Amity Rockwell talks with Trek Race Shop about overcoming doubt and how she reps the Bay Area
Amity Rockwell felt like a gravel racer before “gravel racing” became a well-understood term in cycling vernacular. She was a gravel racer even before she entered her first gravel race, in fact, at least in spirit.
As an athlete, Rockwell has always enjoyed unique challenges that lead to moments of self-discovery. Her mother was an ultra-marathoner, which explains where Rockwell may have gotten her “the longer, the better” attitude. Most importantly, Rockwell never enjoyed the way that some sports can feel all-or-nothing, as if your worth is directly measured by when you cross the finish line.
In gravel, the journey matters.
“As a professional, it’s not like every race is great,” Rockwell says. “I probably have 10 bad races for every good one. But even those 10 bad ones, I come out of it with this really fulfilling experience and a lot learned, this new place I’ve seen and all these new friends I’ve made. It’s just always this positive, positive thing.”
[Trek has] always, to me, represented this level of professionalism that I've always aspired to as an athlete.
Rockwell is joining Trek as part of a new program taking on some of the hardest and most unique cycling challenges in the United States and beyond. She’ll be racing events like Unbound Gravel in Kansas, where she won in 2019 and took second in 2021, but she may tack on road and mountain biking events, too. Above all, she wants to push herself to new heights physically, while celebrating the camaraderie and spirit of boundary-pushing racing of all kinds.
Rockwell was drawn to Trek because of the way the brand has supported women’s cycling across all of its teams.
“[Trek has] always, to me, represented this level of professionalism that I’ve always aspired to as an athlete,” Rockwell says. “They’re such an established brand that has been supporting people like me in my position for a while, so it was just this really obvious next step in furthering where I’m trying to go with all this.”
Rockwell spoke with Race Shop about overcoming doubt as an athlete, representing the Bay Area and what she’s looking forward to most with her latest opportunity. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Why did Trek feel like the place for you?
Amity Rockwell: Personally, I’ve always always had a high opinion of Trek because of the sheer number of female athletes that they sponsor and their commitment to presenting women’s bike racing equally to men’s. That has just been super obvious to me since becoming involved with the sport. We have a number of local pros out of here who I have looked up to who are Trek athletes. Probably the most obvious is Taylor Wiles. She lives up here too. And so I’ve always thought, ‘Oh Trek is interested in supporting the person I want to be someday. Great.’
A fun detail is that my commuter bike, a townie that I built up like five years ago, is actually a Trek. It’s an ’86 steel Trek that I completely repainted and built up myself. That’s honestly the bike I ride the most often. No matter what, I’m bumping around on my townie.
They’ve always to me represented this level of professionalism that I’ve always aspired to as an athlete. They’re such an established brand that has been supporting people like me in my position for a while, so it was just this really obvious next step in furthering where I’m trying to go with all this.
I'm super happy that a brand as major as Trek, who has been doing this for so long, is totally open to throwing out the rulebook and being like, 'All right, we're open to learning how this operates.'
And what are you presenting to the world through this program?
Rockwell: I very much think that in gravel, we have really, really worked hard to preserve and maintain this authenticity of like, ‘OK, I’m using all these things, and I’m running all these things because it’s 100 percent what I believe in, because I think this is the best equipment and this is what enables me to do well, and these are the people who I think are just really good people.’ And I always wanted that to be the case, instead of just jumping on board a program for the sake of being in a program, or because that was who could contribute money, etc.
And Trek was receptive, which is awesome! I’m super happy that a brand as major as Trek, who has been doing this for so long, is totally open to throwing out the rulebook and being like, ‘All right, we’re open to learning how this operates.’ They totally want to know my experience and how I’ve navigated the past few years, and then just enhance that with a little bit of structure and a higher level of support. So I can keep doing all the rad things that I like [laughs], but in a more polished and coordinated fashion that takes the annoying, stressful parts of it out for me, which is incredible.
You’ve always been a great endurance athlete. What drew you to gravel racing as a discipline?
Rockwell: It’s not my first sport, but I definitely see my journey in cycling as one of being a pure gravel racer. At least as pure as we get. I do think what separates me in an important way from a lot of other professionals right now in the discipline is that I went pro in gravel. I’m not a retired road racer. I’m not a triathlete. I’m not coming off the World Tour like so many of our top riders now. When I went professional it was as a gravel athlete. Which I think is rad. And even though my intentions were to go pro on the road when I first started taking it seriously, that was only because gravel did not exist as a career.
In all honesty, I’m just a really pure endurance athlete at heart. Thanks to my mom, who was an ultra distance runner, that’s just always what I grew up with and what I gravitated towards. And women’s road racing is never long enough. It never reaches a distance to where I start to excel ahead of anybody else. Whereas gravel racing, from the beginning, was always like, ‘All right, everybody’s in this race, it’s the same distance, and it’s generally really far and pretty hard.’ [Laughs]. And so I think that was a really obvious choice for me.
I'm just a really pure endurance athlete at heart. Thanks to my mom, who was an ultra distance runner, that's just always what I grew up with.
I honestly just feel incredibly lucky. It’s impossible not to see it as this serendipitous thing where my interest in bikes ran parallel with the surge in gravel. The first obvious peak was winning Unbound Gravel in 2019. I showed up with just enough experience and a ton of hours on the bike and a lot of willpower, and everything beautifully aligned to come out of that race and start doing what I love.
That wasn’t too long ago. What does it feel like to have gotten to this point of your career, where you can comfortably race professionally, so quickly? Is it overwhelming, or does it still feel fun?
Rockwell: It’s really fun, and I think for the most part I’m figuring out how to enjoy it. That isn’t to say that it’s never stressful. Especially because everything’s so new. There’s no real playbook of how this all works. So in terms of setting up a program, or negotiating my own contracts, there’s very few people I can call and be like, ‘OK, how does this work?’
It’s hard to see or feel any pattern in the last couple years because a matter of months after I went professional, Covid started. So my first professional year was under lockdown, and we didn’t race at all. That forced me to go into racing this year completely blind, to a point where I almost talked myself into thinking that the Kansas victory was a fluke and I was never going to achieve a similar result again.
That was cured a little bit when I got second this year. That helped me a lot. And then it was easy to approach the rest of the year with a little bit of confidence and be like, ‘All right, this is still happening for me, and I’ve got it together.’
Why do you think people have such passionate feelings about gravel? What’s the sport’s appeal compared to the dozens of other disciplines within the cycling sphere?
Rockwell: I would like to think it’s the accessibility. I think we have let people get really, really close to it. Like, so close that you can come and participate in any of these things that we’re doing. You can sign up and you can get in the chute right next to us and say, ‘How’s it going?’ [Laughs]
In terms of the professional sphere, it’s this awesome little section of the cycling Venn diagram where everybody’s doing it for the love. And there’s more crossover than not. So I think just letting people have all those connections and interact with us in really honest ways, I think that’s done amazing things for gravel. I think that’s why people do care so much, because there is that intimacy and there always has been.
There’s so much gray area between ‘Pro’ and ‘Not Pro’ and a ‘Hobbyist.’ Hopefully we all come out of every event with something.
I think that's why people do care so much [about gravel], because there is that intimacy and there always has been.
Talking with Kiel Reijnen last year, he described the goal of gravel as coming away from every race with a memory or a story, as opposed to a result.
Rockwell: Yeah, and even just on a personal level, I think that’s easily what drew me to it over road racing. For road races, I would drive to all these places, and I would race like 10 women and not see anything or do anything, and then drive home. It was like, if you won, great, you won, and you could be proud about that. But if you didn’t win, you got absolutely nothing from the experience. And I mean, as a professional, it’s not like every race is great. I probably have 10 bad races for every good one. But even those 10 bad ones, I come out of it with this really fulfilling experience and a lot learned, this new place I’ve seen and all these new friends I’ve made. It’s just always this positive, positive thing.
I read that you had started a Discord channel for women as a space to talk about cycling. Have you maintained that channel, and what’s that been like?
Rockwell: It still exists. It’s a little bit quiet right now, to be honest, but hopefully it’ll be back up when racing starts, because that’s when it was the most useful. Before races there’d always be these conversations of, ‘OK, who’s coming? What tires are you running? What’s your strategy for Kansas?’
I organized a small shakeout ride the Friday before Unbound via that channel. There’s a jobs board in there where, if somebody has an opening and they work in the industry, they let everyone know. I’ve given away a ton of gear, and then other women have too. And then a large part of what it has been is people finding other women in their area to ride with.
When I was living in Santa Barbara I made a really good friend off of there just by asking if there was anybody else riding in Santa Barbara, because I was having trouble meeting people. So it’s been really useful in all those small ways.
How are you looking to push yourself next season under this partnership, both on and off the bike?
Rockwell: From an athletic standpoint, I’m less concerned about winning every single gravel race, and more focused on doing things that constantly push me as an individual. As long as gravel is still presenting me with those opportunities, then I’ll stay focused. I think probably the hardest race I did last year was Leadville. So now that’s this really, really fascinating thing for me, just because I went there and got absolutely spit out. And that’s always been the most interesting to me, the things that seem impossible until you do them.
I'm less concerned about winning every single gravel race, and more focused on doing things that constantly push me as an individual.
That’s what Kansas used to be for me, it used to be a ‘maybe someday, when I’m better at this’ type of goal. It’s those challenges that appeal to me. And they could be on gravel, they could be non-gravel, they could even have nothing to do with bikes. I still really want to run Western States someday, because that’s a thing in the back of my mind where I’m like, ‘Oh, that seems impossible.’ [Laughs].
So I think this coming year, with Trek, having a partnership with a brand as established as them just gives me that freedom to see who I want to become as a cyclist. Hopefully that means cementing some victories that are maybe a little bit more expected, like Kansas, but then also having the support and all the tools I need to go to Leadville and do well, or do any of the other mountain bike races, like the Grand Prix, and do well at those. Or just branch out a little bit and see what’s there for me.
Do you have a favorite race or a favorite memory while racing?
Rockwell: I remember showing up to one of the Grasshopper Series races in February or March in 2018, before I was on the radar. But just to exemplify how awesome it is to live here and be around the cycling community that I train with, I showed up and Katerina Nash and Alison Tetrick were there, two of these absolute icons of the sport. It was the first race I remember believing, ‘OK, I feel like I belong at the front. I’m legitimately racing these people.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, Kat and Ali showed up, so I’ll get third.’ I very much was able to go in there with the mentality of ‘I have a chance.’
And it was just one of those insane days that you look back on and you’re like, ‘I don’t know how I survived that.’ It was hailing, it was dumping rain on us, it was so cold. It was one of the first races we had that season. It was a real hand-to-hand battle between all of us. And I managed to win somehow, despite having some really poor race tactics. I destroyed myself. Ali almost caught me at the end.
I still remember so many details from the day. The lead changed so many times, and so many things happened. [Laughs].
The Grasshoppers are casual, we don’t even have a formal podium, but I have this picture of all of us standing in a row on top of the hill afterwards with our hands up. I would look at that picture all the time to be like, ‘OK, I got this. I belong here. Things are OK.’ [Laughs]. Because I think for me, one of the things I struggled with going professional in a burgeoning sport was that it’s hard to legitimize yourself when you’re not pursuing something concrete. And for me, I had to believe that I belonged up there and could win.
Gravel just feels like the gates are wide open, and if anybody wants to put in the work, they can get there.
What’s the camaraderie like in the sport? Those were people who were ostensibly your rivals, but it sounds like you’re close.
Rockwell: It’s the best. It’s really, really special. And I think it’s just because gravel is growing so much right now, and there is so much opportunity to be had if you want to just go get it, that it creates this very supportive environment. Back when I was pursuing road racing, there were so few opportunities, and so many people who didn’t make it professionally, that it very much felt like when you met somebody else who was trying to achieve the same goals, there was this ‘it’s me or you’ energy between you. Which is really unhelpful to making any friends.
Gravel just feels like the gates are wide open, and if anybody wants to put in the work, they can get there. It’s been super easy to feel supportive towards anyone who also wants what you have, because I very much feel like we can all have it at this point.