Cresting the ridge: Savilia Blunk excels in biking

David Briggs
BIKING: Savilia Blunk, a 17-year-old from Inverness, is ranked 10th in the world in her age group for cross-country biking. Her coach says she stands out for her thoughtfulness, patience and determination: “A lot of kids tend to be excitable,” he said.  

Savilia Blunk remembers clearly where she first learned to ride a bike. She was outside her home on the Inverness ridge, seated on a hand-me-down bike that had been spray-painted pink. Her older brother Silas gave her a push down the driveway—and that initial momentum hasn’t let up since. 

“I started rolling, then peddling, and I was off,” she said. 

Ms. Blunk, 17, is now climbing the ranks of the Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body for sports cycling that oversees international competitive cycling events. This season, she ranked tenth for junior women in cross-country mountain biking, and she is the highest-placed American among an international crop of top biking competitors between ages 17 and 18. 

She is looking to compete in the world championships race in Cairns, Australia, and has set her sights on representing her country in the 2024 Olympics. (She added the possibility of 2020 for good measure). 

Doggedly determined, Ms. Blunk attributes part of her success to developing little goals along the way, maintaining her focus and enjoying the ride. 

“I’m all about setting small goals along the way, from training to nutrition,” she said. “And to always keep having fun—that’s the big picture.”

Ms. Blunk showed an interest in sailing at an early age, when she would sail Tomales Bay with her family. She said she’s always been competitive with her older brothers, Silas and Jasper, and they, in return, provided her with endless inspiration. Her parents, Elizabeth and Rufus, homeschooled her and her brothers up to high school—an experience for which she is grateful.

“My education up to high school was very unique, and made me into who I am,” she said. “I’m really happy my parents decided to do that with us.”

Mr. Blunk would orchestrate science excursions to local ranches to observe animals, and one year the family collaborated with the Tomales Bay Watershed Council to help clean the bay and then use the collected trash to craft a sculpture (which won first prize at the Western Weekend parade). 

She said her father would design more hands-on learning activities while her mother was responsible for teaching big-picture concepts through books and ideas. Elizabeth said she used an eclectic approach that drew from Waldorf education and other home school groups in the region. 

At age 12, Ms. Blunk began entering races around Marin. And as a freshman at San Domenico School —“She wanted to try going to a regular school to see what it was like,” Elizabeth said— she began competing in the NorCal High School Cycling League. Her cumulative scores at the end of the 2015 season placed her in fifth. 

She said last year was her “breakthrough season.” Ms. Blunk joined an elite cyclist program known as the BEAR Development Team, which selects riders from across the country. She competed in races throughout Southern California and, last spring, in international races in France and Germany.

“The races over there were totally different than in the U.S.,” she said. “The competition was next-level and there were really muddy conditions compared to dry Southern California.”

After three years, Ms. Blunk left San Domenico to begin an independent study program through the Pathways Charter School. She said many of her competitors are also in independent study programs, which offer more flexibility with their racing and training schedules.  

She’s considering taking a gap year after graduating to live in Europe, but said that school is a big part of her future. She has interest in veterinarian science—she has volunteered at the Point Reyes Animal Hospital—as well as marine biology, inspired by growing up on the bay. 

For now, Ms. Blunk spends up to three hours a day, five days a week, preparing for races. She trains for about 15 hours a week either on the bike or on weights at home; she rests on Mondays and Thursdays. A few of her favorite rides in West Marin include a loop between Chileno Valley and Marshall, Mount Vision and the ride out to the lighthouse. 

Dario Frederick, a San Anselmo exercise physiologist, has coached her for the last three years. He has encouraged her to train on the road as opposed to the ridge, as the former makes her riding more concise. She said he coaches her in two areas: strength and skill. He also helps her develop strategies for making a break for the lead during the race. 

Mr. Frederick said he’s witnessed a consistent improvement in Ms. Blunk from year to year and said it was her considered and mature approach that’s made her into a biking champion. 

“She’s had a very strong and steady progression to where she is now,” he said. “I think it’s a testament to her determination that she’s now one of the top juniors in the country. She has a very thoughtful and intelligent approach—that’s what stands out. A lot of kids her age tend to be excitable and don’t have the same degree of maturity.” 

Maintaining focus during a race is key. (“If you lose focus, you could go down,” she said.) Once the day of a race arrives, she works to clear her mind and listen to her body. One way she does that is by developing different mantras for different races to keep herself mentally in balance. She found herself repeating “cool, calm and connected” during the Bonelli Park U.S. Cup race in Los Angeles earlier this month.  

Last week, she traveled to Monterey to compete in the Sea Otter Classic, the North American season opener that draws over 10,000 athletes from around the world. It was Ms. Blunk’s fourth year at the race, which she said is unique for its size: a near 30-mile loop, as opposed to her typical course, which repeats five-mile loops. One of her favorite parts is a section where riders have to dismount and huff it over a sand pile before hopping back on their bikes to float down a sandy knoll. (“That’s a little different,” she said.) 

Early on in the race, she said she broke off with three others. They spent the first 25 miles racing close to one another until they began the sprint during the final miles. Ms. Blunk finished second, a mere 45 seconds behind the winner, Gwendalyn Gibson, a Ramona resident whom Ms. Blunk referred to as her “top competitor.”

The difficulty of cross-country bike racing—the grueling training schedule and the possibility of a crash—is not lost on Ms. Blunk, but she’s learned to embrace the physical struggle and use each success to inch her toward another hill, another race, another rank. 

“It’s an interesting sport—it’s so hard!” she said. “You’re suffering for an hour and a half, but you also love it. My friend and I were just talking about this the other day, and why we do this. Every time I have a breakthrough performance, I fall in love it with it all over again.”