It would be easy to consider our running into Sarah Sturm in Telluride all those years ago a chance encounter. We were there for our annual team pilgrimage to Mountainfilm, and Sarah (who’s based in Durango) happened to bump into Rick VanderLeek (who runs the Topo Designs Cycling Club). And that was that.
But when we think about it: Sarah loves bikes, design, and making the outdoors approachable. We love bikes, design, and making the outdoors approachable. Sarah lives in Southwest Colorado, and we make a trip there every year. And when you read Sarah’s story below, you’ll realize that separately but concurrently, we were creating a similar space for ourselves in the outdoor industry, one we hadn’t seen yet, and one we felt the world needed: a New Outdoor. One less about the gear and more about the go. A less intimidating, more responsible, more relevant outdoor. Suddenly, our partnership feels less like chance and more like inevitability. Read on to see what we mean.
My beginnings as an athlete started early. I grew up in Albuquerque, NM playing soccer, swim team, track...you know, all of the city sort of sports. I remember loving the spirit of competition, though at the time all that really meant to me was playing with your friends. I later moved to Southwest Colorado for school where I joined my collegiate cycling team. And as luck would have it I happened to choose the #1 ranked team in the nation. So obviously I was by far the slowest one out there, but once again I found myself connecting with people, loving the friends that I made through the sport and almost enjoying the racing part.
It was a steep, and I mean steep, learning curve. I had ridden a road bike before and started getting interested in triathlons when I quickly realized I still sort of sucked and didn’t love running or swimming...so biking it was! But when you go to school in Durango you can’t really just road bike, so there I was, trying to fit in, trying my hardest to understand how mountain biking was fun. It took a while.
I started racing mountain bikes because I got along with the people who raced on dirt. I remember wanting so badly to be good at it, naturally, but alas that’s just not “how I do”, so there I was. Year after year, ride after ride, crash after crash, forcing myself to get back on that godforsaken mountain bike.
And then it finally happened: I went on a ride and I didn’t crash! It was a big marker for me. I started to feel like I could actually, maybe, perhaps, one day enjoy it!
From then on I started doing better at races. I eventually got onto a local pro team and we raced all over the country. I loved the experience of one extended road trip with my teammates (friends) and I loved seeing new places. I loved that part of it so much, I didn’t realize there was a pretty key piece I wasn’t haven’t fun with: riding or racing.
I kept racing for a few more years, floating between racing full time and working full time at my first design job out of college. And when (eventually) I did realize I wasn’t really having fun, I quit.
Sometimes walking away is all you need. People tell you all of the time “just stick with it” and “don’t be a quitter”. But I don’t think that’s actually healthy. Why would you choose to be miserable doing something? We are lucky to live in a time in history where we have choices and opportunities.
But it’s hard to unprogram that mentality. I felt like a total failure, I was constantly comparing myself to other women who were athletes and feeling inadequate with everything I was doing. Slowly I started working towards finding myself, things that made me feel good, both in my career as a designer and as an athlete. I got a trail bike (a heavy bike made to pedal uphill comfortably and rip descents safely) and quickly discovered the joys of high country riding.
I finally felt the feeling of having fun on a mountain bike. Everything before that point had been about racing. Riding wasn’t riding, it was training. Eating wasn’t eating, it was restricting. Crashing wasn’t learning, it was failure. But now, NOW the bicycle was adventure and freedom...finally.
These days I ride for those sensations. It’s never about winning, or even finishing. It’s about the experience. I found challenges amongst the mountains in my backyard, I found adventures riding with friends, carrying all of our gear and sleeping outside after riding all day. I felt the pressure of not ever being enough melting away. There wasn’t a finish line out there on these big mountain days, and no one cared if I walked a section or judged me for taking too long. I was finally at peace with where I was and who I was as a person and athlete.
When I got back into racing it was in the form of cyclocross, a European sport where you race a hybrid (road/mtb) on a short circuit for 45-60 minutes...in the dead of winter. It’s amazing. And brutal. And bizarre . And I love it. I decided what better way to ease back into racing than to build up a single speed bike and only race fun events where the party factor was just as important as the race. That’s why I decided to race in jean shorts, a small reminder to myself that I chose to be there at that race and never to take it too seriously. When I won my first Single Speed Cyclocross National Championship I wore a costume, and my second title? You guessed it, denim. I was having FUN racing and riding faster than I’d ever been.
I was lucky to stumble into my first pro contract with the most perfect fitting team: Specialized + Ten Speed Hero CX. We were a team of two, supported by the most colorful amazing sponsors, enter Topo Designs! On the bike we wore kits with the artwork of amazing female designers, with custom painted bikes, helmets, shoes, all of it! Off the bike we were team Topo, truly the most eye-catching team amongst the more typical NASCAR style of race kits. We had an identity, we were color and fun and people wanted to come talk to us and hang out. It was the beginning of something bigger for me.
A huge part of any professional sport is sponsorship, and who you align yourself with becomes your identity. For a lot of athletes their main goal is to race, win, and repeat and that’s matched by their sponsors. I’ve been incredibly lucky to get to work with brand partners who are all aligned with my moral beliefs to be kind, do good and have fun. Topo Designs has been next to me since day one, before any contracts were signed, before races were won. I’d always loved the position of the ‘urban outdoor’ aesthetic they brought to light. It felt accessible, approachable, and unique. Something I felt the cycling industry has needed for a long time and Topo Designs and I were willing to take the leap together.
Today, with the launch of The New Outdoor, I couldn't be more proud to get to work with a company who sees the bigger picture. It’s more than bikes, adventure and gear. It’s about our environmental future and empowerment to get to a better place as a global community. One thing I’ve always cared about deeply is being approachable and friendly in a sport that has a reputation of being exclusive and elitist. My goal as a professional athlete is to pave a way for the atypical athlete, to help lower the barrier to entry of this sport and to clean it up.
As most things are designed to be consumable, one use, out of vogue in one season, we have seen a space to do better. As I travel to race I know that the logos on my bus and my back weigh heavily on the future of our sport, our planet and our community. To be able to use gear multiple years, multiple sports, multiple uses we lessen the impact of it all on our planet and our lives. With my lifestyle I use my gear hard and across all different sports, from skiing and mountain biking to podiums and business meetings. It’s the way of the future to be able to seamlessly move from one use to the next. And when you can liberate yourself from the choices and the purchases, it really enhances the experience you have with the natural world around you! A true win-win.
As I move forward in my career as a cyclist I feel more and more grateful to get to participate and prioritize this amazing sport. I get to see it move and change and be part of implementing the components I want to see more of. We have already jumped into the race chaos of 2021 and I hope to get to see you and give you a big high-five soon!
My Topo Designs Go-to’s
Get to know Sarah even better by following her on Instagram at @sarah_sturmy.