Traveling overseas to race 360 kilometers in the midst of the demanding schedule of the Lifetime Grand Prix might not sound like the best strategy from a strict performance standpoint. Sarah Sturm writes about what else fed her motivation to line up for Europe’s most popular gravel race and why toeing the line at The Traka in Girona was, actually, exactly what she needed. Read on for Sarah’s reflections, a film by Benjamin Kraushaar and Dylan Stucki, and photos by Alex Roszko from her very long day.
Bike racing is often about so much more than just the glory of a finish, the epic attack, the heartbreaking loss. For me it’s also about what you get to experience. Who you share those moments with. The Traka is one of those events that will lure you in with beauty but challenge your mentality and physicality over many hours on the bike. There are a lot of unknowns but one thing is guaranteed: you’ll learn something new at the end of a very, very long day.
I didn’t consider what it might feel like to race 360k when I clicked ‘register’—I’d never ridden that far in a single push before. But after seeing a course photo of an amazing winding dirt road, twisting up a coastal mountain scape, I was fully committed. I wanted to see what the enchanting hills surrounding Girona had in store for me. So I did what I do best to experience a new place: I signed up to race my bike.
The Traka offers four distances: 360k, 200k, 100k and 50k. Unlike some major US gravel races where the pros gravitate to a specific—and often longest—distance, the Traka had a wide breadth of competitors throughout each race. As I’ve learned, Girona is a scene for cyclists. It’s home, or the half-year home, to many road and, now, off-road pros. So, a lot of these pros sign up to race one of The Traka’s events based on specific racing and training goals. It was both refreshing albeit intimidating to see such big names across the board in each race. I appreciated that it wasn’t just one of the distances that all of the pros did, it felt more open for choice which was very different than in the US.
Coming into The Traka, my only previous European gravel racing experience was at the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championship last year in Italy. Naturally, the vibe there was far different from that of Girona, which was much closer to the “wild west” energy of most gravel racing in the US. UCI Worlds offered exactly what you’d expect: course tape, a thick rule book, a shorter course for the women’s race than the men’s, and a road ‘racy’ environment with high speed tech zones and some of the worlds fastest cyclists racing for the rainbow jersey. The Traka, like most of the races I’ve done, was a mix of all of the off-road personalities.
These days in the world of off-road, gravel bike racing,people see the 200-mile distance at Unbound as the ultimate benchmark. Performing well in the flint hills around Emporia, Kansas can literally have life-changing repercussions. If Unbound sets the bar for the gravel pro scene stateside, then The Traka might best be described as its rugged, hipster, European cousin. I found the course itself to be more challenging, and certainly more varied, but this actually seemed like a perk. With 360k of steep, exposed climbs subjected to the wind and brutal sun, gnarly single-track descents and long stretches of flat, sandy roads, the terrain makes the selection. At races like UCI Gravel World Champs and Unbound, the peloton riders and the pace is a huge part of what makes the race as challenging as it is.
From top-end pros to those excited for their very first gravel race experience, The Traka felt even more laid back than most of the high profile US events. The laid back energy didn’t take away from the quality of the race though. Within the women’s field across the 100k-360k courses, there were past and now current winners of Unbound, Would Tour road racers and national champions; the men’s races had the same cream of the crop across the distances. Though the fields weren’t as deeply competitive, the environment was a beautiful mix of people racing seriously and those there for the views. One thing we all had in common though, we’re all just trying to finish.
Similar to last year, my season is again heavily focused on the Lifetime Grand Prix, a seven-part off-road series featuring some of the biggest US gravel and mountain bike races. I placed 3rd in the overall ranking last year but it came at a price—I didn’t really enjoy myself. Even though I performed well, I put too much pressure on myself. This year, I decided to change things up. I added events to my schedule between the LTGP races and The Traka would be the highlight of my Spring calendar. Although squeezing it between other big races I’d committed to wasn’t ideal from a purely performance standpoint, I was looking forward to the whole experience rather than approaching it as just another race to check off the list.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I needed this race. It had been almost a full year since I had been excited to race my bike, since I had looked forward to an event. The pressure felt more like a curiosity than an expectation; that shift, it’s monumental. I think it was the distance paired with the fact that I’d be riding in a new and beautiful location is what snapped me back into the love of it all.
I was lucky to get to bring my perfectly weird crew along, to support my race and document the whole experience. The team included: Dylan, my fiancé, mechanic, photo/video and race support; our friend Ben Kraushaar as the lead video; and our friend Alex Roszko, team photographer/race support. The crew can make or break these kinds of trips and with this one we’d struck gold. It was the most fun I’ve ever had at a bike race. The excitement to explore Girona to see what 360k looked and felt like, to meet new people and see new places was what fueled our 20hr+ day of travel, and then a few more 20hr days after that. We got the full Spain experience.
The day we landed I fought through jet lag during the three-hour drive from Barcelona to Girona, a speedy bike build (I raced the Specialized Crux, 49 with SRAM AXS Eagle, Zipp 303 Firecrest, 42’ Pathfinder Tires, Wahoo Roam GPS), then a hill climb challenge where folks happily lined up ahead of a massive weekend of riding to inflict just a bit more pain on their bodies. The next two days were spent exploring the seemingly endless coffee shops and restaurants, all with some sort of cycling themed undertone. I joined in on a few group rides to avoid having to navigate on my own and to meet some more people.
Any endurance race is a simple concept complicated by athletes. We tip toe the line of being prepared while also overthinking and overcomplicating things. Pre-race was my standard organized chaos trying to figure out what goes where, who does what and when, then what and where I needed to do x,y,z. The only thing that was a struggle for us was getting the very specific technical information. Going into the race, I thought it was all 100% self-supported, meaning racers would solely depend and stop at aid stations to fuel and hydrate. We later learned that if you had support they could be in any of the tech zones to help you. It was both a relief and also more stressful to plan for. Sometimes I wish we had the simplicity of a GPS file, a bike and a finish line.
The race begins in the dark hours of the morning but the start line is anything but bleak. The well-lit tent full of simple breakfast foods allowed racers a chance to get a few last calories. The SRAM tent was bustling as their crew pulled 100’s of espresso shots for nervous riders, while a chorus of freehubs clicked in the background as racers rolled into their start position. Headlamps and bar lights shining, rear lights blinking red and then it’s just a sea of bikes and bodies rolling over the timing mat and into the dark forest.
The start was the most magical part for me: we raced through old town Girona and into the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside. Dust clouds were illuminated by the hundreds of bike lights, there were a few nervous crashes but mostly people stayed safe as we made our way out of the city. As the sun started peeping above the horizon, I hit the smooth dirt roads of the farmland with hundreds of bright red poppies lining the path—simply breathtaking.
The thing about these races is that you’re never riding crazy hard for very long. It’s intense in a really different way, it can feel more like a long, hard adventure with strangers than a bike race. The lower intensity allows you to appreciate the space in which you’re riding. It also can just drag on at times, too. There are many moments where the pain that you’re in starts to overtake your ability to enjoy the things around you. Just like any place there were plenty of smelly farms, busy roads and questionable paths taken. I love the contrast though, I mean we’re riding for 360k, we see a lot.
In the 360 there were five aid stations, and most of us used them as a lifeline the entire day. I had underestimated the terrain and time it would take to go between aid 1 and 2, making a critical error to not refill my water and stock up on food. I ran out of everything long before aid 2. I was racing with Amity Rockwell, the woman who would go on to win the day, when I ran dry. I have never completely run out of food and water at a race, and this wasn’t a good one to do it at. I still had over nine hours of pedaling left at that point. Running on empty puts your body under an immense amount of additional stress. I felt it in my legs first, I had to walk up climbs I knew I could ride. I was asking people if they had any extra food or water to spare, it was bleak out there.
I was not prepared for what happened next. I made it to the aid station and replenished my pack and bottles, jammed a few sandwiches into my bra and went on my way. I thought, maybe my epic bonk wasn’t the end of my day, maybe I could salvage the win. The next stretch was the flat section—my least favorite—and then nausea interrupted by short-lived optimism. That was the rest of my day, just eating small amounts of food, drinking plain water and trying to make it to each aid station. I had fully let go of the chance of winning, and that felt devastating. Over the next nine hours I contemplated dropping out when my body started doing scary things, chills on the hot climbs, endless nausea and dizziness. I had to let go of my goals, my mistakes, and re-focus on ways to stay motivated. I refuse to be the sort of racer who either wins or drops out, I will do everything and anything I can to finish a race, even on the bad days. So, I shifted my focus to beating the women’s record of 16.5 hours.
Your body goes through a lot at these races, but not as much as your mind. I got to see just what I was made of that day, I got to see how far I could push myself, I got to see how tough I was and what kept me going. In these long races—or any race—you have to find moments of joy within the suffering, and when that joy isn’t fueled by the prospect of a race win or a finish you know you’re capable of, you get to go on a scavenger hunt of the mind to find something that will keep you pedaling. For me, part of the thing that kept me in it was knowing that my crew was out there, working just as hard if not harder. They had also been up since 4am, they were also out there all day, had taken time out of their lives to fly across the world for this, and I didn’t want that to be for nothing.
At the end of a very long day I got to have the most epic finish. I’d found a new friend to race with who’d also gone to a bad place. Local pro, Sam Munday, and I rode together and kept each other focused but also distracted. He was the most lovely person I could have shared the day with, and at the end of this most epic ride we got the most epic conditions. Right around sunset the rain came and I couldn’t have been happier. I turned my light on (Sam’s fell off during a crash) and it turned our ride into a Star Wars-esq scene with glowing raindrops flying past us as we rode through a tunnel of darkness, only the winding and slippery trail was illuminated and the frequent jumping legs of a frog trying to avoid our front wheels.
As we crossed the finish line I had the wave of every feeling all at once. I rode to a second place while also breaking the women’s record at 15:46:04. I felt gratitude, exhaustion, happiness and total disappointment all at the same time. That is a damn bike race! As the adrenaline wore off, the nausea and all of the other body feelings crept back up. The medical crew was very concerned with a very ‘rojo ojo’ I had and sent me to the hospital to make sure my cornea didn’t get damaged. Dylan and I ate Domino’s pizza in our rental van as we drove around the city at 1am looking for hospitals and pharmacies. I was just so happy to be done that it felt like part of the adventure!
This experience was one that I hold closely, it was exactly what I needed to change my perspective on racing. I always feel grateful to get to do this sport as my job and The Traka cranked that up ten-fold. The disappointment has faded into discovery and drive—I’ll be back for this one.