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Dear Kansas

sincerely, Amity

Words: Amity Rockwell

I wake up anxious. It’s getting light and I have to get three loaves of bread baked in time to get out for a ride by 9am at the latest and today I have to pack for Kenya. Six days since I quit the biggest race of the year, the bike race which arguably defines me as a professional. Six mornings since I woke up with an unshakeable conviction I could win it.

Despite it all, delusional or no, that remains. And I suppose that’s also why quitting came so easily. No bargaining, no guilt no shame. No wondering what would have happened. Just a quiet failure, a midnight flight home and a pretense of a routine week before I leave to race again. My body is fine, the 166 miles I managed to complete not leaving much of a dent. My mind is maybe less fine, but remarkably stable.

Photo: Dylan Buffington

'Anything left to discover here is just extra. We’re good.'

I’m still coming to understand my relationship with Unbound. Each year as my career changes, so too does the race, and seemingly not in the same direction. Recently I was asked where in the world is my favourite place to ride bikes and I instinctively responded, California, but went home realizing that wasn’t all true. My favourite place to ride bikes is anywhere I’ve never ridden bikes before— their essence, as a means of transportation and discovery and exploration, through physical and metaphysical space, is the heart of the Why for me, and racing is no different.

It explains the allure of The Traka, and following, Migration, and The Rift, and so on. And it’s maybe why, year four at Unbound, I was missing a little spark, in conditions that required an inferno. But burning fire of curiosity or no, this race and I are irrevocably linked— I owing a career to its gravity, and in turn, the race owing me.

As Maude and I painstakingly tapped out miles 101-127 together, I told her I owe it to the race to finish. Twenty miles later, I realized I owe nothing. Me and this race, sorry, this race and I— we’re even. A debt for the career that blossomed from the win, a debt settled by a hard-fought second place two years later. Anything left to discover here is just extra. We’re good.

But I suppose you all want the actual dirt, the What Happened, and as little as I want to sift through it, maybe it’ll give me a little closure to the escalation with no climax, an implied crescendo straight to coda.

Photo: Dominique Powers

Second place and a fight I could be proud of

My last appearance in Emporia was June 2021. It was our first major event since lockdown and I was defending champion, number plate 1. I made a rule. Everyone could have my time on Thursday and on Friday, nobody. I was there to race, not to answer questions I’d already answered on 16 podcasts. I said no a lot. I guarded my time and my space. And when race day arrived, I was ready, and I walked away happy. Second place and a fight I could be proud of— Dear Kansas, thank you for making a dream reality. Here is everything I have. And with that, we were good.

2023, I braced for the onslaught of media requests. I kept the same rule, Thursday yes, Friday No.

Radio silence. Maybe nobody thought I’d show up? Maybe gravel had changed so much in my year away that I was forgotten. Maybe everyone had moved on. I arrived, a good friend picked me up, we rolled into town. Two days went by, just me and my friends, faces I love and only see every so often. And in a nice way, it was just like the old days, pre-victory, a bunch of us all with equal footing in a massive yet objectively meaningless battle with the dirt roads and the emptiness and the elements.

No spotlight, pressure mostly self-imposed. The motions repetitive, familiar by now and no less so for having taken a year away. A settling of silt, then clarity. A few nervous nights awake, a clear visualization of the win. That’d tell them. One more and I could really be free.

Photo: Tommy Meyer
Photo: Tommy Meyer

Blunted by absurdity

We knew it was going to be muddy. We didn’t know it was gonna be like that. Optimism, drive, even nerves were swiftly blunted by the absurdity. Wheels stopped spinning, forward momentum zero. I took out my paint stick and realized it was just as good to grab fistfuls of the mud, put my whole hand through the fork to clear as much as I could. Twenty, maybe thirty feet forward, do it again. Better to shoulder and run the whole thing? Better to clear, ride, stop, repeat? I still don’t know.

Some rode more, some rode less. Some were up the road, some behind. We found some pro men, some amateur men found us. 180 miles still looming and we could barely make it through the next 4. The talk, the strategy, the tech, the proselytizing of Gravel all reduced to something so banal. Comical really. I chased with varying degrees of conviction.

Energy sapped, shifting barely responding. Wondering if I was getting dropped because of the pounds of mud still attached to my bike and my body, or if I was simply not having a good day. Mile 30 and it was already lonely. Something was missing for me, fight gone, hope low. I wanted to be anywhere but there.

Photo: Tommy Meyer
Photo: Tommy Meyer

Like a shitty boat on sharp rocks

Mile 100 I find Maude, prone in the grass, literal gravestones behind her. She’s crying and I run to her. She’s given everything and it’s only gotten her halfway and in a strange way, she’s this physical display of everything I’ve been in denial of for the last few hours. Hopes dashed like a shitty boat on sharp rocks.

She’s emotionally snapped, body failing her, mind too. And finally I have something worth doing. Save Maude. Pull her up, talk her into Just a Little Further, knowing how easily that can be shaped into a finish.

Her “completely done” pace is honestly real similar to the pace I was chasing at before I saw her, and I start to question my own ability even more. But suffering aside, we’re out in the bright and brutal fields together, everything already lost, still always more to lose.

A year now of crying on each other’s shoulders, staring cruel fucking cards in the face and crying some more. Chasing dreams that maybe don’t exist anymore, chasing ghosts that most definitely do.

Photo: Federico Damiani
Photo: Dominique Powers

An unnatural blue black bruise

She quits, I continue. Maddy and Anna are here now and we’re making a good time out of a horrible one, riding three abreast so we can gossip more effectively. If we get hit by lightning we don’t have to finish! Haha. The storm rages, 30 degrees disappear in 3 seconds and were drenched. The math begins, can we make it before sundown. More rain.

Skies an unnatural blue black bruise. My ass hurts and my skin is cold. Anna goes up the road, I tell Maddy I’m going to quit at the next checkpoint. For her that is not an option and I accept she is stronger today. I’m counting miles down until dry clothes, real food, Matt and Sean telling me it’s ok I can quit if I want. I have nothing to give and that is ok if I owe nothing. I’m good. I get in the van. Unbound 2023, DNF.

Photo: Tommy Meyer

Kansas and I, I’m done crying about

Sometimes no feelings is a real bad place. The place beyond hurt, the protective void past it. But sometimes no feelings is simply nothing left, emotions run through, things felt to a point that feelings are done.

Not bad. Not good. Just gone. And I think this is the latter. I’m ok, I want to ride, I want to keep going and keep racing and see what happens. But Kansas and I, I’m done crying about. I have felt everything, done everything, achieved more than I could ever have dreamed of, and I remain sure that so much more remains. Just not now. Time moves on and I alongside it.

Photo: Dominique Powers