Headed to Emporia and nervous about your first-ever Unbound Gravel event? You’re not alone!
Whether you’re doing the 50-miler or the 350-miler, Unbound is a test of endurance, self-sufficiency and equipment. In addition to needing to fuel oneself for some very long hours in the saddle, the sharp flint rocks are notorious for slicing tires and dashing podium, or even finishing, aspirations. Along the way, riders also need to contend with the undulating terrain, exposed sun-baked roads, headwinds and, if at all wet, tire-sucking mud.
We reached out to a few gravel pros with Unbound Gravel experience for some tips on tires, nutrition and mindset.
The Best Gravel Tires for Unbound: ‘Flat protection trumps rolling resistance’
“For an event such as Unbound 200, there is minimal pavement and all of the opportunity to potentially flat.Those flint rocks like to eat tires for breakfast, but there are some incredible tire options out there that don't sacrifice rolling resistance for flat-protection,” Alison Tetrick, former Gravel Worlds Champ and 2017 Unbound winner, told Cycling Weekly.
“I recommend bringing a few different tire options for pending inclement weather. It can get muddy out there and you want to be prepared for peanut butter mud mixed with flint rocks. I suggest a wider tire with a very good sidewall.”
The general rules?
Tetrick puts her confidence in the Specialized Pathfinder 42mm tires at 38 to 40 PSIs.
“My favorite tire to run is the Pathfinder 42mm, which has a 120 TPI casing. The sidewalls can endure the sharp rocks and it has a smooth strip in the middle that allows me to truck along with very little rolling resistance. It is a fast tire that also offers traction to send it. But let's be honest, I don't send it,” Tetrick commented,
Former World Tour roadie and last year’s Unbound 200 winner, Ian Boswell, also relies on the 42mm Pathfinder, stating, “It performed well in all the races I did last year including Unbound. In fact, 3/5 of the top male finishers in the 200 mile event were on this tire.”
Boswell will be running 40-45 PSI, depending on conditions on the day.
Belgian Waffle Ride winner Alexey Vermeulen and MTB Olympian Lea Davison prefer the Kenda Flintridge, a tire specifically designed to protect against the local jagged rocks. Like the Pathfinder, the Flintridge features a smooth centerline tread pattern for speed with shoulder knobs for grip.
“Decently wide semi slicks with sidewall protection is my advice,” said Vermeulen, who suffered terrible luck in the 2021 race when he flatted four times throughout the race, ruining his chances of competing in the front.
“I would say flat protection trumps rolling resistance out there,” he added. “Having at least a 40mm tire will help a lot with pinch flatting and having a comfortable ride. I will be running the Kenda Flintridge 40 or 45mm with 30 – 33psi front and 32-35 rear.”
Water and Nutrition: “Eat and drink early and often.”
While there will be aid stations along the way, being self-sufficient is part of the rules. This means carrying your own water and food. And on a 100- or 200-mile day, you’re going to want to carry a lot of it.
“How much water do I need? A LOT,” said Vemeulen. “You honestly cannot carry enough to get through the race without filling up in my opinion. I typically fill my bottles up with a high carb mix and then carry just plain water in a Hydrapak. Last year at Unbound I drank 2800 calories, ate another 700 ish and drank over 7 liters of plain water for the 200.”
Vermeulen highly encouraged all riders, even those chasing podiums, to stop at the aid stations.
“Stop at the aid stations. Even the pros stop for a quick second. It is worth it to get through the race feeling strong. No matter what you do, you will not be able to fully replenish what you burn, so you may as well give your body as much as you can! Make a plan and stick to it,” said the Life Time Grand Prix series contender “I will be drinking a majority of my calories and eating a mix of homemade rice cakes and chews.”
In order to carry all the water and food she’ll consume, Tetrick said she’ll start off by carrying two water bottles on her bike and another 50 ounces of water in a hydration vest
“I get a new Camelbak Chase Vest and bottles at the 2 aid stations from my support team. It can be really hot and humid out there, and there are a few neutral stops to refill water,” she said.
“I highly recommend taking the time to make sure you stay hydrated during the day and try to eat and drink early and often.”
Boswell’s plan is to consume 1-1.5 liters of water per hour. To do so he will carry two tall bottles on his bike, and a Thule Vital 3 hydration pack, which carries an additional 1.75 liters.
“Carrying this extra weight on your body does weigh you down, so finding a comfortable pack is very important, the lower it sits the better. This is also the easiest way to make your aid station stops quick for a refill or bag swap,” he said.
Suspension, Aero Bars, Double Tape?
Hour after hour of bumpy rough road can take its toll on the body. As such, many will resort to some suspension, double tape or even aerobars for a little bit of comfort. But it isn’t for everyone.
“No to aerobars. Just no,” Tetrick stated definitively.
“Aero Bars are an absolute no,” Boswell agreed. “I don't think aero bars belong in a mass start event for safety reasons.”
But both being Specialized athletes, Tetrick and Boswell will have some suspension built into their Diverge gravel bikes.
“I ride a Specialized Diverge, which has the Future Shock 2.0 in the headset. This bump absorbing mechanism provides 20mm of travel that is so beneficial as the day gets longer and fatigue sets in,’ tetrick explained.
“I absolutely love this technology because it doesn't sacrifice performance or bike handling, but gives me confidence and comfort to ride as smooth as possible throughout the day.”
Boswell, too, is appreciative of that extra 20mm of cush, stating: “In most events you can get away without [suspension], yet 200 miles of the Flint Hills will make you appreciate that little bit of extra cushion.”
Vermeulen, a former WorldTour racer turned six figure gravel privateer, says he likes to keep things minimal. No suspension, no aerobars. He will however choose a comfort bar tape.
“I will use a good portion of ESI tape which is made of silicone and has some great dampening features,” he said.
The Body: Control your Controllables
We’re just days out from the event, so should one taper? Go for a shakedown ride? Stretch, rest, eat differently, etc?
Relax! The last thing you want to do is stress yourself out.
“Control your controllables. You have put in the work and did the best you can to prepare for this big day. I don't personally taper before the race, but I try to keep doing all the things to make sure I am prepared as possible,” Tetrick said, which mostly means staying hydrated. A shakedown ride is commonplace for most riders, and Tetrick welcomes everyone to come join her, Chamois Butt'r and GU Energy Labs for a shakedown ride on Friday.
Boswell and Vermeulen take their shakedown rides to a next level however.
“Last year I did a 100-mile ride on the Wednesday before Unbound, that worked for me but this is very individual to each person, their prep and how they are feeling coming into the event” Boswell said.
“I am a little odd, I like to be a bit fatigued going into races,” revealed Vermeulen. “I feel better and race better than if I took it super easy going into the event. For example, before the first Lifetime Grand Prix event, Fuego 80k, I raced a 3.5 hour road race the day before…and enjoyed it!
Both men do like to stretch a little before the event, even when wake-up is pretty darn early.
“A quick downward dog is always a good way to check in on how your body is feeling and get a little blood moving,” Boswell said.
The Mindset: You Got This!
It's easy to stress out about all the gear, the travel to such a remote place and flats or mechanicals that one could encounter. How does one stay calm and simply enjoy Unbound weekend?
“This is a big one,” said Boswell. “Don't change the way you do things just because it's the big show. The work and practice you have done in the week or month leading up to Unbound will guide you well. Do what you know and have practiced."
"My final tip, Unbound is really a race against yourself. Yes, there are thousands of other people surrounding you, don't worry about this. Focus on your day, your nutrition and your equipment. If you can look after yourself you are 95% of the way to a great day!”
Tetrick echoed Boswell’s sentiments, stating that she too focuses on herself.
“I just want to have fun, challenging myself in a sport that has made me a better person. So, if I am not having fun, I need to find a way to change that,” she said.
“Bad luck happens. All sorts of things can happen out there. I use the mantra from Selene Yeager, which is ‘forward progress, take care of yourself.. If you are moving forward, which even could be walking with a destroyed tire or a quad cramp, you can remind yourself you are still moving forward."
"And then you can be taking care of yourself by talking positively, eating and drinking, or just realizing how damn lucky you are to be there on your bike all day. You signed yourself up. You accepted the challenge, and how amazing is that? You've got this.”
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Cycling Weekly's North American Editor, Anne-Marije Rook is old school. She holds a degree in journalism and started out as a newspaper reporter — in print! She can even be seen bringing a pen and notepad to the press conference.
Originally from The Netherlands, she grew up a bike commuter and didn't find bike racing until her early twenties when living in Seattle, Washington. Strengthened by the many miles spent darting around Seattle's hilly streets on a steel single speed, Rook's progression in the sport was a quick one. As she competed at the elite level, her journalism career followed, and soon she became a full-time cycling journalist.
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