It’s pretty common these days to see professional roadies make the transition into gravel. The racing and even the bikes are pretty similar, so it’s not a big stretch to make the leap. But what about coming to gravel from downhill? Now we’re talking about switching from races that are about 2-miles long with zero elevation gain to races that are 200-miles long with 10’000-feet of climbing. Race times go from a few minutes to hours…lots of hours. And that’s not even getting into how different the bikes are. The switch from downhill to gravel is way less common and a lot harder to wrap your head around…but let me introduce you to Kathy Pruitt.
Kathy is the type of person who makes you a better rider and fall in love with bikes a little more just by going on a single ride with her. She has that much skill and overflows with good vibes. If you know Kathy’s name, you might remember her as one of the world’s top downhill racers in the early 2000s. Or maybe you got a Juliana, Evil, or Canyon demo bike from her during her time working for those brands. Or possibly you’ve seen her pop-up at some recent gravel events. Either way, Kathy Pruitt is a name worth paying attention to and a person you’ll hopefully have the pleasure to meet.
This weekend, Kathy will be lining up for her longest race ever, plus her longest ride ever: the Unbound Gravel 200. Up until Unbound, her longest ride was 152 miles, so she’s officially entering uncharted territory. At 38 years old, Kathy has made the choice to pursue one of the most physically demanding forms of bike racing, and I think that’s so badass. She’s officially made the switch from standing on World Cup DH podiums to chasing gravel glory. That path wasn’t linear or very easy for her, and that’s what makes her journey even more interesting. She’s overcome some challenges and has reinvented herself in a pretty major way, but the one thing that has remained consistent is her massive smile and positive outlook.
I’ve known Kathy casually for a few years and have been super fortunate to get to know her on a more personal level over the last few months. We’re both riding on the new Flashpoint MVMNT squad, so we’ve had more opportunities to ride together and just hang out. She’s somebody I always enjoyed being around, and now that I know more about her story, she’s become a person who really inspires me. I had the chance to dig a little deeper into her story, and I’m excited to share that conversation with you. I hope you enjoy getting to know the wonderful Kathy Pruitt…
Kathy made the switch from 2-mile downhill races to 200-mile gravel races.
Kathy, you are such a cool person, not to mention a total shredder. I can’t wait to learn more about your story, so let’s jump in. Where did you grow up?
KP: On the west coast in California is where I call home. Born in the South Bay (San Jose, CA) and moved to Lake Almanor, in the mountains when I was 14.
Where do you live now?
KP: That is a tricky question since I have always been a nomadic person. Most recently I lived in San Diego for two years. But lately, I’ve been spending more and more time back in the Santa Cruz and Northern California mountains.
Kathy raced motocross as a kid, inspired by her older sister.
How old were you when you started riding bikes, and what are some of your earliest memories on the bike?
KP: I got my first mountain bike when I was 13. But, I had a BMX bike before that which I raced on at the local track for about a year. If I had to go back to my first memory on a bike it would be about 3 years old. My motivation was watching my older sister, Jeannie, race motocross, and I wanted to do the same.
Kathy (15c) lined up next to her sister (52), as their dad talks to the race starter.
You’ve mentioned learning to mountain bike from your dad. What is his history with mountain biking?
KP: My dad, Glenn, was a huge influence on my path to racing mountain bikes. He rode and raced flat track and motocross in the 70’s. Before I had a mountain bike, he had never ridden one. Because of the skills from the motorcycle we both picked it up quickly. We would drive to Wilder Ranch in Santa Cruz, CA every weekend and ride for a few hours. I chased him up the hills and tried to pass him on the downhills. In a way, he was my first real mountain biking friend. I didn’t know anyone else at the time who rode, let alone close to my age.
Did your dad play a big role in the path your life ended up taking?
KP: Yes, a huge role! The support my dad and mom provided me made it possible to have the opportunity to pursue mountain biking and racing. My dad had encouraged and supported my sister when she was a professional motocross racer, and now it was time to do the same for me. He was the best at getting me ready for racing, and the bikes were always perfectly running. He was self taught at working on the mountain bikes. Having equipment that didn’t fail and a supportive figure like that encouraged me to take chances and continue to pursue being my best on two wheels.
Kathy’s dad always made sure she was race-ready, like at this NORBA National slalom race in 1998 or 1999.
You had quite an impressive downhill racing career. How did you go from chasing your dad in Wilder Ranch to becoming a professional athlete?
KP: I discovered downhill racing at a local race near Mt. Hamilton where I was racing my first cross country race. I’d always enjoyed the thrill and adrenaline of going fast, and to me this was the closest I could get to simulating motocross racing. A few weeks later I asked if we could go to Donner Ski Ranch in Lake Tahoe and race at a downhill event. After that race I was lucky enough to meet some really good people who would be a huge help to me and the direction of my life. Keith DeFiebre introduced himself to me and my dad and explained that I had real talent and we should keep coming to the races. He would later introduce us to the owner (at the time) of Santa Cruz Bicycles, Rob Roskopp. My dad and I both had our mountain bikes stolen from our garage a few weeks later, this was a misfortune that turned out lucky because this was the chance to get on a Santa Cruz bicycle. Rob offered my dad and I a discount on a Heckler and a Tazmon, and I resumed racing the California state downhill series and winning all of the 8 stops in expert women. I was 14 years old. The next year Santa Cruz sponsored me and at 15 yrs old I entered my first pro race at Mammoth Mountain.
Kathy in the rainbow stripes, hugging her sister after winning the Junior DH World Championship in 2000.
You won the Junior DH World Championship in 2000. What did it feel like to earn those stripes?
KP: Amazing! I had achieved 2nd at the World Championships the year before in Are, Sweden in ‘99, and I wanted that gold medal so badly after that. USA Cycling had a program for the juniors at the time where we would go to training camps at Olympic Training Centers all over the US and have a coach help with technical and aerobic training year round. Stephane Girard was an amazing mentor and coach with so much experience, and his racing methods and mentality helped me to get on that top step.
Kathy finishing in style at a NORBA National in Durango, CO.
After your Junior World Championship title, you went on to have a successful career racing elite downhill, often finding yourself on the podium of World Cups and even finishing 3rd at Elite World Championships in 2009. Can you share some highlights from that time?
KP: So many great memories from the 13 years of competing at World Cups, it’s hard to pick only a few. The World Cup in Grouse Mountain in 2003 was so cool. The track was much shorter in length than a typical course back then at only 2 minutes. I qualified 1st, and for me this meant I was so close to winning my first World Cup as an elite. Sadly, I did not. Slipped pedal near the last stretch and I landed a top 3. The crowd here was amazing, pouring rain and cold didn’t stop the Candian fans from cheering us all on. Another memory I have is from Ft William, Scotland. Insane crowds and cheering every year, combined with the the track just made this a special stop no matter what. One of my first world cups was in the state of Washington in 98’ at Snoqualmie Pass. I was there with a Santa Cruz team mate and chaperon Rob Sears. I remember in practice I crashed down a slippery part of the track down a steep shoot avoiding another female rider out practicing. I looked down and my derailleur was missing. It had snapped off and gotten lost somewhere in the very muddy track. We would often ride in insane wet conditions at World Cups. Traveling home, my riding shoes must have weighed about 15 pounds. It was always a special treat to be able to wash your gear and have it dry before traveling to the next destination. The camaraderie we shared with the traveling circus of racers on the World Cup tour was all time. I’ll never forget the challenges, triumphs, and laughs shared with all of my friends.
Kathy with the #1 plate at the Snowshoe West Virginia NORBA while leading the series in 2005.
After your bronze medal at the 2009 Elite World Championships, you retired in 2010. What brought you to that decision?
KP: I had not intended for 2010 to be my last season racing World Cups, but after a nasty crash in practice at the US National Championships in Sol Vista Basin in Grandy, Colorado, I had to re-think what I wanted. I was feeling like I was riding great that year, with the bronze medal the year before in Canberra, Australia to confirm it, I knew this could be a great season. Unfortunately, life had different plans for me. I was dialing in a sequence of large jumps on the course near the end of the practice day, and when I landed my bike broke. My rear shock bolt snapped and my bike folded inward which ejected me forward. I landed about 20 feet away below an aspen tree. My body had impacted the tree in such a way that I broke my scapula, 9 ribs, fractured a few vertebrae, and had a pneumothorax or collapsed lung with blood inside. I was in a bad way. I was airlifted to a Denver hospital and put in the ICU for about 5 days.
A few months later when I was working on recovery and getting my body back to fighting shape I was disheartened to not receive any help with medical bills from sponsors. I didn’t expect it, but I was hoping to get some relief from my mountain of bills. I began to feel like I was disposable and now that Kathy Pruitt (the athlete) was out of commission that she was useless to any companies. I thought this cycling community was my family and we would look out after each other. But, at the time I felt betrayed. I really just felt like I didn’t matter, and that feeling prompted me to re-evaluate where my priorities were. I went back to school at a local community college in Santa Cruz and decided to turn my attention and focus to something new.
So you had a serious injury, and your sponsors at the time didn’t help you get through that. You’ve mentioned to me that back then you felt like women in particular weren’t getting adequate support as professional athletes, and that weighed into your decision to retire. Do you feel like support for women has improved?
KP: So much yes. Support is being leveled up with women receiving more of the sponsor’s dollars and being recognized as athletes worth investing in. I am proud to see the progress in terms of marketing women and with women as athletes stepping it up and really giving it everything.
What more can the bike industry do to better support women?
KP: Continue to look at female athletes as equal in our efforts, training, and racing as the men. In downhill races, women and men are on the same courses and this means that we are out there practicing the same, taking risks, and are deserving of the support from companies.
After you retired from downhill racing in 2010, what path did your life take over the next decade?
KP: The first few years when I wasn’t traveling on the circuit were spent trying to focus on things in my life that I had put on the back burner. I wanted to grow as a human and connect to what really made me happy. I coached for about 2 years with a company called the Dirt Series, run out of BC, Canada. I wanted to give back my knowledge of riding and help women conquer their fears on mountain bikes. I figured, if I felt women were not a priority in the bike industry, that I would try and change that. More women on bikes meant it would be hard to ignore a growing demographic within this industry. More women on high end bikes shredding and demanding better bikes for themselves also meant I was helping to build an undeniable force that would be heard in the bike industry. While I was in school at Cabrillo College, I worked at a bike shop called Family Cycling Center in Santa Cruz, CA. For the first few years I was coaching, working at a bike shop, and doing contract work with GoPro at events. I was busy but loving the new fresh experiences. 2014 was when I started at Santa Cruz Bicycles managing the Juliana Bicycles demo program. After two years of seeing parts of the USA I never had and really feeling like I wanted to put down more roots (or at least try too), I took an in-house job with Santa Cruz and worked in the showroom and demo program. Fast forward and I landed a job in Washington with Evil bicycles. I wanted to live closer to my friends in Canada and the PNW and this was my chance. After a while I took another job with 100percent in San Diego and enjoyed the duality of working for a company that also had its roots in the moto industry. When Canyon bicycles reached out to me I was ready to take on some new challenges and be back in the bike industry.
When Kathy started working at Canyon, she discovered a love of drop bars and quickly brought her downhill skills to a brand new discipline for her: gravel.
So fast forward to 2020 when you set your sights on becoming a fulltime professional gravel cyclist. Downhill and gravel racing are about as polar opposite as it gets. How did you find yourself making such a dramatic transition?
KP: I like to be active and healthy and I’ll always find a way to do that. Living in San Diego I found that the year round awesome weather meant lots of opportunities to get outside and run, bike, swim, etc. The driving to the mountains was pretty far and after a while I became tired of the hour drive to the trails and back. When I started at Canyon I was able to take out a road bike and try it out to see if I enjoyed being on a drop bar bike. I met some really great people that showed me the ropes of road riding and I began to frequent the group rides in the area. I found that I had handling skills and lungs which I didn’t think I had. I took my fitness from road biking and applied it to something more familiar, dirt.
Kathy in her first gravel race ever, the 2019 BWR in San Diego. Clearly, she was catching the gravel bug.
What was your first gravel race, and what was that like for you?
KP: First gravel event was the BWR 2019 in San Diego, CA. I signed up because I was new to San Diego and wanted a challenge. I bought a Stigmata bike from Santa Cruz Bicycles, and started to ride back and forth to work when I was at 100percent. I had no idea how to train for this 132ish miles race that year, but I would just go out and ride for 2-3 hours. Race day was hard, I went out with the main group and blew up in Black Canyon. It was a long day, but it was a life changing day. I made friends along the way that I still stay in touch with to this day. The sport was inviting and fun and a little crazy. I was hooked.
What gravel race result are you most proud of so far?
KP: BWR Cedar City 2020. I battled my way back from an early crash and proved to myself that I was mentally strong. I was proud of my second place.
Finish line photo at the 2020 BWR in Cedar City. Bloody knees, sore body, and proud soul after finishing 2nd.
Most professional cyclists who transfer over to gravel come from a competitive road background or maybe cross country, but it’s rare to make the leap from downhill. What were the biggest challenges or surprises when you started racing gravel?
KP: Nutrition, road tactics, and proper equipment. Coming from a time trial style racing background in downhill I was unfamiliar with road tactics, drafting, breakaways, selections, saving energy, etc. I never had to eat for rides before, now I was trying to fuel myself for 100+ mile races. Having the right clothing and bike equipment is so important when it comes to endurance sports like this.
Through all of your experience, you must have amazing knowledge when it comes to racing, from mindset and attitude to training and preparation. What lessons from downhill carryover to your approach racing gravel?
KP: The best laid plans may fail and you have to have the mindset to adapt. Consistently checking in with how I’m feeling, physically and mentally, and giving myself positive feedback have all helped me while in the saddle for hours.
The classic Kathy smile after finishing 9th at the 2021 Grasshopper Adventure Series Huffmaster.
It seems like you are always smiling and having a fun time. Is that your secret to being a successful athlete?
KP: Smiling makes me happy, it can even change my mental outlook. The act of laughing and smiling can switch my brain into a reset mode where I can decide to make the most of whatever I am doing.
You’re headed to Kansas this weekend for your biggest race of the year: the Unbound Gravel 200. It’s pretty wild that you’ve gone from racing 2-mile downhill tracks to 200-mile gravel courses. How are you feeling heading into Unbound?
KP: I am nervous about the unknown of 200 miles. I know I have been training and preparing, but I don’t quite know the perfect formula for getting ready for 12-14 hrs in the saddle. The only time I spent that amount of time in the saddle was when I everested Palomar mountain. I think when I get to the start line, I will know what to do.
Kathy has been putting in a lot of long training days in Northern CA to prepare for Unbound Gravel 200.
Let’s pretend you’re on the start line of Unbound. What is going through your head moments before the race starts?
KP: Breath, relax, focus, believe, ride smart. I will be saying these things to myself to give me confidence and calm me. Sometimes there is absolutely nothing going through my head during a race or at a start line, I’m hoping that I can just find a focused “in the zone” state of mind.
Now you’re 100 miles into Unbound. That sounds like a lot, but you still have 100 to go. How are you keeping yourself motivated to turn the pedals?
KP: Halfway there baby! I will remind myself that I owe it to myself to keep pushing, I have already gone 100. So many others out there will be doubting, and I need to know that it’s part of the reason why this event is so hard. Just keep turning over the pedals, and I will get to that finish line.
Now you’re at mile 175. You’re almost there. What food or drink are you dreaming of inhaling when you cross the finish line?
KP: Maybe a vanilla milkshake, maybe just plain water, definitely something salty!
What other events are you planning to attend this year, and do you have any key goals?
KP: BWR San Diego is a big one, I want to perform well there. The Trans Rockies Gravel Royal is another event that I am really looking forward to, it’s five days of riding in British Columbia. And I want to podium at any Grinduro I do. I can’t wait to see what happens this year.
Kathy with the rest of the Flashpoint MVMNT squad: Amanda Schaper, Nehemiah Brown, and Andrew Jackson.
You’re on Flashpoint MVMNT now, a squad that is focused on removing the barriers that keep people from riding bikes to introduce new people to the sport. What do you hope to accomplish through your spot on Flashpoint MVMNT?
KP: I want people to believe in the impossible, to believe in themselves, and to stay true to who they are. So many times in our daily lives we doubt ourselves, but I think sports can help build real confidence. It’s funny, the hardest thing to do for humans is to be ourselves and not cave to the pressures of society and what’s expected. Bikes are a great outlet for people to show their personality, style, and character.
What are some things everybody can do to make the cycling community more welcoming and inclusive to all riders?
KP: Say hi! Just the act of a wave or hello will do so much. Also, when you see someone on the side of the road or trail, ask if they need help or if they are ok. Make this a less intimidating environment, and we will see this sport grow.
Let’s finish by going full circle. Your dad taught you how to mountain bike. How proud is he of everything you’ve accomplished and the stellar athlete (and person) you’ve become? Do you think of him every time you line up for a race and use those good memories to motivate you?
KP: I think he is very proud of my accomplishments, he sees me putting in the work and making sacrifices to see them through. I know he is proud. I think of my dad for sure, I would imagine he would be out in front of me, and I’m chasing him down on my first mountain bike.
Kathy overflows with good vibes, and it will be fun to see everything she’ll accomplish on the gravel circuit.
Anything else you’d like to share?
KP: I can’t express how honored and thankful I am to have the support I currently do going into the next two years. Who would have thought I’d be racing again and have the support of these amazing companies: Canyon Bicycles, Giro, Wahoo, Zipp, SRAM, WTB, Thule, RockShox, Carmichael Training Systems and my coach Matt Freeman, Urban Armor Gear, and Raw Elements, plus the rest of the Flashpoint MVMNT squad.
Thanks Kathy for sharing your story. We’ll all be cheering for you this weekend as you race Unbound Gravel 200!
KP: Thank you for the opportunity to share my story, I hope it might spark a fire inside someone to try something new and get outside your comfort zone whatever that may be. And remember “your past does not equal your future.”
Kathy is inspired by the quote, “She conquered her demons and wore her scars like wings” (Atticus). Kathy says, “Coming back from injury and remembering who I am and what I’ve done is always hard. Believing in yourself makes all the difference.”