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Sarah Strum

On her way to becoming one of the top gravel racers in the country, competitive cyclist Sarah Sturm had to get comfortable with being not good.

She had to fall — a lot. She had to walk her bike on trails others could crush. She had to come in last. Eventually, she had to quit.

As a young professional mountain biker, Sturm struggled with discipline and focus, and, she admits, it showed. She longed for the joy she’d felt as a student-athlete and craved more balance between cycling and her other interests.

So, at 24, Sturm stepped away from competing to pursue a career as a graphic designer. She traded her lightweight racing bikes for a trail bike and started exploring the high country near her home in Durango, Colo., on weekends with friends. “Like a normal person!” she jokes.

Way up in the mountains, Sturm’s perspective began to change. “I realized you could push yourself really hard and do something challenging and no one cared if you finished,” she says. “There was no finish line. There was no cheering. There were no coaches, sponsors, or anything — and I loved it. I think that’s what saved me from fully quitting cycling. It was just enjoyable.”

After a couple of years away from the racing circuit, Sturm began dabbling in competition again, exploring off-road genres that included enduro, cyclocross, and eventually gravel. In 2019 she won the 100-mile-plus Belgian Waffle Ride in San Marcos, Calif.

“I won the right race at the right time on a gravel bike,” she recalls, “and it blew my career up in a good way.”

Older and wiser (she’s now 33), Sturm asserts her own approach to riding, competing, and living. She is learning to take care of her needs as a person who also happens to be a professional athlete. That means negotiating racing demands and other priorities, including creative projects, friends, and advocacy work with Protect Our Winters, an organization that lobbies for legislation regarding climate change.

We caught up with Sturm to ask about her lessons from the trail.

Sarah Strum gravel cycling

Q&A With Sarah Sturm

Experience Life | Off-road biking didn’t come easily for you. What kept you from giving up right at the beginning?

Sarah Sturm | I’d played soccer from elementary through high school and had planned to play at Fort Lewis College in Durango. But then I decided to try something different. As it happened, Fort Lewis had one of the top-ranked collegiate cycling teams in the country, so I signed up.

All my teammates were experienced mountain bikers who had chosen Fort Lewis for cycling — and I was so bad! It was emotionally and physically painful to be the worst one on the team. I remember very clearly the first mountain-bike ride I went on when I didn’t crash.

But I am someone who enjoys learning new things, especially if they’re physical. And my friends were on the cycling team. I’m probably naturally better at road cycling, but I fit in better with the mountain bikers.

EL | When you quit racing, you discovered a love of cycling that wasn’t about winning. How did that mindset guide your return to competition?

SS | I was in New Zealand for a summer, and my partner, Dylan, traveled down to race the Enduro World Series. I decided to sign up, just along for the ride.

Enduro mountain biking is everything I’m bad at. I’m a climber. I’m 5 feet 2 inches tall, so I go uphill a lot faster and I go downhill a lot slower. In enduro, they only time the downhill portions of the ride. They add up all your times and the person with the lowest time wins. I’m pretty sure I came in last!

Then there was a blind jump in one of these races — a huge gap in the trail. You go down this incredibly steep chute and jump to the other landing. I was the only one who couldn’t do the jump.

I remember crying on the bathroom floor and then realizing I had a choice: I could beat myself up — or I could not do the gap jump, be the slowest one, and have a good time. It was a big shift to be OK with not being good at something.

EL | And now you’re competing at a high level in something you are good at. How do you reconcile ambition with self-acceptance?

SS | I struggle with this. I have that annoying high-achiever, perfectionist mindset already, but when you get paid to race, it ups the ante.

I used to not put everything into the sport because I wanted a reason, in case I failed, to say to myself, Oh well, I didn’t do my best because I never put my best into it. It was sort of a self-protecting mechanism I had.

But even now, I feel like if I was all-in with just cycling — if my life consisted of training, coming home, putting my legs up, doing my rest, eating everything correctly, doing my strength workout, and then rinsing and repeating — I would have quit for good long ago.

I can’t only focus on bike racing even though that’s my job. I’ve stepped away from graphic design professionally, but I’ve filled that space with other projects.

EL | It sounds like you’re seeking balance.

SS | I’ve been thinking a lot about what balance means and whether it’s achievable. I don’t think it is. I think life’s always a moving puzzle where you have to fill in different pieces. Sometimes family is really important and needs to take priority. Other times, I have to focus on biking. And then other times, I’ve got to get a project done.

I’ve found I need to have other things going on, within reason, to be successful on the bike. My sense of value and self can’t all come from a finish-line number.

EL | Tell us about your involvement in Protect Our Winters.

SS | Living in Colorado — where we have winter! — I’ve admired this organization for a long time. They’ve recently expanded their advocacy ­efforts to ­include professional athletes of non-­winter sports, such as trail runners, alpinists, hikers, and cyclists. As part of this, I went with a group of cyclists last summer to Washington, D.C., to talk with lawmakers about how climate change affects our jobs as professional athletes.

I explained how the 4,000 people who competed last summer in the Unbound Gravel race (a Life Time–owned, 200-mile gravel race in the Flint Hills of Kansas) had to change our route due to unprecedented rainfall and flooding caused by climate change.

I told them how I can’t take the kids I coach in Colorado on mountain-bike rides when the smoke from increasing wildfires affects air quality. I explained how burn zones and mountain-pine-­beetle outbreaks caused by warmer, drier summers are destroying our ­forests and trails.

Getting people to vote and getting political leaders to commit to the environment is part of our job, too. So, we’ll write emails, make phone calls, and send out mailers. It’s pretty cool. It makes me feel like my platform as an athlete is being put to good use, which is important to me.

Watch Life Time Grand Prix presented by Mazda

See the world’s best off-road cyclists kick off their career-defining journey at the newest series in off-road cycling: the inaugural Life Time Grand Prix presented by Mazda. Watch the deep men’s and women’s fields throw down and battle through crashes, injuries and expectations to set themselves apart early at Stop #1 of 6: the Fuego 80K at the Life Time Sea Otter Classic presented by Continental.

This article originally appeared as “Stepping Back, Riding Forward” in the April 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Photography by: Brynne Mower
Jill Patton, FMCHC

Jill Patton, FMCHC, is a Minneapolis-based health writer and functional-medicine certified health coach.

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