Finding Melisa Rollins’ name in the fifth place slot on the Unbound Gravel results list was validation — both for me, the cycling journalist, and for the 26-year-old rider herself.
Last summer, not even two hours after I’d met her, Rollins issued a bold statement: “I’m the fastest rider you’ve never heard of.”
Rollins, Amity Rockwell, and I were out pre-riding the Powerline section of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB course last August. In between scouting lines, I took Rollins up on her claim, asking her questions about her cycling background and race plans. I filed her name away in my mental rolodex.
Rollins finished sixth at the 100-mile race the next day, and the day after that she rolled across the line at SBT GRVL with a chunk of the best riders in the women’s gravel peloton, including Kaysee Armstrong, Maude Farrell, and Sarah Sturm. Her weekend of strong riding would land her on the second step of the podium of the LeadBoat Challenge, her cumulative times of the two races only second to Sturm.
Although LeadBoat didn’t carry nearly the prestige of this year’s Life Time Grand Prix, people were watching. One of those people was Nicola Cranmer, the founder and director of longstanding women’s development squad Virginia’s Blue Ridge Twenty24. After the event, she called Rollins and offered her a position on the team.
Although Rollins knew of Twenty24 as a road team, Cranmer assured her that the squad would support her fully off-road goals. After years of hustling and feeling like she wasn’t getting the support she deserved, Rollins said yes.
“It was what I had wanted,” she told me.
Even with the new contract, though, Rollins was still somewhat haunted by what seemed like a perpetual string of sixth place finishes. Finishing in fifth place at Unbound on Saturday is more than just a notch up on the results list — it’s a podium finish at the most prestigious gravel race in the world.
When I reminded her of what she said to me on the Powerline climb in Leadville last summer, Rollins didn’t deny it. She didn’t have to.
“I feel like I have known I had a big result coming but it kept not coming,” she said. “It was like I was sixth at everything, every time. And I never got recognition. I needed more results than that to be noticed, I understand that now.”
‘Just because you race fast doesn’t mean you get a new bike’
Rollins, who was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, had a years-long desire to go pro that reached fever pitch at the end of 2020. She’d finished fifth at BWR Cedar City and thought that the result might get her somewhere.
“In my head, I was like, ‘I’m gonna get a sponsorship, something,’ she said. ‘I had bought a bike on eBay that was broken, that’s what I was riding. It’s a progression, right, and I was like, ‘this is gonna seal the deal.’ And there was nothing at all.”
Then, things started to look up in early 2021 when Specialized rep reached out with an offer to become an ambassador for the brand. Rollins was thrilled until said rep couldn’t actually get her a bike.
“I was so bummed,” she said. “I was like, ‘but I got fifth at BWR, and I wanna be a pro.’ I just really wanted a bike and I couldn’t find a bike. Any bike. I was on hand-me-down bikes. Now I understand a little bit more now — just because you race fast doesn’t mean you get a new bike.”
So, that year Rollins set her sights on a good result at Leadville, figuring that it might bring her a bit closer to the public eye. It shouldn’t have been out of the question, either; the iconic Colorado MTB race has informed Rollins’ cycling journey from a very young age.
“My stepdad has done Leadville 23 times,” Rollins said. “My mom has done it 16 times. My mom had the record for the singlespeed women’s category. They’re crazy people. So I grew up with them always doing that.”
Rollins did her first Leadville 100 in 2016 when she was 20. She rode again in 2017, and in 2018 she completed the Lead Challenge, which consists of doing five of the race series’ running and riding events, including both the 100-mile foot race and MTB race.
“Then after running the 100, I was like, ‘never again,’ and now I’m a biker,” Rollins said.
Sixth at Leadville last year was her best result yet, but as we know, sixth is not enough to get noticed. As the fourth event in the Life Time Grand Prix series — where she is currently tied for 4th position with WorldTour pro Emily Newsom — Rollins has an opportunity this year to make a strong finish in Leadville matter more than ever.
Unbound and not down
Like many athletes, Rollins overcame countless hiccups to cross the finish line in Emporia on Saturday. Just 40 minutes into the race, she rolled up on a crash and had to dismount and run around the downed riders. Then, she became one of them.
“We get back on our bikes and I’m getting going, there was a guy next to me who was standing and thrashing trying to get back to speed and he clipped my bars,” Rollins said. “I went down hard on my left side. So I’m in the middle of the road, and everyone is going 20mph around me and I’m so freaked out. I got back on my bike and started pedaling again. I looked down and both the BOAs on my shoe had broken. I’m like, ‘we’re 40 minutes in!’ We go up a climb and I go to stand up and my food comes out of my shoe and I’m like, ‘well I guess I’m not standing.”
At the next water crossing, Rollins’ shoe suctioned to her foot. Every time there was a water crossing, she got about an hour of suction — “that really helped,” she said.
After struggling with the notion that there were still 10 hours left, Rollins began to find her groove. She rode with a lot of women, joining Amanda Nauman and Hannah Shell at one point, and bounced from group to group. Around the two or three hour mark, Rollins found a good rhythm in a group with Alexis Skarda, Evelyn Dong, and eventually, Rose Grant.
“We rotated all the way to the first checkpoint,” Rollins said. “I think we picked up a few guys but none of them would pull.”
Rollins said she heard the “sorry, I can’t pull I’m cramping” excuse at least 10 times.
By the time she rolled into the first checkpoint, Rollins and the other women mountain bikers were tied for 12th. She was quicker than they were in the pit, so she rolled out slowly. Rollins said she kept looking back but didn’t see the trio. 20 minutes later it started to rain.
“That is where I felt so good, it was something in my head,’ she said. “I tried to draft off someone but it was like, ‘I can’t even be behind anyone because mud was going into my eyes.’ Something clicked in my brain — if I can’t be drafting, no one can be drafting, so I have an advantage because I feel good. So I put my head down and started passing people.”
Rollins rode at least 70 miles in the positive headspace, catching Canadian Haley Smith for 10 of them. After the final checkpoint, she was alone again.
“I could not work with anyone,” she said. “There was no one behind me or in front of me. Someone came by on aero bars just drilling and I tried to jump on his wheel, but that wasn’t a good idea. Then we hit that mud section. My shoe was broken so I could not walk. I had to do everything so I did not have to walk. Every time I took a step my foot would come out of my shoe. So, I rode most of that. I’d ride in the water and surf to the next water section.”
There, Rollins passed Sarah Max who was suffering from a mechanical. She found Life Time’s Ryan Cross, and the duo rode the final 30 miles together. Rollins said that she knew she was fifth, sixth or seventh woman at that point but she didn’t want to get her hopes up.
“When we passed Sarah, I think I said to Ryan, ‘Ryan I’m in the money even though there’s no money.'”
At the finish line, Rollins couldn’t stop crying during her post-race interview Ellen Noble.
“She said, ‘this seems like it means a lot to you,’ and it was like, ‘yeah it really does.'”
When I asked Rollins if joining Twenty24 and then achieving a podium result at Unbound feel like the pinnacle of her career or just further proof that she needs to keep going down the pathway, she surprised me with a less definitive answer than the assertion she made on the Powerline climb last year.
“I had this moment the day before Unbound, I was sitting in the grass watching my mechanic work on my bike, and I was like, ‘this is everything I wanted,'” she said. “This is everything I could have hoped for last year and even if I have the worst race ever, this is everything I wanted. I don’t know what my athletic career looks like for the rest of 2022 and 2023, but I’m so happy living in this progress.”