Q&A: Sarah Sturm, the rising star of gravel and endurance MTB
What can’t Sarah Sturm do well on a bike? Not much.
Sturm, 29, started her 2019 season at the Sea Otter Bicycle Classic, jumping into the pro women’s criterium with her gravel team. Racing on her gravel bike, a Specialized Diverge, Sturm won the crit.
In May, Sturm (Specialized-Rocket Espresso) rode away from the competition to win the Belgian Waffle Ride by over 13 minutes against a stacked field.
Two weekends ago, she finished second to Katerina Nash at the Downieville Classic cross-country race, and fifth in the all-mountain competition which combines cross-country and downhill events.
Last weekend, she raced the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race for the first time and finished second to Rose Grant.
All that followed a 2018 season that saw the Durango resident do much the same: Sturm finished second in the Iron Horse Classic women’s pro road race on a borrowed bike, wearing mountain bike shoes. In December, atop the muck-covered hills of Louisville, Kentucky, she won the national cyclocross championship in the singlespeed category.
We caught up with Sturm as she geared up for SBT GRVL, a new 140-mile gravel race in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
VeloNews: You didn’t even look at the SBT GRVL course profile until recently. But when you looked at it, you were a little scared—it’s going to be a big day.
Sarah Sturm: You know, it’s funny. I have this weird faith in my ability to suffer. Even if I’m not prepared for it. I have kind of a non-normal approach. I go in with as much preparation as possible… Well, I should rephrase that. I go in preparing my body and mind. And then all the little details, like where the climbs are, how much elevation gain, I just don’t look at that until it gets a little closer, like the night before. And then I just know where my feeds are. It helps my brain process everything because otherwise I’ll work myself into a frenzy. I also don’t look at the start list. I don’t do any of that stuff before a race. Or at least this is what I did for the Belgian Waffle Ride and Oregon Trail stage race. You know, you just have to go out there and know how to be smart and ride a bike and mostly just suffer.
VN: What are the biggest challenges you see at SBT GRVL?
SS: I think elevation is going to be the biggest factor. And it’s kind of been the thing on my mind for the last two weeks. I think, for us folks that live in the mountains, it’s going to be an advantage. When I went down to sea level for Belgian Waffle Ride, there’s a lot of elevation gain, but you’re not at elevation. And so I think you can just push yourself a lot; I kind of knew what heart rate not to go over for at BWR. And I was over it literally the whole time, and that is not a thing [you can do] at elevation. And so I feel like it’s going to be less about the technical components of the course and more about total elevation gain and what the altitude is. For the folks that will be coming from sea level, that’s going to be a big deal.
This is always how these sorts of races go. No one’s going to talk about it. And then after this race, I have a feeling this is probably going to be one of the hardest races I’ll have done all season. That’s kind of what I have in the back of my mind. I went into BWR not knowing what I was getting into. And I heard so much talking ahead of time. ‘It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.’ And it was definitely hard. But I also feel like I had done harder races. But I think this is going to be probably one of the hardest single day events out there.
VN: You’re speculating a lot. I think that is the same for everybody, since this is a brand new race. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding what you’ll see out there, which is cool.
SS: Gravel is this new… we’ll call it a circuit, for lack of a better term. It’s pretty uncharted. So everyone likes to say, ‘Oh, this is the hardest race you’ll do. Oh, this is the toughest thing out there on gravel bikes,’ and that sort of thing. I think every single race that’s coming out is kind of trying to claim that, and each of them are really tough in their own ways. Dirty Kanza, obviously, for so many reasons, is hard. And then there’s the risk of flats and if you’re freaking out about getting a flat for 200 miles, that’s a lot of stress.
And I love that; I love that this is a first-year event as well. I think it’s really exciting. And it’s kind of in the true spirit of racing. I compare it to racing in the early days, before I was ever part of the sport. But it seems like technology and information is so free flowing that sometimes it takes out that adventure part of a bike race. And I think that’s what’s so cool about gravel, and doing these new gravel events. Because no one knows yet. It’s kind of up to whoever has the best day out there. And that really is what bike racing is about. It’s not about how much power you can put down. This is coming from someone who doesn’t use power, or any numbers. I just go more on feel, and the mental side of it. And it’s cool. It’s really special to be a part of that.
VN: Earlier you mentioned preparing your mind and body. How do you prepare physically and mentally for races like this, when you know you’ll suffer?
SS: I go mostly by feeling. I’ve been racing since college, about 10 years ago. And I’ve never been a numbers person. But for this season, I do work with a coach. He’s mostly a friend and I call him my spiritual guide, kind of sarcastically. But our training meetings usually consist of talking about the existence of humans and our role in the world. Then he’ll say, ‘Oh, go ride up hills, do Tuesday night worlds, good luck this weekend!’ [laughs] With that said, he’s a highly technically trained coach. But he knows that those things don’t really work for me. I’m sure power would be interesting to have, but it’s not something that works with my brain.
To prepare my mind, I’ve started doing races like BWR; that was really exciting for me, because I had never done it before. And I thought I was really under-trained for that because it was so early in the season for me, and it was a really snowy winter here [at home in Durango]. So I felt, ‘I’m under-prepared on the physical side, so I’m just going to go into this really strong mentally.’
I listened to a lot of podcasts and I read the book “Endure” by Alex Hutchinson. I tried to gain as much knowledge about what your mind is capable of without getting too ‘whoo-whoo.’ I really think that the mind is a big, overlooked part for a lot of athletes. I coach juniors, I coach collegiate cyclists, I’ve been a collegiate cyclist, I’ve been the head case. Now, I really try a totally opposite approach of just controlling what I can control, which is my mind and body. I’ve stayed away from meditation, just because I have a crazy ADD mind. And it’s intimidated me. But I’ve started trying to do a little bit more meditation, trying to be a little more in touch with what’s going on with my body. As athletes, we kind of tend to over-ride a lot, because that’s what allows you to push and override that central governor. So it’s a balance—on the days that I’m not racing, of really knowing what’s going on. If I’m tired, I don’t ride. If I feel like riding, then I’ll go do a big day in the mountains. And if I don’t, then I won’t.
I think it helps if you can have a fresh mind for it, and just really be excited to race, which is hard to do. Because it’s scary. And there’s pressure. And so finding that as a professional athlete has been my goal, especially as it gets towards the end of the season. So, to kind of hone it in, to answer the question, the way that I prepare mentally is being excited to ride my bike, and to be excited to take on new challenges.