Interview: Sarah Sturm Wins 2019 Belgian Waffle Ride Against Stacked Field – Cyclocross Magazine

Although SoCal’s Belgian Waffle Ride is not necessarily a straight gravel race, it was the perfect opportunity for Sarah Sturm to start racing with her new Specialized x Rocket Espresso Gravel Team.

Last we saw Sturm, she was winning the Singlespeed National Championships in Louisville on her CruX in muddy, sloppy conditions.

Lately, she has swapped her CruX for other bikes in Specialized’s lineup. At Sea Otter, Sturm and her teammates took on an interesting challenge.

“They had us ride the Diverge in all these different races because it would be funny and hilarious to have our gravel team show up for the dual slalom and mountain bike race and the crit all on the Diverge, so I did that,” Sturm said. “I won the Pro crit on my Diverge, and everyone thought I was insane, including myself.”

Last Sunday, Sturm’s latest challenge was the Belgian Waffle Ride. This time, she rode a Specialized Roubaix. “I’m really good at getting bikes the day before races.” she quipped. With some advice from teammate Cody Kaiser and friend Yuri Hauswald, Sturm was ready to go at the 133-mile SoCal spring classic.

After surviving the chaotic start, Sturm ran into Kaiser, who reassured her that despite the chaos, she was in a good spot. From there, Sturm rode to the win, even if the Durango resident was a bit of a wild card in the stacked Women’s field.

“I think they’re used to like road racers or California people winning, so I finished and no one knew who I was,” Sturm recalled. “I was obviously not offended by that because that is literally the story of my career. There were a lot of amazing women in the field. I was so nervous to race against Olivia Dillon, she is such a crusher. And my teammate Alison Tetrick. They’re amazing. I totally understood why they didn’t know who I was.”

Sarah Sturm won the Women’s race at BWR. 2019 Belgian Waffle Ride. © Molly Cameron

I caught up with Sturm after her win at the Belgian Waffle Ride. The transcript of our conversation is below. I also caught up with Men’s winner Peter Stetina.

Cyclocross Magazine: To start, how did you end up at the Belgian Waffle Ride?

Sarah Sturm: I had learned about the Belgian Waffle Ride a few years ago. I had just seen some pictures of people suffering, and I was like, man, that looks like something I will end up doing at some point in my life. And then this year I signed with the Specialized x Rocket Espresso Gravel Team. It actually wasn’t on my calendar until a week or so after Sea Otter.

My team manager asked if I would do it, and we kind of went back and forth because it’s been a gnarly winter in Durango, and I really haven’t ridden over 60 miles this year, so I wasn’t sure if I could actually complete it. Then I kinda changed my attitude, and was like, whatever, I’ll try it.

I decided I had faith in my ability to suffer versus specific training.

CXM: I look at you as someone doing cyclocross, winning in the mud. I would have expected to see you doing mountain bike races. Why have you decided to go the gravel route and are you going to be doing more of them with your new team?

SS: Yes and yes. I have a history of racing cross country mountain bikes, but that was quite a while ago. I was on like a local pro team. I have since stepped away from that. Mountain biking makes me happy, so I ride mountain bikes a lot here and bike tour a lot and then race cyclocross.

I figured with this gravel team, I had never raced gravel before, and I like keeping things new. I like trying new stuff. It makes me happier. I’m not the type of athlete who can do the same World Cup circuit every year. I don’t know how people do that. I have mad respect for them. Maybe they have insane focus and the ability to do that. I like doing new stuff, even if it means doing a 140-mile race. I like doing new things.

Last we saw Sarah Sturm, she was winning Singlespeed Nationals. Singlespeed Women. 2018 Cyclocross National Championships, Louisville, KY. © A. Yee / Cyclocross Magazine

CXM: Belgian Waffle is interesting because it’s more of a spring classic with a lot of pavement. Have you done any big gravel gravel events yet?

SS: I had done the Lost and Found Gravel Grinder last year. That was kind of my first-ever gravel race, ride. One of my best friends Teal [Stetson-Lee] helps run it, so I signed up for it. Literally, until the day before the event, I thought it was just like a group ride or fondo.

CXM: Oh boy.

SS: My teammates made sure to tell me that it was a race. Everything for Lost and Found said ride, but it was very much a race.

CXM: Belgian Waffle is also called a ride. Were you good on getting ready to race?

SS: Yeah, I knew it was a race. Funny story though, the only gravel race I had done was Lost and Found and that thing is burly. I almost wish I raced it on a hardtail. It’s so rough. You’re on dirt the whole time.

That’s kind of what I had in mind for the Belgian Waffle Ride. I don’t really do the numbers thing, so I wasn’t really looking into it as much as I maybe could have, but I just assumed it was an all dirt gravel ride. I found out I was getting to ride the new Specialized Roubaix in it, and I was like, okay…

At Sea Otter they had us ride the Diverge in all these different races because it would be funny and hilarious to have our gravel team show up for the dual slalom and mountain bike race and the crit all on the Diverge, so I did that. I won the Pro crit on my Diverge, and everyone thought I was insane, including myself.

I was like, what are you doing giving me a gravel bike for a road race and a road bike for a gravel race? What are you guys trying to do to me? My teammate Cody Kaiser has done it before, so I asked him to help me understand what this thing is about. He helped me have confidence that I would be okay on the Roubaix, and I am not really into road shoes or pedals, so I rode mountain bike pedals. I’ve never actually done a road race with road shoes.

CXM: I only ride SPDs too, so that speaks to me. When I was in grad school, I couldn’t afford road shoes, and I still ride SPDs for everything.

SS: Yes! I have SPDs on all of my bikes because they’re affordable, and I think they work. At least for my level of my participation.

CXM: That’s pretty high! You’re winning Pro crits on a Diverge.

SS: I think racing on the Diverge was a psych-out technique.

CXM: Does the Roubaix have the Future Shock on it?

SS: Totally. The bike was awesome. It’s exactly like the Diverge but with less tire clearance. And, you can lock out the Future Shock, which is kind of cool. I jokingly made a joke about that last year when I got the Diverge, and it turns out, they made it. It was awesome.

I got to ride SRAM eTap for the first time the day before the race, along with the Roubaix. I’m really good at getting bikes the day before races. I haven’t ridden with a front derailleur in a while either. I felt like I was just shifting the whole time, mainly because the eTap was so smooth.

CXM: What tires did you run? What size?

SS: I had the Specialized Roubaix tire. I can’t remember if they were 28 or 30mm.

CXM: What kind of advice did Cody give you that proved useful? Or not useful?

SS: Cody was awesome before and during the race. We got to race together, which is a cool aspect of the Belgian Waffle Ride. You get to race with everyone. I was not thinking that way in the beginning when we were doing an open road quote neutral, not neutral start. It’s like 200 dudes. I was like, I never want to be a Masters man.

Before the race, Cody was like, you know, it’s more of a road race that has dirt sections. You can’t show up and be terrible on dirt, but you want to prepare for around 100 miles of road, which is interesting. It’s an interesting dynamic to have in a race. You’d see people’s equipment vary a lot. I saw cantilever brakes out there to like full-on road setups. No aero bars, that was good.

He was like, just run something you’re going to be confident in on the dirt, but just know that there’s a lot of road. I was like, what is this race? Is it gravel? Is it road?

A lot of people ran road shoes, but he said to just do what’s comfortable for me. The fact he had confidence in the Roubaix gave me confidence in it as well. I trust Cody knows his equipment and knows me at this point. We’ve spent more time together in the last month than last cyclocross season, and he knows what kind of rider I am.

It’s nice to have teammates you can help you with that kind of stuff. That’s kind of a new dynamic for me. I sometimes feel pretty isolated from the rest of the scene here in Durango. It was nice to have Cody as a resource because he had done the race before. Because I didn’t necessarily have confidence in my training, I was going to go in with confidence in my nutrition, preparation and mental state.

CXM: I think it’s interesting how these things play out. How did the beginning of the race go? Did the women line up separately? Did you start with the men?

SS: Looking back, I think the beginning is why I was so nervous. I had just heard that the beginning was this open road section and you had to make the group selection. I don’t really have a ton of road racing experience. When I lined up I was like, oh my gosh, I’m lining up to the French Cyclocross National Champion, a multi-time Irish road champion. I know who these ladies are, and I’m like, oh my gosh, I just tool around on mountain bikes in Durango. They’re going to crush me.

Honestly, my whole strategy in the beginning was to just stay safe. I always just kind of look for Meredith Miller. I was laughing with her because in college I made the Collegiate all-star team, and we got to race Nature Valley as a composite team. I’ve told her this story a million times, but she was like the only one who was nice to us because everyone sees college girls and they’re like, ugh, stay away from them, they’re sketchy.

I don’t even know how she knew me at that point, but she let me sit on her wheel. She was so nice. I was laughing with her at the end of the race because it was a flashback to college when I was like, Find Meredith’s wheel because she’s someone I knew I could trust.

The women basically had a divided down the middle starting line. Some of the women got to start on the front next to the men, but we were basically right next to them. We had our own little channel with a cluster of women amidst 200 dudes. It was nice to even get that little piece because it was an intense start. It was very very fast.

I don’t actually know if it was actually neutral. There was nothing neutral about it. There were attacks going off the front from the start. People were crossing over the double yellow. There was a lot of tension in the peloton. There was a peloton! I was white-knuckling the bars, and asked some guy, What happens next? He was like, there’s a U-turn!

I literally didn’t have time to process that and all of a sudden we were thrown into this U-turn. Everything was on at that point. I think people were getting off and running around the cone. It was just chaos.

Then when I got on the dirt, I wanted nothing to do with anyone and just went really hard. I tried to pass people, and I do feel like that’s where cyclocross definitely came in handy. I found myself being able to ride a lot of things that people had to dismount for. It allowed me to keep my heart rate lower and maintain my calmness.

Finding Meredith Miller is always a good idea. Singlespeed Women. 2018 Cyclocross National Championships, Louisville, KY. © A. Yee / Cyclocross Magazine

CXM: It’s always good to hear the cyclocross skills paid off.

SS: Finally, cyclocross was applicable for something.

CXM: Outside winning national championships and all that stuff you did this past year.

SS: Yeah, but you try to explain cyclocross to people, and they’re like, What the hell are you talking about? Eh, it’s European, don’t worry about it.

It was so disorienting because I thought literally all the women were in front of me at that point because I didn’t see anyone. I had no idea how many women were ahead of me from the road sections, so I rode like 40 or 50 miles thinking I was not even close to any of the ladies.

I realized I maybe wasn’t close to them because I was ahead of them. Fancy that.

CXM: Once the craziness settled down, how did you find out you were ahead of everybody and what was the plan from there?

SS: I never really found out I was ahead of everybody. It really was like Mile 50, after this long dirt climb. I honestly just thought the other women were so far ahead of me that I couldn’t see them. I did the Black Canyon climb and tried to settle into my own race. Again, that mental piece I was talking about before. Just embracing the pain and not worrying about the racing component and just worrying about staying fueled and doing my own thing.

After Black Canyon, I got onto this group, and my teammate Cody was in there. I rolled up next to him and was like, Cody, I think I might be winning. I haven’t seen any ladies. He replied, “Sarah, you’re for sure winning. Hop on.” It was funny. I kind of rode with his group for a while.

Getting in with groups was really motivating. I rode with those guys for quite a bit. I just felt good the whole day. I don’t know what it was. I think my fueling with real food helped me. I was drinking some calories, I was staying hydrated. Honestly, I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly and potato chips.

CXM: Oooh, tasty.

SS: I didn’t really stop at the aid stations for the snacks, just because I wanted to eat real food. I don’t know, I was just having a good day out there. Every time I kind of felt comfortable, I would try to bridge to the next group ahead of me. I didn’t want to just settle because I had no idea where anyone was. In a race that long, I kept myself that anything could change, it’s a long race. Keep going hard now while you feel good.

CXM: Did they have aid stations with food? Did you pack food ahead of time?

SS: Kind of a little bit of all of it. I like questioning and learning from what other people do and making my decisions from there. It’s maybe not the best way to go about making big decisions. What I’ve learned is that everyone is super different. My teammate relied on goos and gels a lot. I know for me, my teeth just start hurting. I need to chew and eat food food, but that meant carrying a lot. You could see my pockets, I looked like one of the afternooners going out for a two-hour ride and bringing every possible thing you can bring.

I wanted to be super self-sufficient and not have to stop if I didn’t need to. Which was actually really hard because I love candy and I love socializing. I love stopping and talking to people. It’s why I race enduros. I love the social side of it. That part was hard, to just roll through and ask people for water and chain lube.

My strategy was a mixture of having my own and using what was at the aid stations. I brought too much, but I felt really prepared. I relied on two bottles at all times, knowing I would have to stop and fill those. I wanted to time that with lubing my chain. Then one pocket at like 10 goos and 4 packages of chews. The other pocket had four peanut butter and jelly and potato chip sandwiches. Now my secret is out.

CXM: I may steal that. That sounds tasty.

SS: I had actually talked to my coach and friend, he’s more of a life coach, and he was like, make the sandwiches with white bread. Don’t get super healthy, grainy bread. Get gross white bread. And then something for salt. I know I’m a heavy sweater, so I knew I had to get salt in there.

I also talked to Yuri Hauswald. He’s a friend and I’ve done some mountain biking with him.

I’m not kidding that I really tried to mentally prepare for this thing. I listened to a bunch of podcasts about endurance racing. A lot of it was running, but one of them had Yuri on it. It was an Outside Magazine podcast, and they had Yuri as like the gravel endurance specialist. I was like, Oh shoot, I should call Yuri and ask him about this. He’s like an expert.

And I am reading this book called Endure right now. I’m not usually into sports books, but this one goes into the mental side of pain and endurance and it’s super interesting. And I’m an art major, I’m not a science person. I’m a graphic designer. I don’t geek out, I don’t train with power, I don’t really do heart rate.

CXM: What are your plans with your gravel team and where should we look for you?

SS: I’ll be doing the whole what used to be called the Sierra Triple Crown. I had to miss Grinduro last year for Jingle Cross, but I think I should be able to go this year. I’ll be at Lost and Found. Honestly, in some ways, that race is a little more challenging in different ways. With the dirt, I think a gravel bike might even be underdesigned for that.

I’m going to do the new Oregon Trail stage gravel race. That will be something new and super interesting. Then I will be at Grinduro in Scotland and the U.S. And I’m hoping to make it to one that I can finally drive to in Steamboat. That one looks really brutal as well.

And I’m not really sure what I’m doing for cyclocross this year. I’m hoping to make it to Nationals?

CXM: Why wouldn’t you?

SS: I don’t have a team. That’s a whole ‘nother interview. I’m trying to figure out how this whole thing works. Cash sponsorship is obviously great, and the Tenspeed Hero / Specialized thing was a dream come true. Like, no one gets to do that out of the blue. I was a no one.

That was another funny part of the Belgian Waffle Ride. I think they’re used to like road racers or California people winning, so I finished and no one knew who I was. I was obviously not offended by that because that is literally the story of my career. There were a lot of amazing women in the field. I was so nervous to race against Olivia Dillon, she is such a crusher. And my teammate Alison Tetrick. They’re amazing. I totally understood why they didn’t know who I was.

They were like, Who the hell are you? Where did you come from? I was like, The moon! Or Durango.

CXM: Well those of us who follow cyclocross know who you are.

SS: Even people in the bike industry don’t know what cyclocross is. It’s so funny. I do this really short form of gravel racing. It’s called cyclocross. My boyfriend was like, just look at the Belgian Waffle Ride as like eight cyclocross races in a row.

That’s actually a tactic for breaking down endurance races that I’m learning from this book. Breaking it down into small goals, because if you look at the whole picture you’re kind of screwed.

CXM: At it least had the sectors to count down and get excited about because that’s when you made your move, right?

SS: Totally. I would love to say I had tactics going into this, but my only one was to go as hard as I could hold that pace.

CXM: Well awesome, thanks so much for your time. Looking forward to seeing how the rest of your gravel season goes and hopefully we will see you racing cyclocross this fall.

SS: You bet. Thank you.