Amity Rockwell / Other things too

“How can I put this? I love bikes and I love what I do. But I also love a lot of other things too.”

Bursting onto the gravel scene with her 2019 win at Unbound, Amity Rockwell quit her barista job and turned professional. And now, as she prepares for another season of racing, Amity reflects on her journey so far: from first running to then riding, how she strives to balance a life lived under public scrutiny, and her take on gravel’s ongoing search for identity. A freewheeling conversation that takes in everything from Amity’s own coffee order to the very reasons she rides.

cyclespeak
Hi Amity. Looks like you’re calling from home?

Amity 
That’s right. I’m in Lake Tahoe right now. Up in the mountains so we have plenty of snow. I live at 6,500 ft and most of the peaks are pushing 8,000 ft around here.

cyclespeak
I saw a post by Pete Stetina who lives near you and he was checking for bears before he let his dogs out.

Amity
There’s a few of us gravel racers that live up here. It’s like a Californian altitude retreat and we’re quite a crew. And we do have bears but they’re not dangerous. No one gets attacked—they just want your food. You’re actually excited when you spot one.

cyclespeak
It’s morning for you so I guess you start the day with a coffee?

Amity
I’ve already had my coffee and now moved onto tea. It’s so cold up here that I need a warm beverage at all times. But I am a big coffee person—that was my job before bikes became my sole professional focus.

cyclespeak
So how do you make your coffee at home?

Amity
I just make myself a pour-over. Nice and simple.

cyclespeak
And if you were ordering at a café?

Amity
Drip.

cyclespeak
Not an espresso based drink?

Amity
Just a mug of whatever batch brew they’re serving. That’s the best way to judge a place. If the drip’s not good then forget it. It’s the core of any coffee operation.

cyclespeak
That’s a good tip. And while we’re talking about your recommendations, what’s your take on ride snacks?

Amity
I usually carry sandwiches made with the bread that I bake. So a nice peanut butter and marmalade.

cyclespeak
Interesting. Marmalade rather than jelly?

Amity
I make a lot of marmalade [laughs].

cyclespeak
Smooth or rough cut?

Amity
Rough. And it’s probably very non-traditional but I’ve given some to my British friends and they approved.

cyclespeak
Your name, Amity, sounds a little unfamiliar to my English ear. Is it typically North American?

Amity
I’ve never actually met another Amity [laughs]. My Mom is a total hippy and I think she just wanted me to have an original name. And she came across it because of her friend’s dog.

cyclespeak
So you’re named after your Mum’s friend’s dog?

Amity
I guess so. In a weird way. And it means friendship and goodwill which is kind of nice. But that’s also why it’s used ironically in a lot of horror movies and it’s also the town in Jaws.

cyclespeak
That’s right. It is.

[Amity laughing]

cyclespeak
I was intrigued by how much care you took arranging the sliced pieces of avocado in the Old Pueblo film for Wahoo. Does that reflect your personality?

Amity 
I’m sure it does. And I wasn’t doing it consciously. I’ve done it like that for as long as I can remember—way before I posted about it on Instagram. And when I did put up a video, it got way more views than any of my cycling related content [laughs].

cyclespeak
You mentioned your love of baking and we know you slice avocado very proficiently. Any other hidden talents?

Amity
Oh, gosh.

[pause while Amity is thinking]

I do tend to irritate a good deal of my friends because, everything I do, I’m usually very good at. And I don’t mean to sound full of myself. I just don’t have any time or energy to do things poorly. So if I get into something, I have zero chill about it. I won’t accept not doing it to the highest possible level that I can manage. But I’ve always been somewhat of a perfectionist [laughs].

cyclespeak
And how do you apply this perfectionism?

Amity
In college I did a lot of printmaking and I still draw a lot. People write in a journal but I tend to draw things to help sort my brain out. And I fully can see myself returning to more artistic pursuits once I’m done with bicycles.

cyclespeak
Speaking about bikes, how are your mechanic skills?

Amity
I’m decent. Maybe a little better than most professional racers because I didn’t have a particularly easy way into the sport. When I dropped out of college I got into coffee where I was making $12 something an hour. Not the kind of money you need to access the competitive end of the bike world. So my way around that was volunteering at a community bike workshop in Berkeley. And by putting in the hours there, helping people fix their bikes, I was able to acquire the skills I needed to work on my own bikes. Which is a big expense if you can’t do it yourself. And I could also buy tubes at wholesale prices [laughs].

cyclespeak
Useful skills to have.

Amity
If you’re riding 200 miles, there’s more chance that something will go wrong and having some idea of how to fix things helps you to not panic. I had a relatively clean race when I won Unbound but the year I came back and got second, I had a lot of issues but managed to keep moving. My shifting totally failed at mile 120 but I was able to fix it.

cyclespeak
It was your win at the 2019 Unbound that meant you could quit your barista job and turn professional. Is there anything you miss from those days?

Amity
Oh, absolutely. I miss having a set number of hours a day that I’m at work and then you’re done and you come home. You’re at peace and you can do whatever you want. There’s nothing to think about until you show up for work the next day. More and more – as I manage my own stuff and push my racing career – that’s what I dream about. The luxury of only doing something for a set number of hours per day and then having leisure time. But that’s always going to be the struggle when you turn a hobby into your job.

cyclespeak
Pete Stetina – who we’ve already mentioned – told me how he regularly puts in 50 hour weeks managing all his training, logistics and social media commitments. Does this sound familiar?

Amity
I don’t want to say that I’m not dedicated but I keep all the extra stuff to a minimum. I don’t have my own podcast and I don’t have some super organised approach to social media. So there’s not a huge amount of side projects alongside my racing. Stuff comes up, naturally, but I see those World Tour guys being so applied [laughs].

cyclespeak
I guess we all have varying degrees of focus?

Amity
How can I put this? I love bikes and I love what I do. But I also love a lot of other things too. Yes, I train and ride a lot but I try not to let that totally consume me.

cyclespeak
Is it fair to say you have a different relationship with the bike since turning professional?

Amity
100%. In some ways, it now feels like a job. Before it was my career, I made an explicit point of never riding if I truly didn’t want to. Because I knew it would result in me seeing riding in a negative light. And choosing to not ride would mean I’d want to ride twice as bad the next day and probably go twice as far.

cyclespeak
That makes sense.

Amity
I came to cycling after burning out pretty badly as a runner. My attitude then was you go out no matter what. It wasn’t even my job but that was the mentality I had at that time. But that meant I had to quit running completely which is why I now ride a bike.

cyclespeak
And listen to your body?

Amity
I do. But there’s also times when you don’t want to go out and then after a few minutes you’re loving it. And I have this superstition that it’s those days when I get to see the craziest sunset or PR a climb.

cyclespeak
Sometimes it can be a case of just getting out of the door?

Amity
It is! That’s the most infuriating thing about cycling—that it takes so long to kit up. You need to apply your sunscreen, lube your chain, pump up your tyres, make sure everything is charged. And if it’s cold there’s base layers, jackets and overshoes. Whereas with running, you just need a few moments of intention and you’re out there. With cycling, you have 30 minutes to come up with every excuse why you shouldn’t ride [laughs].

cyclespeak
There’s maybe the odd occasion but it’s rare that I regret a ride.

Amity
Living up here in Lake Tahoe, there are fewer barriers to getting outside. Literally across the road from me is one of the best climbs in California. I don’t need to put the bike in the car or slog through miles of suburbs. When I was living in San Francisco, you’ve got to carry your bike down however many steps and there’s way more traffic. Which is why riding with friends is so important. If you’ve made plans the day before, you don’t let them down.

cyclespeak
Looking back at that Unbound win, the start is quite frenetic with everyone jostling for position. Is it possible to prepare yourself specifically for this particular event? And what part does good fortune play in determining your result?

Amity
I don’t want to come off like a complete asshole but Unbound is not the hardest race that I’ve done. For me personally, I come from the Bay area where long hard rides are a thing and the dirt is pretty gnarly. I didn’t realise until after the fact but I’d done harder races before I rode my first Unbound.

cyclespeak
But it’s talked of with such reverence?

Amity
It’s insane and I do think that winning it was down to a combination of everything going well. Mentally, physically, mechanically, tactically. So, yes, it is a hard race to do well at but I also believe that it’s an achievable goal for most cyclists if they manage to fuel their ride.

cyclespeak
What got you to the start line?

Amity
It was Yuri Hauswald  – who lived not far from me – winning in 2015 that sent ripples through my neighbourhood when he took the top spot. That first made me think that if I worked really hard, then maybe in five years or so I could try racing the event. Meanwhile I’m going to these Grasshoppers which are a local gravel series. And there was one – I’m not even sure if it exists anymore – that was 80 or 90 miles of pavement with 9,000 ft of climbing followed by 20 miles of single track best suited to a full-suspension mountain bike. But you’re on a gravel bike which isn’t really suitable for either section and it’s 100°F in the shade. And that’s what I think about when anyone asks what’s the hardest event I’ve ever raced. There are lots of things about Unbound that make it unique but it’s nice to have that Grasshopper in my back pocket. And it took nearly three years of doing fast, hectic race starts for me to be really comfortable in those situations. But once you deal with the nerves, it’s kind of a gift in a way. Because the first two hours go by and you’ve done almost 50 miles and you’ve had a bunch of help and barely pedalled.

cyclespeak
I believe there are some changes for this year’s Unbound?

Amity
It’s going to be a lot different because they’re separating the elite field from everyone else. And I honestly don’t have a strong opinion either way. A few years ago gravel was so small that it was really important for women to be a part of the main field. And it’s kind of cool that riders like me can just come out of relatively nowhere and do well. So perhaps there’s an argument that there are people just outside of the elite field who could legitimately win.

cyclespeak
And a counter viewpoint?

Amity
On the flip side, possibly there are questions of safety. The more there is on the table, the dumber some people will behave—myself included [laughs]. So maybe it kind of encourages this sense of recklessness. But that’s what’s nice about having a bunch of different race organisers. Everybody can make their own decisions on what kind of race they want to run. Some things are going to stick and some aren’t—there’s not one answer to how you should run a gravel race. I’ve been doing Crusher in the Tushar for years and they’ve always separated the men and women’s starts. But it’s worked because you very quickly reach this two hour climb which sorts things out. But Kansas? It’s a total rush to start with this huge field all wanting the same position. Personally I love that—it’s part of racing. Nobody enters a crit and complains about elbows. It is what it is.

cyclespeak
Riding 200 miles on gravel must give you lots of time to think. Or are you totally focused on your placing, nutrition, listening out for leaking sealant?

Amity
Oh God no. I’m all over the place. Usually I’m playing music in my head—the same three song lines on repeat. You can’t focus for 12 hours and I think the ability to let your brain do whatever it wants is a key aspect of being a successful endurance athlete. Generally, we’re pretty good at entertaining ourselves for hours on end [laughs].

cyclespeak
I guess sponsor partnerships are a vital element of racing professionally and you very recently announced a new relationship with Pas Normal Studios. Have you managed to dry out after that weekend of riding over in the San Francisco Bay area?

Amity
Only just [laughs].

cyclespeak
It looked really wet.

Amity
So wet that it was kind of funny. After a certain point, everything is so bad that you have to take a step back and look at it from a different perspective. And all it takes is two other people saying let’s do this and you’re out there.

cyclespeak
Do you ever train indoors?

Amity
It works great for some people but I’m not mentally strong enough for Zwift. The main reason I ride a bike is to spend time outside. So if the weather is particularly awful and I really don’t want to ride, then I’ll find something else to do. And I tend to do well at races in really terrible conditions which is probably because I will ride my bike in pretty much anything. Even up here when there’s 10 ft of snow either side of the road, if it’s over 40°F and not too icy then I’ll ride. Anything beats staying indoors and getting even more screen time than I already do.

cyclespeak
Your Instagram feed beautifully documents the strong friendships you’ve forged with other riders and industry professionals. You’re wearing Dominique Power’s sweater in her Camelbak shots of you—much to her sister’s amusement. Are these relationships incredibly important?

Amity
I guess that’s the short answer to why I’m doing what I’m doing. Like I said, previous to bikes I was a runner and that’s a very solitary pursuit. But I was fine with being a loner—I’ve always had the kind of personality that doesn’t need to be constantly socialising.

cyclespeak
But now that you ride bikes?

Amity
Cycling has been this crazy way to enjoy really strong female friendships that I never experienced growing up or at college. Super important but in an ironic way we’re all such good friends because we’re the type of people not to have a lot of close friends. Biking is this weird kind of enabler for all of us.

cyclespeak
So would you say the bike helps balance your life?

Amity
I think there was probably a time when that was the case but it can also work in the opposite direction.

cyclespeak
Interesting.

Amity
I do meet a lot of professional cyclists that let their life revolve around the bike. Which, in turn, means they’re incredibly good at what they do. But I don’t think I’d be successful as a traditional pro. Despite being pretty strong, I would never have made it in the road scene. I don’t have that single mindedness and I never will. So it’s such a blessing that we now have this weird discipline called gravel where you can still be very, very good without being 100% focused all the time.

cyclespeak
You’re known for standing up for beliefs and causes you feel are important. And you also reference on your Substack newsletter how difficult 2022 was. So I was wondering whether your public platform proves a challenge, a privilege or a mix of sometimes conflicting thoughts and emotions?

Amity
I suppose it’s fair to question why you should bother having such a public existence if you’re not going to use it for some purpose. And I do think there’s an obligation once you reach a certain level in the sport to shape it how you believe it should look moving forward. But do I enjoy it? I really don’t know.

[pause as Amity gathers her thoughts]

Amity
Attention is great. I love when I meet someone out on the trails and they know who I am. That’s always going to feel good. But I’m also envious of my friends who can be whoever they want to be on Instagram or decide not to post anything at all for six months. And when something happens, there’s no expectation that they should say anything about it.

cyclespeak
But you need to maintain a social media presence?

Amity
And I honestly don’t think it comes naturally to me. The one thing I have figured out is that it’s best not to think about it too much [laughs]. And I have a few rules such as not posting anything if I’m not 100% sure about what I’m saying. And I’ll also stick to my guns about certain issues which I think resonates with some people.

cyclespeak
I think they respect the fact that when you say something, it is you saying it.

Amity
That’s got me in hot water before.

[cyclespeak laughs]

Amity
There was some discourse – maybe about two years ago – about making all these rules in gravel. And I got so mad that I sat down and just cranked out this piece about the spirit of gravel. I have connections at VeloNews – mostly my friend Betsy Welch – and she immediately published it. Shortly after I had this major sponsor reach out to say they loved how I was out there, talking about stuff, but could I just give them a heads-up next time [laughs].

cyclespeak
We live and learn.

Amity
That’s the funny thing with sponsorship. I’m unapologetically myself – quite scrappy and totally self-sufficient – but then you get bigger brands coming in and wanting to support you but also wanting to have some amount of ownership over your brand and what you say and do.

cyclespeak
That sounds like it takes some navigating?

Amity
Trust is needed from both parties and that’s something I don’t always find easy. I can be quite stubborn and I do like to say what’s on my mind. So some relationships work and some don’t but for the most part it’s been good.

cyclespeak
I guess life isn’t all plain sailing [smiles].

Amity
It wasn’t any different in coffee. I’m sure all my employers back then found me occasionally difficult [laughs].

cyclespeak
Speaking of difficulties, I listen to a lot of different podcasts that reference the growing pains of the North American gravel scene.

Amity
It’s like adolescence with gravel trying to figure out its core sense of identity.

cyclespeak
You must have noticed some changes over the past few years?

Amity
In 2016 I was racing road because back then, you couldn’t make a living in gravel. I’d show up to try and accumulate some points but they’d say the race didn’t qualify because the women’s field was so small. So gravel was this revelation because I wasn’t pigeonholed. We showed up, riding whatever bike we had and we all raced together. And the contrast between those two extremes was so insane to me. It’s done more for women’s equality in cycling than anything else I can think of.

cyclespeak
Sharing the same roll out for example?

Amity
What gravel has done is give us this space to outwardly demonstrate how strongly women can race. Which perhaps is why you see more equality in sponsorship, prize money and coverage when compared to road racing.

cyclespeak
What does your season look like in terms of racing? Will we see a return to Unbound?

Amity
I love Unbound and see that as an absolute key aspect of my success there. A lot of people don’t seem to enjoy it and maybe it’s something they feel they have to do? It’s not for everybody and that’s absolutely fine. Personally, I feel it’s a fantastic event. The energy is insane and the course is a perfect distance for me. Enough time for everything to fall apart and be put back together again. And succeeding in something difficult and challenging is what keeps me out on the bike all year.

cyclespeak
What else is planned?

Amity
I’ve got a 24 hour cross-country race. And I’m thinking how cool it would be to set a FKT* but you can imagine how much can happen in 24 hours [laughs]. Maybe I can only ride for 13 hours because that’s the longest I’ve ever ridden. And I’m also finally getting out to Kenya for the Migration Race. Never been to Africa, never raced in those conditions. Literally no clue what that’s going to be like [laughs].

*Fastest Known Time

cyclespeak
Sounds super exciting.

Amity
It’s half events that I know and love. And the other half? Who knows what will happen. But I took that chance at Kansas and it led me here.

cyclespeak
Putting aside racing, what would a pretty perfect day look like?

Amity
I always say I prefer training to racing. So a perfect day would start with a good cup of coffee followed by a long, mountain bike ride. And then coming home and getting to do something creative. I really enjoy cooking and baking so something with food would be satisfying on a personal level.

cyclespeak
That sounds like a nice, peaceful day.

Amity
I sometimes make the straightforward seem a little complicated. But generally? My life is full of pretty simple things.

Amity Rockwell

Feature image with kind permission of Dominique Powers

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