Sarah Max Rocks the Gravel W!
by Chris Bagg
Ed. Note: our ranks continue to swell! We are proud to announce that Dirty Kanza and Belgian Waffle Ride podium finisher (3rd and 2nd places, respectively) Sarah Max will join professional riders Ian Boswell and Yuri Hauswald on the Wattie Ink. gravel roster in 2020. We caught up with the Bend, Oregon resident over the phone, distracting her from her own deadline, to talk about graveling, writing, and raising twins.
"It certainly was not the perfect lucky day," Sarah Max tells me, after I somewhat presumptuously assumed that a podium finish at last year's Dirty Kanza was the result of strength, resolve, and a dose of good luck. "Amy Charity, Olivia Dillon, and I were at the front of the race by the time we went through the first checkpoint. I had my mechanic let some air out of the tires, and not long after that I got a huge sidewall tear. I tried to patch it, then had to put a tube in, then realized I hadn't put the tube in well, and limped along to mile 100, still losing air. I thought I was going to have to drop out."
She came across another competitor stopped near a car. He had a major mechanical issue and was about to climb into the car, his day done. "I said 'Hold up, I might need to jump in—I may be done,' but he said 'No, I'll help you,' and he helped me finally fix the tire." By that point, she reckons she'd lost about 40 minutes, and the front of the race felt far away. "I just worked my way along, though," she says. "I was a barn animal, and I was ready to be done." She'd solicited the advice of Matt Lieto, another endurance-athlete-turned-graveler, before the race, and he'd pointed out that DK "Is just a really long day." She passed Dillon, and then Charity, and a few other racers had issues and mechanicals of their own: "I was pretty shocked when I ended up third."
Unsurprisingly, Max's favorite recollection of the day featured the other riders gutting it out on a difficult, hot day. "I enjoyed seeing people who were probably locals, doing the shorter races and just toughing it out. I was passing people who maybe were in the fifty- or hundred-mile event, pushing their bikes uphill. They weren't giving up, and I was just very, very inspired by them. I had low expectations about Dirty Kanza because I thought Kansas and flat and all of that, but it was a beautiful course and I was blown away by the community of Emporia and the people I saw racing there, and that's why I'm going back."
Max joined the gravel scene only recently, looking for different roads and challenges a few years ago, after attending Rebecca Rusch's Gravel Less Traveled camp and Rebecca's Private Idaho in 2018. She needed surgery on an unrelated shoulder injury that fall, and then signed up for DK. She cleared the lottery and then "started putting races on the calendar to prepare for Kanza." She hit the podium at the Cascade Gravel Omnium in Bend, Oregon, in April 2019 and then again a week later at Belgian Waffle Ride. "I got some advice from Matt [Lieto], who told me that I didn't need to ride 200 miles before Kanza, as long as I could string together several long rides. After that it was mostly about figuring out nutrition and remembering it was a very long day."
Away from the bike, Max's life is similarly full-bore, raising teenage twins (who are excellent athletes themselves, heading to Princeton to run in the fall of 2020), and maintaining a successful freelance writing career. She's written for The New York Times, Barron's, Outside, Entrepreneur, and many more. Unable to help myself, I ask her about her writing process, and unsurprisingly it sounds a good bit like her riding process.
"I guess I don't know what it's called in cycling, but in running you talk about hitting a wall, that point in a race where you think, 'Oh my god, I'm not going to be able to finish this thing. This hurts so much.' And you have to talk yourself through and let yourself know that you're going to get through and it's going to be done and it's going to feel so good when you're done. That happens to me all the time with my work and with writing. You're catching me at that moment right now. I have two big stories due early next week and I'm feeling really overwhelmed, but I know that you just talk yourself through these moments and soon enough you're done."
I ask her what role her kids play in her racing life, knowing that parenthood provides a rich metaphor for many athletes, and she says that they mentor her as much as she helps them. "One of them passed on this amazing nugget of wisdom she'd heard from a sports psychologist: 'Work without complaint and rest without regret.' And I just love it because I think that is such a good quote for working, for everything we're doing. Do the hard work, but then if it's a day off, don't be sitting there thinking you should just do a little spin or something. Just rest without regret."
Sarah will line up for the W at a legendary list of races in 2020: The Gorge Grinder, Cascade Gravel Omnium, Belgian Waffle Ride, Dirty Kanza, Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder (a five-day stage race), SBT GRVL, Rebecca's Private Idaho, and the new Big Sugar race in Bentonville, Arkansas. I know I speak for the whole Wattie Ink. family when I say "Welcome and good luck!" to our newest member, Sarah Max.