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Unlike any other participatory cycling race, Unbound Gravel has the potential to help someone turn pro.
In 2019, it happened to race-winner Amity Rockwell. In 2017, Alison Tetrick’s victory in Kansas led the WorldTour pro down a very different yellow brick road. For multi-disciplinarian Amanda Nauman, two wins at DK meant more to her sponsors than ‘cross.
The race, which has no prize purse and will be broadcast live for the first time ever in 2021, can turn anyone into cycling royalty.
Isabel King hopes that this year she’ll be part of the court.
Queen of the Santa Monica mountains
King picked a very bad year to try and become a professional cyclist. If any deck is going to be stacked against you, a pandemic one might be the tallest. So, the 30-year old Californian spent the bulk of 2020 engaged in a different type of competition.
“One of the first QOMs that I took in late March was really well-known but small climb called Old Topanga,” King told VeloNews. “I paced it out with my friends, it was so fun. Then it was such a bummer because all of these other times in Malibu are so fast. From there, though, racing didn’t come back, so throughout the summer, it was like ‘which one do you wanna go for today?’ It became just like race day with butterflies in my stomach and everything.”
King’s year-and-change of going for Strava QOMs around her home in Santa Monica have resulted in more than 1,100 crowns. In that way, her story isn’t that unlike that of Drake Deuel, who we recently profiled after he smashed the Haleakala volcano KOM on the island of Hawaii.
But while Deuel hopes to break into the ranks of professional cycling using his Strava times coupled with what he hopes will be an extraordinary ride at the upcoming U.S. time trial nationals, King is going to use gravel to give it a go.
The gravel fast track
While King has been an athlete her entire life, cycling was a recent find. It was only after dabbling in triathlon — “I never fit in in the tri world, it was so mid-life crisis, so ‘aero is everything'” — that King realized she was a very good cyclist.
With timing being everything, deciding that she wanted to become a professional cyclist just before a global pandemic swept the world into shutdown proved challenging. However, King said that the time became valuable for really digging into how she was going to get there.
So, how did she land on gravel?
For one, it’s a place to start. King is building her own program from the ground up, and although she has some data to back up her potential, she’s lacking the results. It’s an unavoidable topic that comes up with everyone from team directors to bike industry sponsors.
“When I was trying to find sponsorships and partners, it was hard to not have race results and have someone take a chance on you,” King said. “I have power numbers and Strava numbers, but they’re like, ‘on race day how do you do?’
King competed in — and loved — the Vail Lake Pro XCT MTB race in March; however, it turned out to be a useful lesson in what discipline not to pursue.
“I loved it, it was like, ‘this is my vibe,'” she said. “But if you look at the top level of mountain biking, I’ll never be able to compete with someone like Kate Courtney.”
Basically, all signs were pointing to gravel. It combines the head-down time trial nature of triathlon but with a more fun and playful vibe. Plus, with a dearth of road racing opportunities in North America, it’s the fastest way to get the one thing King lacks: results.
King isn’t anxious that she’s coming into the sport too late, or that she won’t be able to catch up. Again, a summer of gravel racing can fill in years’ worth of gaps.
There is another part to being a pro cyclist that the pandemic gave King time to refine, as well. Like many people, she was struck by a sense of wanting to help, to do something meaningful with all the miles on the bike. In late May of 2020, she launched the Mountains for Medics campaign, in which she’d ride 112 miles and 12,000 feet for three days in a row — the numbers were chosen to represent the three-day, 12-hour shifts of healthcare workers.
King raised over $23,000 for UCLA Health with the project, aided partially by the fact that she had a VIP join her for some of the rides. Another pandemic surprise for King was a newfound friendship with former NBA great-turned mountain biker Reggie Miller. He reached out to her via Instagram after she’d captured yet another QOM on a hill near his house and asked if she’d be keen for a training ride.
The two became fast friends, both on the bike and off. When Miller partnered with apparel brand Castelli to launch the Say Their Names jersey to benefit the Equal Justice Initiative, he asked for King’s support in promoting the project.
King said that all of the hours she and Miller have spent together on the bike have fomented a friendship that may not have been possible otherwise.
“We’ve had such different lives and upbringings, and in this moment, bikes have brought us together,” King said. “So for the next six hours, we’re gonna enjoy this thing. Some of the best conversations are on bikes. You’re out there and vulnerable in a different sense. Something about being next to someone people open up more rather than when you’re face to face.”
Whether she is smashing SoCal QOMs, raising awareness, or riding with Reggie, Isabel King is putting in the miles — and meaning — that could help her break into the ranks of professional cycling. Saturday’s race at Unbound Gravel will be her first chance to put it all together, and King couldn’t be more excited.
“I’m so pumped,” she said. “The panic of ‘I’m not ready!’ and then ‘no, I’m so ready.’ I’m excited to finally get on the start line and just do what we love. At the end of the day, this is an opportunity that I’m so thankful and grateful to have.”