Produced in association with Pas Normal Studios
When it comes to the hours of training required to perform at the highest level, cycling is one of the most demanding sports in the world. Competing in and preparing for a full year of gravel events would put a strain on even the most organised of professional riders, no matter how much time they spent on planning on Training Peaks or Google Calendar. So, what happens when you throw a full-time job at one of Palo Alto’s biggest tech companies into the mix? American gravel rider, Maude Farrell, has spent the last few years trying to figure that out.
Farrell works at Rivian, an electric vehicle manufacturer, as a program manager in the brand’s Product Development sector. Alongside this, she raced in the Lifetime Grand Prix series this year which encompasses all of America’s key gravel events, including Unbound Gravel, Big Sugar, Sea Otter Classic and more. These races are feats of endurance, with Unbound Gravel spanning 200 miles (this year, inclement weather conditions made it one of the toughest editions in recent memory, with mud causing mechanicals forcing plenty of riders to pull out of the race.)
Having finished ninth at Unbound in 2022, Farrell entered this year’s race with a plan to try and match or improve on her previous performance. Unlike many of her competitors, however, she had much more to consider than just tyre choices and fuelling strategies.
“I had Covid right before Unbound, so I was super disappointed when I couldn’t finish the race, because I feel like I could have done even better, but you can't always control every single factor,” Farrell explains. “I had a couple of huge highlights last year in terms of performance and outcome this season, but I also felt like my training could have been better and I had more in me.”
Image: Tommy Myer
Working a job alongside racing has both its advantages and disadvantages for Farrell: when a race doesn’t go well, it allows her to have some perspective on her performance – Monday morning emails are a welcome distraction if things have gone badly on the bike. However, she also explains that she doesn’t want to use her work commitments as an excuse for not performing at her best on race day.
“It’s kind of like it gives you permission to be a little half-arsed. Sometimes I worry if it is giving me the ability to be like: it doesn't really matter, I still have my full-time job. I don't want to fall into that trap,” Farrell says. “I'm still extremely ambitious, I want to be competitive. It is definitely true that having work allows me to step back and it does give me a softer landing. If I was to move to just focusing on results to earn my keep and that's how I paid for my food, that would be a really heavy weight to carry.”
Having an employer that allows Farrell to be an athlete alongside doing her day job is crucial to the American woman’s happiness. She explains that when first taking her role at Ravian, she highlighted the importance of racing and added that having the freedom to compete in gravel events would also make her a better employee, too. First starting out in long-distance running before taking cycling seriously in 2020, Farrell has always enjoyed competitive sport and believes that this is crucial in making her a more well-rounded individual.
“I make a point to really emphasise how important it is to me and that my athletics are not just a hobby, they are critical to who I am. Being able to exercise and race bikes empowers me to use my time at work to really achieve and be a good contributor. In saying how important it is, and really saying it out loud, I also hold myself accountable to it,” she says.
Fitting in training alongside her work is a constant juggle for Farrell, who likens putting everything into her schedule each week to a game of Tetris.
“The way that I've made it successful is that I have a plan. I know the things that are immovable and the things that absolutely need to get done in work and in training. Then, based on the week itself, I solve the puzzle. Sometimes that means my workouts are at 6:30pm and sometimes that means my workouts are at 6am,” she explains.
Advancements in knowledge surrounding training for ultra-endurance events have also helped Farrell to optimise the hours she is spending on the bike. Cycling has long moved on from the attitude that to race a 200-mile race, riders must train for 200 miles. Instead, high-quality, structured efforts can allow riders to make the same performance gains in a much shorter period of time.
“I really try to make my training hyper-efficient. I am not a snob about riding indoors if that is what is efficient and allows me to get the work done,” Farrell explains. “There's so much incredible science around training and structure and how to maximise your outcome with just the right amount of input. Ultra running has really positioned me well to understand that philosophy. In Ultra running, you don't run 100 miles to train for 100 miles, you think about a long period of building and structure.”Image: Dominique Powers
Much of the attraction to gravel events is the community and friendships that are fostered between those competing. Farrell explains that she has made some of her closest friends through cycling, many of whom she found through the Pas Normal Studios International Cycling Club. While having a supportive friendship group at races is undoubtedly a force for good, it also makes it easy to compare training load and performances with others, something which I wonder if Farrell struggles with, considering many women who she races against are full-time athletes with more time available to train.
“A mantra that I really have to repeat myself over and over is that comparison is the thief of joy. I actually feel that the closer I’ve become to people, the less that comparison feels unhealthy and the more it gives me a perspective because I talk to them and we share vulnerabilities,” she explains. “I've really experienced a sense of safety and love and empowerment by being so close to women in the peloton because we get to share in our whole scope of insecurities. Those friendships that I've built in the peloton have made me a better racer.”
While the sport of gravel might have been born out of local communities, the fact that gravel racing is becoming a much more well-known, global discipline and is attracting bigger stars to its races is an unavoidable reality. The likes of Kasia Niewiadoma and Tiffany Cromwell are WorldTour professionals who often frequent some of the biggest US gravel events, something that is good for the sport’s exposure, but also means the level of the races is getting higher and higher as the years go on. Farrell notes that this development is positive, but it also is making it harder for riders like her to compete in the very top echelons of the sport.
“The women's gravel racing scene is amazing. We should be celebrating that and looking at the depth of competition and the ability of these women. At the same time, for someone like me, it does introduce a question of, do I need to stop slicing myself in half and go one hundred percent in, to achieve that extra five percent?
“It’s getting harder [to have a full-time job and compete] but I don't think that it is impossible. I think with the right level of support and being honest with yourself about how much you truly love it, it is still very possible. The more that I spoke to people, the more that I learnt that there are other people who do the same thing. For example, they are making a choice to not only be a competitive athlete but also have a job and be a mother and do these things outside of bikes. I continue to commit myself to the belief that, for me, doing those things and having that life is what makes me a great athlete. It's what gives me my shape. It's what gives me my perspective and helps me constantly be hungry and remain hungry for it.”
Image: Dominique Powers
For a rider like Farrell, who discovered cycling as a means of adventure and exploration, it is important that having such lofty ambitions in the sport doesn't mean she loses her love for it. She shares an anecdote about trying on bridesmaid dresses next door to a bike shop and making the decision to buy a bike rather than a dress, drawn to the freedom two wheels give her to find new places and roads.
“I became so strong and so joyful on the bike and really loved it, but I am also an ambitious career woman. I'm very risk averse in many ways, I always want to make sure I have a stable job and health insurance and retirement plan,” she explains. “I live between these two worlds of security and stability, while also really craving adventure and newness. I wouldn't know how to do one without the other. When I have so much going on, I feel that my life is really rich.”
Looking ahead to 2024, Farrell explains that she is hoping to rediscover some of the joy in racing that she believes she has somewhat lost while competing at the highest level. She explains that although conversations around gravel are becoming more focused on performance and competitiveness, she finds much more value in the experience of racing than the results at the end of it. For the 32-year-old, it’s about discovering the capabilities of her body and seeing what her bike can help her find.
With this in mind, next season will look a little bit different, with Farrell not competing in the Lifetime Grand Prix but instead curating her own race calendar with events that have meaning and purpose to her personally. This means heading to some lesser-known races in Europe and even competing in some multi-sports races that encompass both running and cycling.
“I want to come back to that thread of discovering what I am here for. It's that adventure and exploring that curiosity of what I'm capable of. I want to do a circumnavigation of the Bay Area, which has been my home for nine years. That's a big one that has nothing to do with racing, but it's really just about doing something that's on my front doorstep and getting into that backyard adventure,” Farrell says.
“With that being said, I'm also trying to target some races. I have redemption Unbound and SBT is also going to be a big one. In summary, I definitely have big marquee races that I want to have strong performance in but I'm also making sure that my cycling is really oriented to having fun, pushing myself and diving into that curiosity. It's not just being like, where did I finish on the list, but did I really take myself into a place that I'd never been before? That’s my mentality.”
Cover image: Dominique Powers