Central Iowan Sarah Cooper, known to some as “Super Cooper”, is well known in the ultra-cycling community. Three times she has competed in the Bike Sebring 24 Hour Race, held at the historic 12 Hours of Sebring Race track in Sebring, Florida. In 2014, her first time at the Sebring 24, she rode 433.8 miles. In 2015, she rode 460 miles there. In February 2016, she smashed her own Sebring 24 record. Cooper rode an incredible 479.4 miles in 24 hours, which is the furthest any woman has ever ridden in that time period.
Cooper started her career as a cyclist in 2008, with triathlons. From triathlons, she progressed to Ironman events. Since 2014, Cooper has focused on ultracycling. She intended to keep running, but was slowed by injury. Cooper has struggled with injury, but now does Pilates and strength training, putting time and effort in to preventing chronic over-use injuries.
As a married mother of four, Cooper is well-versed in balancing family time with training. She often gets up as early as 2:45AM to accommodate her training schedule and naps in her car, between chauffeuring her children to their activities. She states that by getting up early, she knows she has a “block of two hours that is mine.” Cooper says that her family is supportive, in that she gets to go out and race, but they don’t always attend her races. She says: “I’m an essential part of my family and it’s an inconvenience when I’m gone.”
Even with road racing as her primary focus, Cooper finds plenty of time to grind gravel on her fat bike, a Specialized Fat Boy that she purchased from Kyle’s Bikes in Ankeny, Iowa, in late 2015. She says: “There’s no easy on that bike, which has been really good for me this winter.” Cooper admits that her Fat Boy has become her favorite bike and she has not ridden a gravel bike since purchasing her fat bike.
In Iowa, Cooper can find plenty of gravel for her fat bike adventures. According to BikeIowa.com, 60% of Iowa’s public roads are gravel roads! A whopping 68,224 miles of gravel roads criss-cross the state, and almost all of them are laid out in a one mile gridwork. For more information about Iowa’s gravel roads, navigate to: http://www.bikeiowa.com/Feature/1543/iowa-gravel-what-makes-it-so-special
Cooper says some of her happiest rides are gravel adventures, where she just picks a route and goes somewhere. She says that riding gravel takes predictability of a ride away, as a rider can put their route in a GPS and still not know what they will get until they are out on the road. Often, Cooper has found Level B surface minimum maintenance dirt roads that farmers have plowed under or bridges that no longer exist. These circumstances can lead to the “hike-a-bike” part of gravel riding.
Riding gravel – and riding alone 95% of the time – means Cooper has insight for other women who ride alone. Her biggest piece of advice is: “Be aware of your surroundings.” Cooper says she never rides with ear buds – not even one of them. She tells women, and all cyclists, to be aware of people around when they are stopped at convenience stores and to use “practical street smarts.” Her family uses a mobile app to track her progress when she’s out riding – so they always know her location. In addition to awareness she also recommends self-defense training.
In addition to cruising Iowa gravel for training and fun, Cooper is one of few women who have completed Trans Iowa, an annual gravel event that is 310-340 miles long and limited to 34 hours. She said that she just decided to do the race in 2014 and finished it. She says: “I love that race. You have no idea what you’re in for or what the course will be. You just show up and hope for the best. It’s a total adventure. That’s what I like about it.” Contrasting Trans Iowa with a more predictable road race, Cooper says that competitors in Trans Iowa must have a tolerance for complete chaos, pain and frustration. She summarizes gravel races by saying: “It’s not the fittest person who wins a gravel race. It’s the fittest, most resourceful person with the best luck.”
When she competes in ultracycling events like Bike Sebring, Cooper consumes liquid nutrition, chocolate milk and the occasional cheeseburger. For gravel races, she uses a completely different strategy. Cooper says that when she trains for gravel rides, she eats a lot of potato chips and Hershey’s chocolate bars. She says that on long gravel rides, cyclists often have to “eat whatever garbage is there” at convenience stores along the route – so she eats for her training rides like she will eat for her races.
This fall, Cooper will host her own gravel race, the Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra. Cooper does much of her riding south and west of Des Moines. She loves the area and wants to share it with other gravel enthusiasts. After considering “Who can I talk into putting this race on?” Cooper decided to put the course together and host it herself. The ride will start near St. Charles, Iowa, and head towards Missouri. Cooper promises big, big hills, not a lot of people, and uninterrupted countryside on the ride, set to take place October 29, 2016.
Encouraging new gravel riders, Cooper said: “Gravel racing is inexpensive and race directors are pretty generous.” She says she has not been to a gravel race that she did not like and she encourages cyclists who desiring to #UnlearnPavement to avoid fancy bikes, find something durable and just ride.
Jess Rundlett is a Moxie Cycling Ambassador and blog contributor. Check out her bio here!