Pro Cyclist Sarah Sturm Does it Her Way
Sarah Sturm, aka Sturmy, is an all-in, full of emotion, badass. She packs a big smile with an unconventional approach that has led her to the podium of cycling’s biggest adventures on anything with two wheels. But unlike so many data-obsessed pro athletes, Sarah does things mostly by feel. So much so that when her new bike came with a power meter, she told her coach to not show her the results.
Sarah crashes hard and races harder. While 2019 podiums at Downieville, the 153 mile Belgian Waffle Ride, @sbtgrvl, Lost and Found, and Sea Otter’s pro Criterium would tell a different story, she has healthy dose of fear. Channeling that fear, emotion and competitive drive into something that works for her is what makes Sarah uniquely ‘Sturmy.’
What’s next for Sarah? You’ll have to read and listen to find out. It likely won’t follow a playbook. But it most certainly will be an adventure. And when not adventuring, you’ll find her coaching the next generation of rippers or designing the next idea with her firm Oso Creative.
We caught up before the important developments to address the problems with race in America. While we couldn’t address these topics in this conversation, Sarah is taking a passionate stand with the platform she has to elevate and share the voices “of those who have been muted.”
Listen to our podcast with Sarah Sturm on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify.
The Start of a Cyclist
David Swain (@swain), Prokit: What did you have for breakfast?
Sarah Sturm: I had toast, made from bread from a local bakery. This company called Trail Butter makes amazing peanut butter with all this good stuff mixed in, so I put that on top with jelly. Then I had a smoothie and a doughnut.
Is that your typical breakfast?
Always the PBJ. It’s going to become “my thing” because I made the mistake of talking about how my ride food at the Belgian Waffle Ride was a bunch of peanut butter jelly sandwiches. That said, I truly do like it. You can’t go wrong with it.
If there was no pandemic, what would you be doing right now?
The Lost and Found Gravel Grinder would be coming up. That race was my first ever gravel race years ago. I had just signed with Specialized for cyclocross, and they handed me a gravel bike. I remember I kind of made fun of the Future Shock. As a newly-signed athlete, I didn’t know you’re not supposed to make fun of the equipment in front of the people who gave it to you. I was just joking, but 100 miles into this race, I was like, “Thank God for the thing that I made fun of.” It’s the coolest part of the Diverge bike.
Talk about your athletic background. What were you like as a kid?
I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Funny enough, my dad was into road biking, which meant I was very much not into it. I got really into skateboarding, but I was terrible at it. I joined the New Mexico extreme sports club. I think I was destined to live in the mountains. I remember being obsessed with climbing and ice climbing, but never mountain biking or cycling. I just really loved the lure of mountain sports, but growing up in Albuquerque, I didn’t do any of those things. I was on a swim team and I ran track. Soccer was my main sport, but I got really burned out my senior year of high school after I broke my ankle.
I wanted to go to Fort Lewis College here in Durango, and I thought I’d play soccer for them. During the summer between high school and college, I did a sprint triathlon. I realized I still hated running and swimming, but I decided to call the cycling team at Fort Lewis to see if I could race for them. What I didn’t know was, at the time, Fort Lewis had the best collegiate cycling team in the country. So that was just super good luck. It’s still an amazing program, and It’s the reason why I got into cycling and stayed with it. I met all my friends, and it was so much fun and so scary and so hard, but mostly really fun.
That was all road?
I started with road. Anyone who rode bikes with me when I was 18 knows that I was the kid that took longer to descend down the road climb than I took to climb up it. I walked over speed bumps. It took me a little time to get into the dirt. Actually, I did sign up for cyclocross stuff that year. That would have been in 2009. That was my first year doing cyclocross.
So for all the people out there who get intimidated on their first downhill mountain bike or road bike, it even happens to the best.
Oh, yeah. A lot of people that I ride and race with now in Durango went through that when they were super young. Durango attracts mountain bikers, especially to the collegiate program, and most of those kids have gone through NICA or some sort of junior development program. Because of that, they experienced that fear piece when they were little, probably on Striders. I experienced it when as a late teenager, which is still early. I think Georgia Gould didn’t start riding until she was 28. It can be done, especially for women.
For people who aren’t familiar, NICA is the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, a high school mountain biking program that hosts mountain bike races.
Yes, it’s crazy. Durango has hosted the state champs for NICA. Compared to most of the professional races I’ve gone to, the NICA state champs had so many more people. Maybe not the number of participants, but the number of people at the event. It was so cool to see all these kids racing around.
Now I coach Durango Devo, which is a local junior mountain bike program that has produced Olympians, state champions and almost-world champions. The program here is crazy. It’s awesome, and I get to coach for the college that I once attended.
What was it about the team or the coaches at Fort Lewis that influenced your decision to go all in on cycling?
I was 18 and leaving home at the time when my parents were fresh into their new divorce. The economy was tanking, and it was just stressful. I remember being so incredibly homesick. I was crying all the time. The first semester was so hard. Even into the second semester, I had my little 87 Volvo packed up with all my stuff, and I told my mom I was coming home. It was so conflicting because I wanted to get out of Albuquerque. I wanted nothing more than to leave, but then I was thinking of going back.
I was desperate for a sense of community, and the cycling team became that for me. Cycling was this new exciting thing, but it also was really hard and scary. I was really, really bad at it. I am a competitive person, with myself mainly, and I was entering into this new sport that I was so bad at. What really kept me in it was this instant group of friends. I was learning a ton about the bikes and about the culture. Every single weekend we went to races together, so I never was lonely. That’s why I stayed with it.
My first race weekend in college, we drove eight hours to Colorado Springs to ride on the Velodrome. My coach said, “This is called a track bike. Don’t coast.” Then I went to Nationals because they needed girls. So I learned how to ride a track bike. I’m not a sprinter, so my coach had me do a points race, which is still so scary. Girls were crashing and snapping their arms in half. I think back and feel bad for my parents. That was my introduction to the sport. I was like, “Sign me up. I’m in. Cyclocross? Cool, I’m doing it. Road? I’m in.” I definitely tried everything, and I found a fun group of people. I’m 30 now and they’re all still my close friends.
What did those next few years look like?
There was a lot of improvement, I would say. I always felt like I was naturally good at road, but I fit in better with the mountain bikers, in terms of personality. I like camping. Plus, in Durango we have amazing local trails, even right on campus at Fort Lewis. So I started mountain biking when I was a sophomore and went to my first mountain bike nationals as a junior. I did really well because it was not a super technical climb, and I could just power up. I didn’t even have a mountain bike. I borrowed one from the wife of Ned Overend, the mountain bike legend. It was my first mountain bike nationals for college and I got third. I thought, “Alright, this is something I’m going to work on.” Years later, I’m still working on it. It’s such a hard sport, mountain biking.
Share some of the basics of mountain biking that you’ve learned.
Well, for one, the equipment now is so much better. I got into mountain biking when “twenty-niners” were kind of coming onto the scene. They’re a bigger bike wheel, and at the time, they did not fit small people like me at 5’3” to 5’4”. It was not very confidence-inspiring. There were only cross country bikes and downhill bikes, but now there’s this bike called the trail bike. It has this geometry that makes you feel like you’re not going to die on the descent, but you can actually have fun pedaling up.
I actually quit racing mountain bikes because it just wasn’t fun for me. I was strong on the climbs, but my technical skills were so far behind everyone. Plus, I have fear built in. I don’t have that daredevil gene that people like my boyfriend have. I thought, “I don’t have to do this anymore.” My boyfriend said, “Try this,” and he got me a trail bike. He was riding the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango, and I joined him in Salida. That opened my world to this new type of challenge. I was pushing myself on a bike, but no one cared if I made it to the finish. I had a goal in my head that I was pushing towards. It’s challenging riding on high country trails like that, and the days are long, like seven hours. You might not be at your VO2 max, but you’re out there trying to complete something. I wasn’t feeling like I was the worst mountain biker on the planet, which was really nice and refreshing.
Honestly, that’s what kept me in the sport. For a few years before that, I dabbled in the pro-mountain bike scene, and I was having fun in some ways, but it wasn’t fun in a lot of ways, and it was really hard.
Did you take years off from racing entirely?
Yes, so the timeline went like this: I graduated from college and ended up winning a short track national title on the mountain bike, which was awesome. Then I signed on to a local pro team called the Sweet Elite, sponsored by Specialized and the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. There are so many cycling stars that went through that program, like Howard Grotts, Payson McElveen, Teal Stetson-Lee, Kaylee and Christopher Blevins. I was on that team for two years, and there were so many highs and so many lows. We were traveling across the country in a van, and I was finishing last at a lot of pro races. After that I joined a different local team, but a couple weeks into it, I knew I needed a break. I quit racing for a couple years.
I started up again racing enduros which is everything that I’m bad at. I was explaining to my mom that only the descent is timed and she’s said, “Isn’t that what you’re the worst at?” And I am, but it was an awesome experience. To this day, I haven’t looked at a result from an enduro. I’ve just done them and tried to do my best. I even did an EWS in New Zealand when I was living there. The best enduro racers in the entire world were there, and then there was me getting scared and running down half of it, but I did it. I finished.
I did Grinduro last year and didn’t know people would be passing me like they were on a motorcycle sliding around the corner. It was an eye opener, to bring it to life for people who have not done those.
I really encourage people to do stuff that they’re bad at. If you’re scared of an enduro, sign up for an endurance race. Because guess what? There are other people there that are doing the same thing.
I remember one moment very clearly. Dylan, my boyfriend, and I did this race called the Trans BC Enduro. You ride for seven hours a day down the most gripped trails ever, so steep, full face helmets, goggles, basically downhilling. On the last stage of the first day, there was this ramp that I’m still convinced was vertical, and you just fell down it, and it pushed you perfectly into this gap jump. It was so scary. Everyone was doing it because someone had had a really terrible crash on the go-around, and they shut down the go-around.
I freaked out all and Dylan said, “It’s all built for you. Just don’t break.” I had a meltdown, and I had to run down it. Probably running down that mountainside was way more dangerous than just hitting it. I filled my goggles with tears, and I felt like such a failure.
Later, as I was crying in the bathroom, I had this thought that I can either be last and be a bummer, or I can be last and have fun and be fun to be around. That was a really important moment for me. It was important to learn how to be bad at something and still be a person people want to ride with. I made some really hilarious, crazy friends.
How much of you getting outside your comfort zone has contributed to your success? You show up and win the National Championship in cyclocross. That requires serious bike handling skills. Walk us through that.
I love cyclocross for so many reasons. My favorite, I think, is trying to explain what cyclocross is on an airplane when I’m flying to these races in the middle of winter. People are like, “What are you doing?”
Cyclocross is a European sport. It started in Europe as a way for road racers to train in the offseason. They would train by racing from town to town in the most miserable weather, but they would also run through people’s gardens and up stairs with their bikes on their shoulders. It evolved to be this circuit. It’s a lapped course, with a finite amount of time. Usually the women’s races are from 40 to 45 minutes long. Races are held in the craziest conditions, the more snowy, muddy or slippery, the better. You’re on a bike that looks like a road bike, but with knobby tires, and there’s a lot of running. You have to carry your bike over hills so it’s not fast. It’s the safest sport ever, in a lot of ways. It’s also cool because you don’t have to live in the mountains. Chicago has an amazing local series. Hundreds of people come out.
I definitely think that suffering through two years of Trans BC Enduro helped me in cyclocross. Cyclocross has always been something I’ve loved. The Single Speed Worlds in Portland was what got me back into racing. I decided that I wanted to try and win this crazy obscure race where the only rule is “if you don’t want a tattoo, then don’t win.” I’ve gotten third twice, so my mom is pumped that I don’t have to get a tattoo.
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That was an insane day! So stoked defend the Natty Champs jersey for the single speed yesterday. Even more stoked that it was a battle with my good friend @emily.schaldach, even more stoked on the course and environment here. So many people cheering, so many muddy steps, dollars and baby doll kissing. I am proud of myself for fighting to the end in a race that, for the first time, I was NOT the dark horse. There was a bit (hah) of pressure going into this one. That’s why I chose to wear the jorts and denim vest, it was a reminder to myself that this is all for fun, I’m choosing to be here and to bring it. I wore the jorts at my first single speed nationals in Reno when I got 2nd to @mmcyclist and realized I could actually maybe be a CX racer! It was a special day out there, and ready to do it all again…but with more spandex. 👖⚡️ – Photos: @photowil – #cx #cxnats #nationals #singlespeed #singlespeedcx #cross #bikeracing #raceday #muddy #bikecrash #zipp #sram #crux #specialized #sram #domestiquecoffee #jorts #denim #canadiantuxedo
Mindset: Finding Joy and Managing Anxiety
It seems like every year in cycling, there’s a new type of adventure. How do you go about picking what you’re going to do?
I realized after I quit racing mountain bikes that I don’t have the focus and determination that it takes to be a World Cup athlete. I’m not mentally in the same place as these amazing women like Kate Courtney (@katecourtney) or my friend, Sofia Gomez-Villafañe. They can show up to the same courses. Everyone knows Mont-Sainte-Anne, it’s the same every year on the World Cup Schedule. I have so much respect for the people that can do that because I am not that way. I have to try totally different things, the newer, the better. That’s why I had such a good season last year because I didn’t know what to expect. I had heard of the Belgian Waffle Ride, but I didn’t totally know what it was about. There’s an advantage to showing up and not knowing what to expect.
How did you figure that out about yourself?
Therapy? (Laughs) Yeah, having someone to talk through some of my anxieties about this identity that I had and what excited me about it. I talked about what was inspiring and what I was driven towards. I needed to take a step back to be able to say, ”I’m actually excited to go race my bike.” That was a sensation I hadn’t ever had because I got into the sport through bike racing. Everything I did was aimed at bike racing. It was never aimed at the experience in between. It was fun because of my group of friends, but I was never just excited to see if I could complete something. The first time I experienced that was the Telluride 100. Telluride is a little mountain town kind of close to us, and it has these insane peaks. Before “everesting” was a thing, 16,000 feet of climbing in a mountain bike race was a shitload of climbing. I was like, “Alright, sign me up.” I had never done 100 miles or that much climbing. I just wanted to see if I could do it, and you know, I did.
Did the person you talked to ask you any specific questions to help you find that excitement? Or was it just talking?
As you’re probably picking up, I can kind of talk through my feelings. I’m lucky now to be working with a woman in Durango who happened to have been a road racer. That was luck, but it’s so great because she knows what it’s like to be a bike racer and a female in the sport, all of those pieces. When I first started talking with somebody, it was with a sports psychologist who is very much in the cycling scene. She actually helped me quit cycling. She said to me, “Whoa, I don’t think this is what you want to do.” I don’t work with her anymore, but that was so important for me. It was the first step. She never sat down with a specific list of questions. We just talked and figured it out.
I think about all the things that I choose to do, and the choices are process-based. For me, it’s very much about the process, be it mental health, training, racing, riding, or graphic design. The process behind all of those things is what I’m drawn towards. I like the journey more than the destination sometimes.
Do you naturally enjoy the grind of the process? How do you stay motivated now that there are no races?
Full disclosure, I had a lot of anxiety this winter going into the 2020 season. Last year, at Cyclocross Nationals, I went into the single speed race to defend a national title, but I had never done something like that before. I was probably the most nervous anyone has ever been for a single speed cyclocross race. I don’t know if anyone’s ever been that nervous in jean shorts over spandex.
That anxiety was something that I was working on very closely with my therapist, and my coach, who I like to say is mostly my therapist. I had a lot of nerves about going into Belgian Waffle Ride again. There’s a lot of fast women out there, and now I’m not this dark horse who can just show up. Everyone, mostly myself, is expecting me to win this thing again. This season had some repeat races for me which I’m not a huge fan of, I think because I don’t like the pressure.
You have some big sponsors. Does that bring pressure with it?
I have an awesome group of sponsors. When I was signing with some of them, I made it very clear who I am and that I’m not just about racing. There’s the training, the riding, the adventures and a lot of other pieces. I wanted to make sure we were aligned. I didn’t want a sponsor that would pick me up one year because I was fast but then drop me the next year if I didn’t do well. That pressure will make me not do well, and those partnerships aren’t authentic for me.
I think regardless if I had zero sponsors this year, I still would be feeling this same amount of pressure, just for myself. It’s just me. I’m just like that. I’m competitive with myself. I want to push myself as much as I can, but the shadow side of that is the potential of failure. And that’s hard.
When you failed as a kid, say during a big soccer game, what did you do?
I probably cried. I remember feeling that frustration and disappointment in myself, especially in individual sports, like swim team. The nerves of being on that start block and at the end if I didn’t perform well, I would feel this dread.
That competitive drive obviously helped you become creative and ultra-successful at the things you attack. What have you done to find the balance in it?
For my race at Single Speed Worlds, I worked with my therapist on a mantra. I really work on my mental prep for these races and make sure that I’m making my brain realize that if I don’t get the result that I want at this one race, there’s always another opportunity. I work on alleviating some pressure by reminding my body and brain that it’s not a reflection on who I am as a person, and that I’m going to always do my best and race my hardest. I will always always race my best and there are going to be races where it does not pan out. The work to be done is accepting that that’s okay.
I’ve been a serious athlete for 10 years now. I feel like when people watch the Belgian Waffle Ride movie, they’re thinking, “Oh, this girl must have just hopped into this bike race.” That was not it. I had never done a race like that before, but I had been a competitive athlete for a long time. For things to align like they did on that day, or even in Leadville or Steamboat, there’s some luck. But there’s a lot of hard work behind it.
Things need to line up when it comes to winning a world championship, which I’ve never done, and I will never do, but it happened for Kate Courtney. It’s incredibly inspiring. Every single woman at that level has been training for that exact same day. They’re all freaks of nature athletically, and they’re also incredibly driven hard workers. With those two pieces combined, they’re a fraction of a percentage of people out there already. Then it’s just this amazing test of mental toughness. When I watched Kate Courtney win her first World Championship, it was the coolest moment in sport that I’ve ever seen. It was so rad because for everything to line up like that, it’s just so special. She’s the youngest woman ever to win. It’s so inspiring. But she didn’t win it the next year, and she’s okay. You can still be okay.
Training: A Different Approach
When it comes to training, many athletes are data-driven. You don’t train with a heart rate monitor, power meter, or even a training plan. Talk about your approach.
I love this topic. Everyone is very curious about this. I don’t train with power. I’ve started using heart rate, just to make sure I’m not overcooking it, but I’m never looking at any of that during a race. If you asked me about zones, I wouldn’t know what to tell you. I’m someone who just goes off a feeling. I think there are pluses and minuses to that. Maybe I’m overdoing it in some ways and not pushing in other ways. I’m so much a mental racer. If I see someone in front of me, I’m going to try and get them. It doesn’t matter how high my heart rate is or what my power is doing that day like. Moms have been known to lift cars off babies. You’re capable of such so much more than I think people think.
This is an interesting topic because I don’t want to encourage people to not use power. It’s all relative. Do whatever minimizes stress for yourself or makes you feel good about yourself. If you are a data-driven person, it makes sense. A lot of people at Specialized who I’ve met use that information. I was never a good test taker in school, which is why I decided to go into graphic design and not science. I wanted credit for all of the hard work I had put in versus just this one test. In a lot of ways, that’s how I feel about power. I don’t want to do power testing and know my numbers and associate that number with how fast I can go. For me, that is limiting. I would just fixate on it, and that’s why I’ve never done it. It’s intentional.
Though this year my Diverge showed up with a thing called a power meter on it. I was like, “Well, what do I do?” I called my coach and he convinced me to leave it on there. So I left it on and did a power test. I still don’t know my numbers, but my coach does.
What have you learned about working with a coach?
Well, I’ve worked with two coaches in my lifetime. I worked with Chris McGovern when I was in school at Fort Lewis College, and he’s still a really great friend of mine. My current coach is my friend, Rotem Ishay. The common thread with my coaches is that they’re my friends, and they know who I am as a person. They know that I am very much not a normal athlete, like I never really wanted training plans. Actually, that’s not true. In college, I used to really want training plans, and I used to beg people for them. Then I would get them, and I wouldn’t do training. I would feel guilty, and it was this whole downward spiral.
Chad Cheeney, a local legend here, was the one who showed me how to ride for fun. He ran that Chocolate Factory team and started Durango Devo with Sara Tescher. We call him the spirit animal of cycling in Durango. He has this saying “never forget the feeling,” and it’s very much about the ride and the feeling of riding your bike and pushing yourself.
So Rotem works with that, and now he has some data to go off of to help me if we need it. Now, the pandemic has put racing on pause indefinitely. I would be really surprised if there were any races this year, and that’s something that is totally out of my control. There is some stress alleviation from not having to worry about defending my Belgian Waffle Ride title right now, but I’ve struggled with the question of “why am I training?” I called Rotem and asked for a training plan. I told him I needed some structure in my day.
I’m also starting a graphic design business, and I really struggle with time management. I have all the right and wrong mixtures of ADD and inspiration. Suddenly, it’s 4pm and I’m still sitting in my chamois trying to get stuff done, and I haven’t gotten through my ride. I need a training plan because there’s nothing else to answer to right now. So I have a training plan for the first time ever, which is hilarious because there’s no racing to be seen.
It’s helped me be mentally healthy right now. At the end of the day, a lot of other things might have gone wrong, but I got my two-hour mountain bike ride done. Someone is holding me accountable and that’s helping me. We’re in the process of figuring out a meaningful challenge that I can do in the near future, since there’s no racing. It’s cool to see people do the Everest Challenge, but I’ve got that hipster thing. I think, “Oh, they’re all doing it. I don’t want to do it.”
Do have your eyes set on new emerging things that no one’s heard of and no one’s done?
Yes. We’re going to make it!
Each sport evolves so quickly. Gravel became super cool and a lot of people are afraid it will lose its cool.
I hope gravel racing is going to attract a lot more people, and I hope it gets really popular. It can never be road racing. There are gravel races like Kanza that obviously have attracted the pro tour road aspects, but then there are races like the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder, a five-day race, and it’s way different. It’s a totally different terrain. It’s kind of like mountain biking where it’s not just climbers and sprinters, it’s the type of technical gravel that will determine who wins. Then there’s something like the Grinduro which is also way different and you can race it on a mountain bike.
I think gravel is going to evolve. There’ll be races that are super popular for the road racer person and races that mountain bikers are stoked on. It’s this cool meeting place. That’s why I’ve really liked it. It’s a perfect case scenario for me. I have just enough technical skills to separate me from road racers and keep me competitive with the mountain bikers, but then I can just go for a very long time. It’s a good spot for me, and there’s so much cool stuff out there. I’m lucky to live in a spot in Colorado where we have these insane mountain ranges around us. There are some really burly challenges. Another challenge for me is I’ve never camped alone. That very much scares me. I’m working with Rotem to figure out a challenge that is very possible for failure because it’s really good to fail at something.
Tell us about your graphic design business.
It’s been really fun. I’ve always had my graphic design business on the side. It’s perfect for a bike racer, because you can travel with your work. But I’ve never actually had time to hire an employee, work on my website, or reach out to get new clients. Now, I get to work with my employee, Henry, which is awesome. He’s also a bike racer, of course. It’s really cool to have another person to work with. We’re building the company brand right now. The company is called Oso Creative. Oso means bear. My mom used to call me Sary-bear, and by “used to” I mean, she still does and I’m 30. Henry and I have some cool designs that we’ve cooked up together. We’re two bike racers with ADD, playing around with colors on the computer. It’s been great.
Where can people find you?
You can find me on ProKit @sarahzsturm. I really love Instagram as a platform, and I’ll be coming out with some fun new projects that are video-based. I bought a small school bus and there’s going to be some really cool content coming from that project that has been two years in the making. You can find me @sarah_sturmy.
Read Sarah’s story for Ten Speed Hero where she talks about “making meaning out of lemons.”