Defending champion Amity Rockwell laughs when she is called a race favourite and no longer someone who swoops under the dirt-strewn prediction radar, but she’s just glad to be home away from home in Kansas on her bike again.
The past year hasn’t provided many racing opportunities for Rockwell, like everyone else, so a chance to kick up the dust around Emporia for Unbound Gravel 200 gives this laid-back racer some adrenaline.
“I love this ride because of the distance, and the place, the people, and the energy surrounding it. But mostly I just love big, dumb rides. That’s what I do at home and that’s how I train, so to have a race that kind of emulates what I love to do is awesome for me,” Rockwell told Cyclingnews, while taking some time before a spin on Friday morning to craft just the right espresso at the Wahoo Fitness race headquarters house in Emporia.
“This is my third time here, which gives me confidence. It’s a long race. That’s just so nice to me mentally because things can go so terribly wrong, and you have so much time to fix them.”
Rockwell finished a disappointing 18th in 2018 in Kansas after a series of mechanicals. In 2019 she stormed onto the national gravel radar when she won Sweetwater Grasshopper and Old Growth Classic, finished second at King Ridge Grasshopper and then the 200-miler in Emporia, renamed by new owners Life Time after the event as Unbound Gravel.
“I’ve always been more about distance than speed. I am not a very fast person. I do some intensity, but I definitely prefer those long, soulful, slow days. [Unbound] speaks to me in this same way."
Rockwell was first a runner, competing in cross-country in high school and college, and turned to cycling just five years ago. In her first bike race in 2016, she missed the mass start by several minutes, chased down the field and won. In a short time, she learned to love dirt more than pavement.
“I honestly started racing in gravel with some cool local events, but was doing a little road racing at the same time. The difference becomes incredibly clear there between the styles of riding, and I gotta say road racing was just not for me. That’s partially because I am a little bit of a loner by nature,” said the 28-year-old northern California native.
“Also, I love starting in a giant group, I love the dynamic of it. Gravel is such a different feeling.”
There are 146 women lining up for Unbound Gravel 200, with many new road pros coming to Emporia to give gravel a try, including a large fleet of riders from TWENTY24 Pro Cycling. The newbies are consumed with digesting video, podcast and social content from past participants to determine the best nutrition, best self-support tactics and even confidence in self-navigation skills.
“I think I am the weakest tactically. I tend to be a little bit stupid on the bike. I know how to do all my own things because I was a very scrappy cyclist to begin with, since I was a very broke college student for a long time, and then a very broke barista for a long time. I’m scrappy,” says the current empress of Emporia.
“I made things work, like I patched tubes like six times before I threw them away. It was that kind of thing – I wanted to ride a bike so badly, I said ‘I’m going to make this work.’ I did a lot of my own mechanic work, which I learned off YouTube, I couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do it for me.
“I just do not have nearly the racing experience, like a Lauren De Crescenzo, an Ally Tetrick, and now Tiffany Cromwell [who will compete in a series of gravel races after the Olympic Games - ed.] I have to deal with,” laughed Rockwell. “Obviously, they know how to respond to any race situation probably a little better than I do.”
The weather will not be a factor on Saturday, except for any headwinds or crosswinds that descend across the prairie, a deep field of contenders is a huge variable, including former winner Alison Tetrick trying to unseat Rockwell.
“I don’t stress about [the competition] just because I see it as a factor that is very much out of my control. From early on with my local Grasshopper Series, we had Katerina Nash show up, or Kate Courtney, or Ally Tetrick. At the time, I was just a fan of Ally, I barely knew her. Honestly, now I think, ‘can I meet Tiffany Cromwell?’ That’s sick, because I’ve been following her for years.
“So from day one, I’ve had to face top competition. Either I beat them and feel really good about myself, or they beat me and I get to learn a lot from them and how they race. Having that as a first-hand clinic is something I just have to be grateful for. “
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