© Mikayla Lyles

I’m thrilled to have American ultra-endurance cyclist Sam Scipio on Lessons in Badassery today! Sam discovered cycling at college, and since her twenties has raced cyclocross, road, crit, gravel and mountain bike. However, she’s most at home riding a single-speed (no gears!) mountain bike a very long way on gnarly terrain with unreasonably high levels of elevation gain.

In 2018, Sam was the second woman across the line and sixth overall at the Trans North Georgia Adventure mountain bike race – a 357-mile self-supported race featuring 56,000ft of elevation, which she completed on a single-speed MTB. A year later, she joined the adventure racing team, Team Onyx, and took on Bear Grylls’ gruelling Eco-Challenge in Fiji, a non-stop adventure race covering 400 miles of jungle, mud-clogged trails, rivers and mountain passes, on foot and via climbing, mountain bike, raft and paddleboard. Significantly, Team Onyx made history as the first all-black expedition racing team.

A designer by trade, Sam has recently launched her bike frame building business, Jubilee Manufacturing, so check out her website at Jubileemfg.com. In the meantime, have a read of our email Q&A, where we cover Sam’s journey into cycling, her go-to strategies for low moments, and her experience preparing for and taking on the brutal Eco-Challenge.

You’re an off-road endurance cyclist and adventure racer. Can you share your journey into these areas?
Sure. My introduction to off-road cycling came through cyclocross (cx). Through a series of seemingly random circumstances, I ended up at a cyclocross practice with a friend who was massively encouraging. After a season of racing cx and making new friends, there was an invitation to be a part of a group of women aiming to race single-speed gravel and force big races to create a category for us. After that experience, I just didn’t stop with gravel – I wanted more of the expanse and more of the complete opposite of my day to day life.

You rode the 375-mile, 56,000ft Trans North Georgia Adventure on a single speed in 2018 and came second woman across the line. What did you learn about your limits during this ride?
Oh man, this ride! I went into this race with the explicit goal of challenging myself in ways that made me super uncomfortable: nighttime riding and sleeping alone. I learned that even things you are afraid of take practice to overcome. Just as I train my body to race and do athletics, the mind benefits from training and practice as well.

Mentally, what helps you get through hard times in races – what strategies do you use?
Song. Singing. Outloud to the trees and the creatures and anyone who will listen. It is such a big mood booster, or even just an affirmation of how I’m feeling in that moment.

© @Ultraromance

You’d done some pretty gnarly endurance events before Eco-Challenge, but did you have any adventure racing experience before you joined Team Onyx? 
Zero experience adventure racing, haha. We did a couple of test races before Eco-Challenge, but otherwise, I only had experience running and cycling in a race format.

How did you physically prepare for Eco-Challenge? 
Well, we found out we got into the race in Jan 2019, and the race took place in September 2019, so there were 9 months to prepare. I mostly focused on overall strength training, lots of HIIT training and rock climbing. I kept cycling and training for bike races because I had already committed to those for the year, and it turned out to be great preparation – some crit racing, some gravel racing, a few bike tours, and general MTB rides with friends. The wildest training I did in the city were these overnight sleep deprivation walks, where I’d just walk around the city from 11pm-6am with a loaded pack – it actually ended up being very helpful!

Were there any new skills you had to master in advance?
Lots of new skills: whitewater rafting, whitewater kayaking, ascending and rappelling, wilderness first aid, sailing, and stand up paddleboarding

How significant was it to race as part of the first all-black expedition racing team?
It’s something I still feel proud of to this day. The fact that we were able to come together, having not known each other at all, and give everything we had to race Eco-Challenge was amazing. If only one black person was inspired to adventure race, or go on that hike they’ve always wanted to do, or even just felt more ‘normal’ for wanting to do things outside of the scope of ‘normal’ – then it was worth it.

What did you find the most physically and mentally testing elements of Eco-Challenge?
During the race, I found it surprisingly easy to stay focused and stay in it – but keeping your body going on low rest was tough. Food and water did a lot for that in lieu of a good nap.

How much sleep did you get, and what was it like racing whilst severely sleep-deprived?
We got probably 12 hours of sleep during our time in the race, which isn’t too bad, haha. The sleep deprivation was really rough, though. I’m an 8-hours-a-night type person, and by the middle of the second night (around 40 hours in), I was hallucinating and seeing all these floating mushrooms and temples – just completely tripping out. It definitely didn’t help that we were paddling through a canyon with only the lights from our headlamps. There were a few times when I fell asleep standing up and almost fell off my stand-up paddleboard. Luckily a teammate had a caffeine pill – that plus lots of water and some snacks fixed me up.

What were the high points of your Eco-Challenge experience? And would you do it again?
The high point for me actually occurred after the race. Mikayla (Team Onyx’s support person) and I went to the last checkpoint for a few days to cheer on the teams still in the race and lend a helping hand. The time spent there in Navala Village was amazing. We met what seemed like every child in the village, swam with them in the Ba River, and learned to count to 10 in Fijian. We were welcomed into the homes of the village elders. We got to look out for our competitors and cheer them to the finish. Nothing can top that. And as for racing it again, I’d do it, but only if Mikayla races with me next time 🙂

What are your hopes and goals for the next six months?
For the next six months, I’d like to focus on having fun on the bike again. The pandemic injected a lot of worry into my riding in terms of becoming a burden or liability to our healthcare system. I took a long break from riding and now feel ready to start reconnecting with my bike and re-remembering what I love about it.

What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
Hands down, a wool t-shirt and the best skort ever, made by my friend Cheech at Casa Verde.

Who are you sponsored by right now?
I am currently unsponsored 🙂

I started building bicycle frames in 2021 and now I race on my own frames (Jubilee Manufacturing). I do receive support from Velocity Wheels out of Michigan and from countless friends.

© @Ultraromance

You can follow Sam via her social media: www.instagram.com/salmonilla.