Culture

Groad Trip: Kathy Pruitt’s transformation into a gravel privateer

An unlikely story of turning gravel pro during a pandemic — and believing in oneself to make that dream happen.

This is an unlikely comeback story, and a tale of reinvention. My good friend, now fellow Privateer, Kathy Pruitt, actually turned pro during the pandemic-inflicted season of 2020. Just how exactly does one do that in a season devoid of races? In fact, she didn’t really plan on it; it came down to embracing the “new model of athlete,” the current melting pot that is “gravel,” and a generally open mind and eagerness to grasp chances as they came.

Some VeloNews readers may remember the name Kathy Pruitt from the early 2000s. After transitioning from motocross to downhill MTB in her teens, she quickly made a name for herself after winning the world junior women’s downhill championship title in 2000. That result catapulted the Northern California native immediately into the pro ranks, where she enjoyed a 10-year career on the World Cup circuit, and unfortunately culminated in a bad accident and subsequent retirement in 2010, at the age of 28.

She spent the next decade working in the industry, unable to entirely leave her love of bikes behind. She stayed true to her roots and dabbled in some enduro races when she would attend an event for work, but never considered a comeback to racing full time. “I was focused on trying to make more headway within the bike industry and being a voice for women’s cycling on the industry side of things. Honestly, I was more concerned with getting health insurance rolled into my employment contract! I was passionate about biking and I would do some adventures and they (my current employer) actually started utilizing me as a conduit between hanging out and racing.” she told me. Being a generally positive and approachable personality, her niche was in a company’s events team, which was the one side of our sport that took a major hit in 2020. And so, last spring, when the cycling world found itself without a regular calendar of events, Kathy found herself without steady work.

Kathy Pruitt was world junior downhill champion in 2000
Kathy Pruitt was the world junior downhill champion in 2000. Photo: Courtesy Kathy Pruitt

It was right before the pandemic hit that I met Kathy; she was working for my bike sponsor, Canyon, at the time. Despite not being able to use her for event expos, Canyon still supported her with product. Those who rode with her could see she was talented in endurance, not just on technical trails. In fact, she completed the 135-mile 2019 BWR in San Diego on a demo bike, despite her longest ever ride having been 45 miles before that. In her words, she did it just to “meet new people after moving to a new area.” She had caught the endurance bug, having “moved to an area where I couldn’t ride out my backdoor anymore and driving to the trailheads was such a nightmare in Southern California.” She got a coach and used the unexpected free time to explore her physical boundaries, a simple journey within. The spring and summer of 2020 found her training, getting stronger, and enjoying the process of fitness.

In June, Canyon asked her to be the local ride guide for my Let’s Privateer San Diego route. Thus, Kathy and I rode hard, side-by-side for hours in the summer heat. I left impressed. I could see real potential, and my gears started clicking: She was already stronger than many female riders I’d ridden with before. Despite being in her late 30’s she was very young in fitness years having literally just started training, thus her capacity to grow was still large. Couple that with her supreme technical skills — yes she dropped me on all the descents — and I could see she may be a force to be reckoned with if she did ever want to enter some gravel races.

Even while Canyon and I thought Kathy could be a privateer, she wasn’t considering that just yet. I convinced her to come to one of the few races to get the OK last year, the Fistful of Dirt in Cody, WY. While not the deepest nor biggest field, she won the women’s race and was 6th overall. After the race, she wanted to share beers and stories with other attendees, to revel with the community of the event. To me, this was checkmark number two. Being fast does count if you want to be a pro, but in gravel, one’s attitude is just as important. The last box to check was her entrepreneurial mindset. I sat down with her post-race and posed an idea: Did she want to make a full go of this? I thought she could and said I’d be willing to help her navigate a few of the sponsor negotiation tricks I’ve learned over my career.

You could tell this was a novel thought for her. She said she thought, “I’m in my late thirties, I’ve no idea if I fit into this. Am I just blowing smoke up my ass and wasting my time? Are people maybe overhyping what I can do? I need to prove it to myself first.” That opportunity came at the only big race to go forward last fall; the BWR Cedar City. She finished second, despite a gnarly crash and riding most of the race with deep gashes and grit in her knees. That podium was the proof she needed to believe in herself, and she set to work structuring a 2021 platform.

Pruitt finished in second, despite some scrapes.
Pruitt finished in second at BWR Cedar City, despite some scrapes. Photo: Courtesy Kathy Pruitt

I need to be clear here. I can’t take credit for Kathy’s recent success, all I did was give a little push by planting the bug in her ear. I told her a few tips n’ tricks and introduced her to a few sponsors. Now, four months later, she’s gone above and beyond, finding even better deals on her own than some I helped introduce, as she was able to reconnect with longtime supporters of hers from her downhill life. She will join me on Canyon bikes, and also the Wahoo Frontiers program. Both are a great fit: Canyon has an athlete who can represent anything from a road bike to downhill rig. With Wahoo, this is very much the new Frontier of Kathy’s career. So we will get to collaborate on a few projects. Beyond that, her support stable consists of Giro, SRAM, Zipp, and WTB tires. Not too shabby!

When asked what her 2021 goals include, Kathy seemed pretty diversified: “I’m still cut from the traditional racer’s cloth. I like competition and going fast, why would I not want to push all this amazing equipment I have to its limits. I don’t want to just be an influencer; it’s one thing to put on a kit and try to look pretty, it’s something else to highlight a product through competition. That said, there’s nothing hinging on me actually racing. My sponsors just want to let me share my story, get my face out there, and have fun. We have a big content component as well.” She would love to win a race, specifically the BWR San Diego, but also has her eye on a FKT, as well as just generally doing fun things on two wheels.

Kathy is sure to be an anomaly when events resume in 2021. Where others panic and “just survive” in the roughest sections of a course such as the Lemontwistenberg in BWR or Little Egypt in Unbound, that’s where she’ll thrive. “I think I have a unique skill set and I realized that I can offer something. I have a different angle that’s yet another story of gravel being inclusive and that there isn’t one cookie-cutter way.” Other gravelistas are surely taking note and hoping they don’t get to those sections in the same group.

Gravel world: Meet Kathy Pruitt 2.0. We’re not teammates, rather I like to call her my “privateer sister”. We’re following the path in our own way, solo, yet together.

Kathy Pruitt, gravel privateer
Kathy Pruitt, gravel privateer. Photo: Courtesy Kathy Pruitt