Ruth Edwards on Leadville, Chequamegon, and what’s next.

With Ruth Edwards

Photos courtesy of  Life Time

Peeling off labels

After a decade racing on roads either side of the Prime Meridian, Ruth Edwards (née Winder) is most commonly associated with drop bar cycling. On transitioning to the Life Time Grand Prix’s mix-n-match scene of gravel and XC, most of her former-pro roadie peers have done better on the gravel side – drop bars, after all – than in the mountain-bike events. So it’s a surprise to see Edwards bag a second and a first at the recent flat bar tilts in Leadville and Chequamegon, respectively. Right?

Not according to Edwards herself.

“Perhaps a surprise to others who don’t know me so well, but not a surprise for me at all,” she said, gently correcting assumptions that we admit to, too.

“People always enjoy labeling things. And while – yes – I have been primarily a road racer in my past, I would ride my MTB when I came home. I have also been a track racer, a mountain biker way back in highschool, and now a gravel racer,” she said, going on to note that knobby tires and flat bars have become the theme for her 2023: “I have had a lot of motivation to race mtb more than gravel for this year.”

Late-season surge

Ruth credits her flat-bar motivation partly to her preference for ‘shorter,’ punchier races like the 40-mile Chequamegon (though her success at Leadville also proves her ultra-endurance chops), and partly to an early-season setback, which derailed her early- to mid-season campaign and shifted her focus to late-season events – Leadville and Chequamegon chief among them.

“I injured myself pretty badly in April this year,” she explained, “which took me out of the first half of the season, but Leadville and Chequamegon were always among my bigger goals. I had time to get my fitness back.” The recent pair of strong results was less about changing her training focus or shifting from drop bars to flat, and more about a return to form simply corresponding with races she’d already prioritized.

Planning to improvise is, in fact, a plan

Since she targeted Chequamegon, it’s unsurprising that Ruth took the start line with a plan in place. What is surprising? It wasn’t exactly a detailed plan. Outside of tweaking her bike – a slightly larger chain ring, lower-profile tread, dropping the dropper – her plan was simply to race.

“I knew I wanted to race my bike,” she told us. “We get few opportunities to do that as women in the Life Time events – mostly because we start with the men.”

Shared starts create a challenging dynamic, with controversies about riders joining groups with co-ed teammates, riders getting help by finding the right wheel, etc. – but not at CHequamegon, which staggered the pro women and pro men by 30 minutes. For Ruth, that split meant she could assess the race without those dynamics and simply ride with the legs – and the direct competition – she had on the day. Sort of scripting the race to go off script: “Part of being a good bike racer is being able to read the room, so to speak, and to take action where it makes sense.”

For Chequamegon, the room was much more readable than shared-start events, and in reading it at the gun, Ruth saw she had two choices. “Either wait for someone to go hard or make it hard myself. I felt super good early on, and based on that, I chose the latter. It worked.”

The finale + fueling

Eventually, Ruth rode herself into a two-up with Alexis Skarda, who’s also had a strong Life Time campaign and is in the mix with Ruth and Sofia Gomez Villafane for a top-three overall placing. She knew she had the legs to win the race from the beginning, but part of reading a race is knowing that, in her words, “You never know till the line!”

“I knew I had the legs, and I did my best to tell myself: ‘Hey, someone has to win, why can’t it be you?’ I rode to put myself in the best position for that. But again – you never know till the line!” 

After making the initial effort to secure a good position, the next step was maintaining that position to the line, and that required a steady fueling regimen. For this distance, that means gels over ‘food’ fuel.

“In a Leadville-style race, I need more solid foods, so that’s the biggest difference between a long, sustained effort and this shorter, very intense effort,” she explained.

“This is such a hard race. Over 2.5 hours, I burned nearly 2,000 calories. To keep up, I wanted to take a Liquid Shot every 30 minutes; unfortunately, I did drop one,” she said, describing how her race went off-script in a non-scripted way. “That had me rifling through the empties in my pocket during the last hour of the race, looking for anything else… I really I needed it!”

Le retour à la route

In keeping with the theme of surprised/not surprised, we’d be remiss if we didn’t bother Ruth about her pending return to the road world. During our conversations, Ruth confirmed that a road/off-road split program – ala Tiffany Cromwell or Lauren Stephens – isn’t in the cards.

“If anything, that confirmed my choice,” Ruth clarified, referencing her recent strong results. “I really do love the mountain-bike events, but gravel racing is just so long and, honestly, I find it really hard to be motivated for. Perhaps it would change with separate starts for women, but at the moment, gravel racing is just trying to be a road race on dirt – so in my mind, why not just race on the road? I realized that I love racing my bike, and so I’m choosing to chase the highest performance the sport has to offer.”

For Ruth, that means road racing, but it doesn’t mean we won’t see her on flat bars – it just won’t be at the marquee events. “I do typically add a mountain-bike race here or there during the year, and if I’m home for fun events like GoPro Games, Firecracker 50, or a local MTB race, then I will still participate in those,” she said, adding, “though I don’t think that qualifies as a split schedule.”

Returning to the Euro road circuit means being away from family for much of the season, but it doesn’t signal any less of a commitment to her domestic life. “This doesn't mean I love my family and home less,” she insisted. “My brain has always given me a narrative of, ‘if I choose to leave home, that means I must love bikes more.’ But that's just not true.”

Ruth credits overcoming that internal dialog both to age and to a stronger belief in being herself first rather than the self she thinks she ought to be. “I’m older and wiser now! Could probably write a book on this,” she said with a laugh. Turning serious, she doubled down on the mindset that defines her approach to competition – and to herself – that she’s honed over the years of her multi-surface career: “I hope I just continue to keep being my best self, and not try to be more like someone I think I should be.”

October 02, 2023 — Sterling Okura

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