Gravel
Photo: Linda Guerette (JC Photography)

Q&A: Dirty Kanza winner Amity Rockwell on her win, her preparation, and the gift of gravel

Dirty Kanza's female champion loves "crazy long adventure" training rides in Northern California

Four years ago, Amity Rockwell (Easton Overland) was dabbling in several sports, including triathlons and trail running, when she had an epiphany. She wasn’t enjoying herself. It wasn’t long before her friends had talked her into getting on a bike. And, things escalated quickly, as she puts it, after that. Soon she was riding giant, multi-day rides, and building more fitness than she ever had before.

Now, Rockwell is the 2019 Dirty Kanza 200 women’s winner. The daughter of ultra-runners knows a thing or two about how to prepare for long events and how to push through dark moments to come out the other side.

We caught up with the 26-year-old barista from San Francisco to discuss her victory, her training, her progression, and much more.

VeloNews: So you won Dirty Kanza. That must feel like a pretty significant victory for you. Were you surprised?

Amity Rockwell: [laughs] Well, shoot, I guess I was surprised. I definitely didn’t walk in with any expectation of winning the thing. [laughs] At the same time, I prepared for it, a lot, so I’m not shocked I was able to do so. Still, it is far and above the biggest thing I’ve ever won… I’ve done well at some other races before, like Belgian Waffle Ride [where she finished fourth in 2018] and Crusher in the Tushar, where I was fourth last year. But those are my most significant results to date. So this is huge for me.

VN: What made the difference?

AR: It’s always a combination of things and it’s impossible to pin it on one aspect. Obviously, I do everything possible to show up with every ability to execute something like that, but often times the races have other plans for you. So it was a combination of dedicated preparation, and a lot of good luck and determination on the day.

VN: Tell me more about that preparation?

AR: Ever since I started riding more seriously about four years ago almost, I’ve been into crazy-long adventure days. Those are rides I really look forward to, not something I feel like I have to get through. I just think it’s neat that you can go so far on bikes.

I start my training every winter with this thing called the “Coast Ride,” which is a few hundred of us that ride from San Francisco to Santa Barbara in three days. So about 130-140 miles a day. You get to do it in great company — old friends, new friends. A lot of times it’s fast and it’s hard and you’re kind of pushing those limits of how far you can go. And then I try to maintain that endurance with a stupid-long ride every week.

VN: What’s stupid-long for you?

AR: [laughs] Where I live and train in Marin County, it’s about a thousand feet of climbing every ten miles on every ride, on average. So, our speeds are usually a bit slow, but anywhere from about 120 to 160 or 170 miles. I don’t really put in 200-mile days to prepare for Dirty Kanza. In terms of hours, eight to 10 hours out there on these rides.

VN: It must help that you really enjoy doing these types of rides?

AR: Yeah, I’ve never thought of myself as a very fast person. Even when I was running, I quickly learned I had to run pretty far to beat anyone. But it’s also about having an appreciation for being out there on a bike, being outside. That feels like a gift in some ways and not so much like work. If I can spend an entire day doing that, then I’m going to do that [laughs].

VN: Do you expect that this win will change anything for you, in terms of your cycling? Open any doors?

AR: One can dream. That’s always been the ultimate ambition, to find a way just to ride bikes. I think anyone would be crazy not to chase that if it felt like at all a possibility. Like, it’s bike riding [laughs]. The idea of doing that, and only that, is super exciting. If this pushes me closer to that I’d be thrilled.

VN: Let’s discuss the race itself. When you think back on it, what image stands out? Any dark moments?

AR: There was a moment when I was very much alone, right after leaving the last checkpoint. I was really, really sick at that point. I was barely managing to keep any nutrition down, probably from the heat. Everything I ate would come back up, and I feared I was just digging myself into a hole there, and I’d crack at some point.

I was still very much behind Alison [Tetrick] and Olivia [Dillon] and hadn’t seen Alison since the neutral water about mile 120, and I never saw Olivia past probably mile 20 until I caught her. And having raced Olivia before and knowing how tenacious she is on the bike, I thought for sure I was fighting for third—second, maybe, if I was lucky. It did not cross my mind that catching Olivia was a possibility. Of course, in the back of your head, you’re always aware that anything can happen to anyone, and you keep riding hard regardless, knowing there’s always a bit of a chance. But I neve thought that chance was a very good one.

So, back to that moment. I was unsure what my fate would be out there. You’re overheating, you’re throwing up. Everything seems to be falling apart. But then I looked up and everything was so, so green. You can see the roads going for miles, behind you and in front of you. And it just kind of hit me how strange the whole situation was. “I’m riding my bike through 200 miles of essentially nowhere Kansas. That’s crazy. There have been this series of decisions in my life that have put me here and I still can’t really explain it.” It’s just so strange sometimes, but it’s good to force yourself to look up from staring at your stem and acknowledge where you are and where bicycles have gotten you. It’s hard not to feel especially grateful in moments like that.

VN: You had a series of mechanicals last year in your first attempt at Dirty Kanza. Did you learn anything from that experience that helped you this year?
AR: Last year was my first year, and I try not to put too much pressure on myself when I do something for the first time. First time riding such a big event, that distance, and all that. Did I learn anything? No, I think I just had a lot better support this year. My team manager and I have become fast friends this year. I knew I could put trust in him and knew that he was going to set me up as well as possible. And that helped my confidence out there. There was such a long ways between the first and second checkpoints this year. And knowing that when I got there they’d be stoked and they’d have everything I needed, I can’t express how valuable that was.

VN: Gravel races are unique in that men and women start and race together. What’s your take on how that race dynamic should be handled on course?

AR: I’m sure you know that’s a pretty loaded subject in gravel racing right now. I’m very aware of that and definitely have my own opinions surrounding that. I worked with a lot of men out on the road; I had no pre-arranged support or alliances, and I wasn’t expecting anybody out there to be helping me. That’s how I feel is the way to go about approaching these races. I think that’s the most honest way to ride them. But what’s cool for women in the whole gravel discipline is that we get to participate in these giant events. In road racing, some days maybe 15 other women show up, and that makes for a very different dynamic and a very different experience. A lesser experience in many ways, since you’re sharing it with fewer people. Part of the appeal of gravel to me is the feeling of being a part of something so much bigger. In addition to that, being literally in the exact same race is a massive step forward for women’s cycling.

VN: A few years ago you probably never would have thought you’d race against Taylor Phinney, Lachlan Morton, Pete Stetina, and the other WorldTour pros.

AR: [laughs] Yeah, and I don’t think they would have thought they’d be racing in the same race as me either.

VN: That’s a very good point. Your progression in the sport of cycling has been fairly rapid. Do you have an explanation for that?

AR: I’ve been really fortunate to have been living in a time and a place that is so supportive of cycling, and has so many strong women. I realized during Kanza that both Alison, Olivia, and I are all from that same part of NorCal. I race them at local stuff and I see them at group rides. The fact that for a long time it was the three of us battling each other, I don’t think that’s coincidence. The community we have there fosters that kind of strength.