got stolen, I thought, okay, why don't I just find myself a road bike? There was no real intention of going extremely fast or doing it competitively,” Klöser says. 

“I found myself the cheapest road bike you could get from a shop and started riding. It hit me directly that I really, really liked it.”

With a semi-professional swimmer and horseback rider in her grandfather and father, Klöser grew up as an active child. She explains that she’d always known she had a talent for sport, be that running, tennis or swimming, but her studies ended up taking priority when it came to making decisions on her career. Still, the determination and competitive spirit instilled by her upbringing came to the fore when she began bike racing for the first time.

“I joined one of the biggest amateur Danish cycling clubs and went on a training ride where we did some race drills,” Klöser explains. “I had fun and that was just riding around a one kilometre block really fast. I did a local race in April 2022 and it went phenomenally. I won the race, to my surprise, and I had no idea about any tactics. From then on, I think opportunity met success, and success met passion, and I went deep into it.”

The thing is, Rosa Klöser’s definition of going ‘deep’ into something is not the same as everyone else’s. Within months of deciding to take cycling more seriously, the German rider was on a training camp in Mallorca and following a more structured plan to get the most out of the hours she had – Klöser races alongside studying for a PhD in Green Shipping.

“Somehow you can transfer a lot from your PhD to the approach to cycling. It's also like a little project. It isn’t just us sitting on a bike and pushing watts, but there's so much more to it,” Klöser says. “It's also about how do I fuel myself correctly? What do I wear? What are the fastest tyres I can possibly use? These little things you have to consider make cycling actually quite complicated. That motivated me when I started to understand how cycling has such a strategic component.”

It was, perhaps, another act of fate that Klöser discovered gravel riding when on that first training camp in Girona, Spain. She remembers meeting Piotr Havik – a Dutch cyclist who finished fourth in Unbound Gravel this year – while out on a training ride with her partner. Havik invited the German pair to join him on a recon of the 2022 Traka course (a major gravel event in Girona).

“I was so nervous because he was this guy who rode for a Continental team and was so strong and I’d never really ridden on gravel,” Klöser recalls. “My boyfriend really wanted to go because he’d just been training with me the whole time, so in the end I said ‘ok, let’s go.’

“At one point, Piotr said there was a technical singletrack coming up which he needed to test the lines for, so he was going to go faster. I jumped on his wheel and at the end of the singletrack he turned around and was like: ‘wait, you’re still here?’ He gave me one piece of serious advice after that: you should consider starting a gravel racing career.”

It was advice which Klöser took, finishing on the podium in a UCI Gravel World Series race for the first time in France, Millau Grands Causses, at the start of 2023. The 27-year-old’s season progressed quickly from there, with three more UCI podiums and a top-30 finish at the UCI Gravel World Championships to round out a formidable debut year on the rough stuff.

“In that year, I didn't have any feed zone support. I was carrying a Camelbak up the hills in the gravel at races. It was really just me and my boyfriend going and doing our best, not having a professional setup,” Klöser explains. “I think I still did quite well at that point so some teams approached me and some individual sponsors approached me. I actually thought to myself: ‘you know what, why don't you give it a shot and try to do it a bit more professionally in 2024?’”

Partnerships were secured for Klöser in 2024 with Australian apparel brand MAAP, German bike brand Rose and Enve for wheels and components. Klöser credits the local cycling community in Copenhagen as crucial to her success, explaining that she gained expertise and contacts from those around her. She also points out that her partner, Paul, has been an invaluable source of knowledge during her career so far.

‘We're both little nerds,” Klöser laughs. “He actually also pursues a PhD in mechanical engineering. He’s someone who is super focused on one thing but then he really excels at it. This is inspirational to me. His good understanding of mechanical engineering and aerodynamics makes me quite fast on a bike because he makes sure to remind me to just sit in an aerodynamic position and have a good set up and things like that. I think he always pushed my limits there as well.”

Klöser’s dialled set-up when she takes to the start of gravel races is clear. She arrived in Kansas for the 2024 edition of Unbound Gravel with an aero skinsuit, helmet and socks, plus her Rose bike set up with a 1x chainring configuration and inserts in the tyres to try and avoid mechanicals and punctures. She may not have been on most people’s lists of pre-race favourites, but Klöser had not come to Unbound to finish mid-pack.

“I'm still kind of like a newbie in the gravel scene and I don’t know all the really strong women in-person, but I'm always going to do my research. I think I knew them more than they knew me, that's for sure,” Klöser says. “When I lined up at the start line. It really hit me how important Unbound is. I knew from Carolin Schiff, who is also German and won it last year, she said herself multiple times that it was life-changing for her but still, if you haven't been there, you don't know.

“I got a bit intimidated because I was hearing all of these badass women getting call ups, and I'm just like: okay, I’m here, let's see how this goes. I knew I had to have a good day, a bit of good luck. And good determination and strength to be able to finish in the top-10.”

Unbound Gravel is a race that has become famous for the requirements it places on athletes which span far more than just the physical. Getting through the 200-mile race with energy to fight for victory at the end is one thing, but keeping your bike in one piece is also imperative to getting a good result in the American race. Klöser explains that the opening half of her Unbound was filled with smooth pit stops and good positioning, meaning she made the front selection of 11 elite women on the race’s famous ‘Little Egypt' sector. It was just after she ticked over the 100 mile mark that things started to go wrong for the German rider.

“I admittedly was too close to the girl in front of me and I hit a really really big rock. I could really hear my front tyre burst. Luckily, I was running inserts so I could keep going with it but with very low pressure. I was still like 30k or 25k out from the next feed zone. I tried to position myself quite far in the front of the group to determine the pace a little bit and not go too fast but every descent, I hit my rim so much. It got so scary so I decided to sit at the back of the group as I didn’t want to cause a crash.”

With 7 kilometres to go until the aid station, Klöser stopped to put a CO2 canister in the tyre and eventually made it to her pit crew, who were able to give her a quick wheel change and extra nutrition. From then on, it was time for Klöser to do her best to close a gap of almost two minutes to the front group of elite women.

“I was actually really calm because I knew I had nothing to lose at this point. It took me almost an hour to close this gap down because I tried to somehow pace myself,” Klöser remembers. “At one point on the horizon, I could see the lead car for the women, and I was so happy when I saw this. That gave me extra wings. I tried to be very aerodynamic on the descents and be super efficient in my riding. There were around 30 miles to the finish when I made it back to the group.”

The finishing sprint between the front nine riders at the 2024 edition of Unbound was historic. This was the first time that the women had been given their own race, with a separate start that meant no other categories could impact the dynamics of the women's event. It led to a tight-fought, close battle between the best female gravel racers in the world, who sprinted out to the finish line in Emporia.

Klöser, against all odds, came out on top.

“I kicked and I pretty quickly got a gap and managed to hold it to the line, which was incredible. As a sprinter you can sense if someone is coming close, and I think there were 50 or 100 metres to go and I could already sense that no one was coming,” Klöser says. “I already screamed, because I knew that I would win. It was super incredible and such a special win. Not just because I won Unbound, but I won amongst these really great ladies and I felt like we really battled each other all day.

“To be honest, what really made me happy was actually how kind and sweet the other girls were. I think almost every one of them either came to me personally, or sent me a message afterwards congratulating me and telling me that I deserve to win. That's actually the best feeling when your competitors are happy for you that you won and they think that you deserved it.”

Klöser’s journey in the sport over the last few years, from a commuter who had never done cycling competitively, to one of the biggest names on the gravel racing scene, is an impressive one. What makes the German woman’s Unbound win so exciting is that Klöser’s career is still in its infancy. Her progress over the last few years has been incredibly fast, but there is likely still untapped potential and room for improvement in her performances.

If she hadn’t had her town bike stolen that fateful day in Copenhagen, the cycling world still might not know the name Rosa Klöser. Her meticulous, studious and detailed approach to the sport, alongside her physical talent and mental fortitude, makes me think we will be hearing about Rosa for a long time yet.

“The win had a big impact in terms of my self trust and self-belief. I know now that even when facing adversity, I can still turn the race around. This doesn’t just apply in racing, but in life in general,” Klöser says. 

“You need to hold on to the attitude: it’s never over until it’s over.”

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