Gravel racing is having a special moment, and Unbound Gravel in Emporia, Kansas, is the epicenter. The town is buzzing with energy with riders of all types, and the front of the competition is stacked with current and recently retired professionals from road, mountain, triathlon and the relatively new category of gravel privateers.
This is my third time coming to Unbound, which I started doing after retiring from road racing in 2018. When I was presented with the opportunity to give it another go this year, I didn’t have a good enough excuse to not come see old friends from bike racing, and go through a fair amount of suffering in the Flint Hills of Kansas. In 2019, I crashed out of the race and at my second attempt in 2021 I flatted early. This time I was hoping for a clean run.
The field of nearly 1200 riders set off in the morning glow of sunrise. Despite it being 6 a.m. with 200 miles to go, nobody at the front was comfortable relaxing. The front group of several hundred riders nervously entered the gravel, kicking up rocks that bounced and ricocheted through the group with the cadence of popcorn starting to explode on a stove.
The experienced riders knew to stick to the tire tracks — the safest place to be. The middle and the sides of the roads are far more unpredictable. It could be deep gravel, washboard, tire ruts or baseball-sized rocks. Wander into the unknown and you are more likely to have an early mishap, and if there is any race that is known for mishaps, it is Unbound Gravel.
I was riding in the top 100-150 for the beginning, just trying to survive without a flat or crash. In the first 20 miles alone, there were at least 5 crashes in the front of the group. The wide range of riding ability combined with surprising obstacles in the road makes for a sketchy combination. Many who have no business riding in the top 50 waste their energy and take risks trying to be there. The race isn’t won in the first 20 miles, but it can be lost here.
After an hour, we hit a climb and the front of the race shattered. The rise hadn’t even shown up on most course profiles, but with a sloppy muddy patch and a chunky rocky section, it may as well have been considered hors catégorie. The “Rubber Band” process began with the group breaking up on a hill or technical feature, and then welling back together. Every time this happened, fewer people remain in the front of the race, and more are scattered behind.
The sky to the west was becoming darker and darker, as a few light rain drops spattered on the strung out line of riders.
This is where I started to ask myself the hard questions about my race strategy: how long should I follow along with the front of the race? How long can I hang on?
When I was a professional bike racer, my strengths were in classic style races, where maintaining position over undulating and technical terrain is vital. Hanging on as long as I possibly can is not a good decision, but sitting up at the first hard effort would miss out on a lot of free energy in the draft.
Around mile 50, the pace was unrelenting and it was clear that I would be in and out of the red zone far too much. A group of us formed and established a steadier pace through the undulating terrain.
The first aid station came at mile 78. This was one of just two spots on course where rider support crews were allowed to assist. Much like a Formula One race, anyone in the front group relied on a well-orchestrated pit crew for a fresh hydration pack, new bottles, and resupply of race food all within 30 seconds. I wasn't worried about every second, and took my time, spending 5 whole minutes reloading everything at the neutral aid station.
In order to get through an event like this, I broke the race up into three chunks separated by the two aid stations. The middle section from mile 82-160 is where I entered the most mentally daunting part of the race. The legs began to feel heavier and each hill seemed to take a little extra oomph to get up.
For the first 120 miles of the race, the sky was mostly overcast with mild temperatures but then we turned directly into a wall of dark clouds and rain. The wind picked up in a blustery fury, and the rain suddenly pummeled us. The small group I was with split apart as the double-track road became greasy and treacherous. Within a mile I was completely covered in mud and struggling to see with or without my mud-splattered glasses on.
Miles 130 to 160 tend to be a turning point in this race. I kept moving along at a reasonable pace, though it was requiring more effort to do. I caught riders, who would draft for a couple miles and then fade off. Others would pass me. It seems that most everyone finds the bottom of the barrel around this point, and it takes every last drop of reserves to get through the rough and pitchy farmland.
After the second aid station at mile 160, we entered the third and final block of the race, consisting of only 40 miles, over what seemed like mild terrain. I had 2.5 hours to complete 40 miles to go sub-11 hours, which pre-race goal had seemed like a good time. The blue skies had returned and I set out from the aid station optimistic that I could knock out the last section strong and swiftly. Then came a left turn…to what would be only a small taste of the “peanut butter mud” that I had heard about. The rider in front of me attempted to ride it, and swiftly lost both wheels and fell in the mud.
Walking was no easier. The mud was tough, slippery and sticky. My shoes acted like suction cups, and my bike continued to pick up more and more mud. The front fork of my Sage Titanium Storm King built up so much mud, it was completely clogged despite having significant clearance. My bike must have weighed 80 pounds, with many handfuls of mud accumulating wherever it could. I pushed through this half mile of peanut butter and watched my average speed and spirits crumble.
For all the moments that feel a little extra tough, once in a while something happens in our favor. The last 20 miles, the course turned predominantly west, which meant a tailwind! The miles ticked away, and the idea that this endless journey would actually come to an end became reality. I went through a small tunnel under a highway and popped out on the college campus, a familiar sight. I rolled into the finish straight thoroughly exhausted and more than satisfied. I finished in 10 hours 50 minutes, which was surprisingly fast and surprisingly far behind the leaders at the same time. The winners clocked 9 hours 22 minutes — wow!
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