By Jonny Long
Will Loevner woke up the week before Unbound Gravel 2021 and decided that instead of going up against the likes of Quinn Simmons, Laurens ten Dam and Ian Boswell in the 200-mile race, he might as well have a go at the unsupported XL 350-mile category as he'd have a better chance of winning.
The 23-year-old ran cross country at Penn State University and has only been racing mountain bikes for two years. When he's not riding for the Flow Formulas Syndicate team he works on his family goat form situated just outside Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
Unbound XL, only his second-ever gravel race, set off at 3pm on Friday June 4th, and Loevner found himself in the leading trio of riders for the first 12 hours, covering 200 miles in that time.
But at 3 am, disaster struck. Loevner crashed hard on a descent, his wheel catching a tire rut, breaking his left hand and cutting his forearm badly, blood gushing out. He couldn't hold the bars, operate his front brake or eat or drink while riding.
Two hours later at mile 216 he found a gas station, the cashier helping to close his wound with blue duct tape.
Loevner ventured on, unable to feel his hand, persevering as he rode into Saturday, the Kansas heat rising to the high eighties (30°C). He soon started to hallucinate from dehydration, also beginning to suffer from life-threatening rhabdomyolysis, which was caused by the crash and results from the breakdown of skeletal muscle fibres with leakage of muscle contents into blood circulation.
He sat down in a field, the emotional and physical toll finally too much to bear, tears rolling down his face. He soon picked himself up and plugged on, finishing in a time of 24 hours and 32 minutes, good enough for second-place behind Taylor Lideen.
"Rolling into the Short Stop at 5 am, 216 miles in, I was in rough shape. I had contemplated quitting after the crash, but had no cell service so knew I had to make it to the next town," Loevner said.
"At first I started to walk alone in the middle of the night without seeing a house in miles. I eventually began to ride with my left hand completely numb and my arm pulsating with pain. It was slow going but when I made it to the gas station I knew I wasn’t going to quit since I could still pedal. The next 11 hours were a blur of just trying to make it to the next turn or up the next climb.
"Miles started to blend together as I slowly made my way through the wide-open landscape. It was no longer a race against competitors but became a battle against myself. I realised that this is why I keep coming back to ultra racing, to push through my own barriers and accomplish goals that are seemingly impossible in the moment. There’s no place to hide in your mind 20 hours in when no one is around, which lets you discover both the good and bad of your own drive."
After finishing, Loevner spent the night in the hospital, getting stitches and a splint for his hand, also hooked up to an IV.
The American recently also completed the Wilderness 303 (Wilderness 101 is a grueling National Ultra Endurance Series race), riding three times the distance 303 of rugged single-track in approximately 32 hours, barely stopping apart from a 10-minute nap after he had fallen asleep on the bike during a descent, somehow managing to not crash. His exploits were filmed for an upcoming documentary.
Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races. I'm 6'0", 26 years old, have a strong hairline and have an adequate amount of savings for someone my age. I'm very single at the minute so if you know anyone, hit me up.
Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab, reporting about students evacuating their bowels on nightclub dancefloors and consecrating their love on lecture hall floors. I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).
I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.
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