'Wild, crazy and intense' - Anna Kollmann-Suhr’s whirlwind ride from daily commutes to a 780km ultra-race

Kollmann-Suhr purchased her first bike in 2020 to get around and has since completed some of the most epic gravel challenges

Produced in association with Pas Normal Studios

Anna Kollmann-Suhr does not do things by halves. That’s clear almost immediately as she starts telling me her story in cycling so far. From racing her first competitive event at the start of this season, the Vienna-based rider has since stormed her way through a full calendar of premier gravel events all over the world – including the famous, brutally hard, muddy edition of Unbound 200 in Kansas – and she decided to end her season with her biggest and toughest race yet: Basajaun. A 780km ultra-race with 15,000m of climbing elevation, it’s known as one of the most extreme events in Europe. From dry and barren deserts, to the looming mountains in the Pyrenees and the Sierra de la Demanda, the route is 70% off-road and pushes riders to their limits.

There’s so much to say and so many stories to tell from Kollmann-Suhr’s huge gravel calendar this season that it’s almost overwhelming. As we begin our conversation, I mention this and she knows what I mean. We’re speaking at the start of her off-season and Kollmann-Suhr is tired and ready for a reset after months of discovering life far outside of her comfort zone. To make things simpler, I ask her to start at the beginning.

“Originally, I had gotten a bike to just commute around the city,” she explains with a smile. “I'm a landscape architect, that's my career and I have an interest in bigger job sites [building sites] that are going on in Vienna and outside of Vienna, where I live. I used my bike to commute out to these job sites that were sometimes further away so I could see what the progress was. Eventually I realised I was enjoying the commute in between more than I was looking at these job sites.

“Once I started working, with my first couple paychecks I bought myself a proper bike. It was a used one with rim brakes, old school, but immediately just fell in love with it. It just clicked. I just went out on a little loop that my friends had suggested for me and I was like, I feel so fast on this. It's like a roller coaster. This is fun. I decided it was my new favourite sport and, yeah, it stuck.”

Kollmann-Suhr admits that she is innately competitive, something that immediately drew her to the racing aspect of cycling. She became an ambassador for Pas Normal Studios and was quickly picked up by Enough Cycling team who gave her the tools she needed to start racing.

Image: Fellusch

“I was down in Italy at the Memory Gravel Festival, and I got to hang out with the team for a couple of days. They invited me back down afterwards for a short little bike-packing trip, which I said yes to,” Kollmann-Suhr explains. “Afterwards, they asked if I was interested in joining the team. It happened pretty quickly and in January this year, I signed with them. They helped me get on my feet for my first ever season of racing.”

I point out that Kollmann-Suhr was signed by Enough Cycling with no race results to speak of that would prove her ability – an unusual way to join a team in cycling. She replies that Enough Cycling isn’t about just race results, but bringing together a group of like-minded individuals with a love for the sport – a place to race but to also have fun, without too much pressure. They’re the team that will win races but stick around afterwards for parties and beer, finding the balance between competitiveness and enjoyment in racing.

Kollmann-Suhr’s first event with the team was the Strade Bianche Gran Fondo at the start of the season in March. While not officially a race, it’s one of the most competitive Gran Fondo events in the world, with many people who start hoping to achieve a high placing in their age category or complete it in a fast time.

“It was crazy. It was a really exciting, exhilarating first race experience. I was scared at the start and then the moment the race began, I forgot about all that fear because I was just so focused,” Kollmann-Suhr says. “I got a top-10 spot, which for my first race I never would have expected. It was super exciting. I remember when I crossed that finish line it felt like I had won the race even though I was way back and the team had been waiting there for a while already. I remember that feeling crossing the finish line was like, wow, okay, this is a feeling I love.”

Once she had got the ball rolling, Kollmann-Suhr’s races came thick and fast after Strade Bianche. She headed to Girona to compete in the Traka, a 360km race in the blistering Spanish heat. At the time, that was the longest ride that Kollmann-Suhr had ever done and it became a learning experience more than anything.

“I overcooked myself in the beginning and I didn't eat because I was feeling good, then I spent the rest of the race just recovering from that,” she says with a rueful shake of the head. “I was just struggling all the way to the end, but that was also the cool thing about the race. So many people participate, you'll find yourself in a group and the people you're around are often going through the exact same thing as you.”

The Traka isn’t a UCI registered gravel race, instead being part of the Gravel Earth Series. Kollmann-Suhr explains that the UCI World Series events that she competed in after coming back from the Traka were a whole different ball game. The involvement of the sport’s governing body inevitably adds an additional layer of bureaucracy and seriousness to the events, which some riders love, but some are less suited to.

“The UCI races are much shorter, they feel much more serious,” she says. “It's you and only you on your bike in a group of people. The pace is much higher, you're often in a group where you're really just focused on keeping your line and not overlapping any wheels and keeping it safe. On the longer courses, that human element plays a much bigger role.”

Kollmann-Suhr admits that she felt nervous before starting the UCI races this season, struggling to get used to the ebb and flow of a bunch. Physically, too, she believes she is more suited to the longer-distance races and is able to push through the mental barriers that come with so many hours in the saddle. Photo: Alessandro Ponti

Alongside her Enough Cycling teammates, Kollmann-Suhr also got a taste of some of the most prestigious gravel events across the pond this season. The discipline originated in the United States and it’s often said that is where riders need to test themselves to get a taste of pure gravel racing. Unbound 200, especially, is regarded as the unofficial Gravel World Championships by many on the US racing scene. In 2023, it was plagued by thick mud that caused many riders to not finish the race, either due to mechanicals or because they weren’t able to withstand the tough conditions. 

“I had a terrible start and by checkpoint one I was one hundred percent convinced that I was going to scratch,” Kollmann-Suhr says, reflecting on her race at Unbound. “I called my teammate on the phone crying, saying I was sorry but I had to quit. Miraculously, I began to feel alright again and just decided, I'll roll, let's see what happens. From that moment on, I recovered and felt great at the end of the race. So much happens on courses like that, it feels like you've just gone through a month of events in one day – from under a storm, from the mud, to the heat. It was a really exciting race.”

The history of gravel racing in America also means it draws some of the strongest female gravel fields at events like Unbound. Kollmann-Suhr points out that this gave the race a different and unique feel compared to those she has done in Europe.

“We were in the elite pen at the front, it was pretty small. I was surrounded by these women who were all there to win,” Kollmann-Suhr explains. “They were channelling all their energy into this race. That was really cool to be around those women who are doing these crazy races and are singularly focused on them. You could feel it.”

While on the outside, Kollmann-Suhr’s season looks like the stuff of dreams for any aspirational gravel rider, she admits that it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Starting out in a sport and learning all of the intricacies that come with it has posed some challenges. She also adds that because she’s so competitive, she runs the risk of putting too much pressure on herself and losing the joy from racing.Photo: Federico Damiani/Alessandro Ponti

“I put a lot of pressure on myself this season,” she admits. “Not from the team, they definitely were hoping for me to just enjoy the experience and have no pressure, but internally. I was training for the first time, following intervals, taking my rest days. Through that process, I was expecting to reach another level, but it didn't happen. Unfortunately, it did take the fun out of it for me for a while, I want to come back mentally more prepared next year.”

Although there were difficulties throughout the year, Kollmann-Suhr definitely finished her season on a high with a second place finish in her longest race ever, Basajaun. She carried some fatigue into the event from such a busy calendar but only looks back on the race with pride and satisfaction for having done it.

“It's very hard to prepare for something like that. My schedule was so varied that I only had a short amount of time to try and get in as many kilometres as possible,” she says. “The part I found difficult was the gear prep, trying to wrap your head around what you could potentially need.”

“I think if I did it again, I would put a lot more focus on the prep. I’d make sure I have a light and power bank I can rely on and maybe make a little Google Maps list of places to stop that have hotels or gas stations, things like that.”

There were inevitably difficulties for Kollmann-Suhr being out alone on the road for so long during Basajaun, but she explains that she overcame them through a pure and simple appreciation for what she was doing.

“The course was stunning. You're going through these crazy landscapes that you wouldn’t really reach otherwise.I was thinking even if I feel bad, at least I'll be out on this scenic, amazing course and just make it like a personal adventure and see it as kind of a culmination of this year. I'd be able to just ride my bike which is, at the end of the day, what I love most.”

She talks me through her race, explaining that she was ill on the opening day and aimed to keep it steady, but began to feel better as the kilometres ticked on. There were cold nights under blankets that weren’t quite up to the task and a lack of fuelling at times that led to emergency stops – not to mention the power bank and light running out of charge. In the end, though, Kollmann-Suhr finished the event happy with her result.

“When I came back and realised I had made second place that was a crazy, exciting feeling because it was so unexpected. It was wild and super intense. I think I still haven't fully processed what happened during that whole race. I'm still digesting it a month later,” she says.Photo: Federico Damiani/Alessandro Ponti

Kollmann-Suhr talks about the come down she felt after the event and from the season in general, with so much racing and travelling, so many new experiences and so much learning.

“It was so intense and took so much emotional investment and then it was over. Now it's more about calming down and thinking about the future, which is a pretty hard and real feeling,” she says.

Kollmann-Suhr has spent her off-season so far going for long runs and seeing friends, trying to ground herself again back home in Vienna. She’s been thinking about next year and what that will look like, and her enthusiasm and drive tells me that it’s going to be more successful than ever. Her aims don’t just come in the form of results, but also ensuring that she maintains the enjoyment out of racing which is why she started in the first place.

“I’m definitely managing expectations for next year and just learning how to deal with those anxieties I have about not performing and not putting your best version forward,” she says. “That's definitely something I will take with me into the next season.”

She’s still a racer though, and a rider who wants to win. When considering Kollmann-Suhr’s results in races like Basajuan in her very first season of racing, it’s not surprising that she’s excited for what’s to come.

“I want to do all the races that I did this year again, especially the one-day races as a sort of redemption for me,” she says. “I know the courses now and I've done every style of race, and I just want to see, now that I know that, what can I do now? What can I pull out of this one?”

Cover photo: Federico Damiani/Alessandro Ponti

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