Road Cycling

How a Former Ultrarunner With No Cycling Coach Won Dirty Kanza 200 – Bicycling

Andy Chasteen/Allied Cycleworks

  • Amity Rockwell won the women’s field at Dirty Kanza 200 this month, finishing in just under 12 hours.
  • A relative newcomer to bike racing, Rockwell placed outside the top 10 last year, but staged an impressive comeback to take her biggest career win yet.
  • Here she talks about training, how she applies lessons from running to cycling, and why she prefers gravel races to road events.

    Amity Rockwell grew up as a competitive runner, has only been racing bikes for 3.5 years, and doesn’t have a coach. But none of that mattered on June 1, when the 26-year-old Californian worked her way through a stacked women’s field to earn an impressive solo victory at Dirty Kanza, considered by most to be the world’s preeminent gravel cycling race.

    Triumph in the main 200-mile event didn’t come without tribulation. Rockwell crashed once, vomited several times, and had such bad gastrointestinal issues that she could barely eat or drink during the last two hours of her near-12-hour effort. If the race had been much longer, she likely would have dropped out.

    So how did this former ultrarunner pull off such an unlikely feat? And why does this part-time barista still not consider herself a professional cyclist? We caught up with Rockwell to find out.

    This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

    Bicycling: How did you get into bike racing?

    Amity Rockwell: It was really by accident. I ran cross-country in high school and college, and then left my collegiate team to start doing longer trail running races. But in 2015 I was battling all these little chronic injuries, and decided I needed to step back from running and give my body a chance to heal. I’d always had a bike for cross-training, and with the running break I started riding more because I still needed to get outside.

    Pretty quickly I started seeing tangible progress, and when you’re doing something new that can be really addictive. So I ended up doing a local road race in the spring of 2016, and even though I missed the start by like three minutes, I managed to chase down the field and win. That’s when I figured maybe I could be good at this, and started working my way up the ranks.

    BI: But road racing isn’t really your thing, right?

    Rockwell: For me road racing is like pounding your head against a wall. If you don’t make the podium, what experience are you really getting out of it? I was doing all these races in California and never felt like I was connecting with the places or the people. But the gravel scene is so much different. Even last year, when my race at Dirty Kanza was pretty horrible, it still felt like something worthwhile because of the overall experience.

    BI: In 2018, you battled mechanicals all day and finished outside the top 10. And you’re more of a climber than a power rider, anyway. Did you consider not coming back to Dirty Kanza?

    Rockwell: From a racing standpoint, last year was definitely super disappointing. But when things started to go south, I was in good position, probably fourth or fifth. That left me wondering what could happen if everything did line up.

    I also learned a lot about myself from that experience. Sometimes I had a tendency to let one bad thing spiral into more mistakes, like not eating or drinking enough, because I’m so focused on what went wrong. But this year, even with the crash and the nausea, I had a better handle on my emotions and realized that the best thing to do was focus on what I could control and not worry about what I can’t.

    BI: How do you train for a 200-mile race on rough roads?

    Rockwell: Honestly, I’m the worst person to ask for training advice. I’m a bit of a mess. I have no real plan and no coach. I had a coach for a little while and she was great. But I was kind of miserable having everything laid out for me all the time, and not being able to go hard when I wanted to go hard, or go out with my friends for their shenanigans. So basically, I just ride a lot because I love riding. That’s my training.

    BI: At Dirty Kanza this year, you raced on the just-released Allied Able. How many rides did you get on the new gravel bike before the race itself?

    Rockwell: I probably shouldn’t admit this, but it was only two times right before the race on Thursday and Friday. It was probably a terrible idea, but it goes back to that mindset of not stressing too much about things I can’t control. At the same time, I had a lot of faith in the Allied guys. Clearly it worked out.

    BI: What have you learned from running that can be applied to bike racing?

    Rockwell: For me, it’s about figuring out the highest pace you can push the entire time, and then trying to be as consistent as possible. At the same time, bike racing is different in many ways. So much of what you do is based on what others do. My style is more diesel than punchy, so I have a really hard time chasing attacks or grabbing onto groups that I know I need to be in. But slowly I’m learning to trust that I can do those efforts and still be okay. I won’t just blow up. I have to remember that everyone else is suffering, too.

    BI: Dirty Kanza was the biggest bike racing win of your career. How has life changed?

    Rockwell: Since I started this, I’ve always hoped that cycling could become at least most of what I do for a job. And I’m still not comfortable telling people I’m a professional cyclist. But Kanza has proven to myself that the possibility is there for it to become something bigger, and that’s motivating me to work harder to make it happen.