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Little ride on the prairie: Unbound Gravel sportive review

In-depth
1 Jun 2020
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In the dusty heartland of the United States, the legendary Unbound Gravel is a 200-mile race across the flint-covered dirt roads of Kansas. This article was originally published in issue 2 of Cyclist Off-Road magazine. At time of writing and publication, the race was known by a different name, which can be seen in the images, however organisers switched to 'Unbound Gravel' due to offensive connotations of the previous guise.

Words James Stout Photography Mike Swim

‘Alexa, what is the weather in Emporia, Kansas?’ I have developed such a frustrating habit of shouting this nervously from my office in the last few months that my wife is becoming increasingly irritated with me. She has made the valid argument that, if I can’t be bothered to search the weather for myself, why on Earth would I think I have enough motivation to ride 200 miles on gravel.

It’s a fair point, but Unbound Gravel does that to you. It gets in your head. It’s a bike ride so long that you need a spare battery for your bike computer, because when they make bike computers they don’t account for masochistic idiots.

Bike racing has taken me to a lot of places – all round Europe as well as far-flung locations like Vietnam and Trinidad – but I never expected bike racing to take me to a muddy stream almost exactly in the middle of America.

In the days before the race I’m blissfully unaware that I will soon find myself lying down in a creek, trying to keep myself from vomiting in the baking heat of the Kansas sun, 100 miles from any chance of a shower and sympathy.

Right now, still safe at home, I remain confident that I have the measure of the Unbound Gravel and that I will be able to post a respectable time. Then Alexa informs me that there is a serious risk of tornadoes.

Land that time forgot

Emporia, Kansas, is the sort of mid-western American town you probably thought no longer existed. As well as being the start and finish for the world’s most prominent gravel race, it’s also home to one of the most prestigious Frisbee golf tournaments in the world, and there’s a VHS rental place doing a healthy business.

 

When Unbound Gravel rolls into town, this year for the 13th time since its inception, there aren’t enough hotels to accommodate all the entrants, and the local cowboys, complete with un-ironic cattle-skull bolo ties, have to make room at their bars for hordes of malnourished strangers with peculiar tan lines.

Unbound Gravel sure ain’t like any other bike race. Everyone expects to bonk at least once, almost every rider will get several flat tyres and the person who crosses the line in last place is likely to be the one who gets the biggest cheer.

At other events I’ve witnessed a certain condescension towards people who race to complete rather than to compete, but that kind of snobbery is not on the agenda here. You can’t tell a hero from a hobo – well, certainly not once they’re both covered in dust.

The start is a spectacle in itself. Nearly 2,000 riders gather outside an impossibly retro cinema and roll out as dawn is breaking (thankfully the risk of a passing tornado has faded). On the start line this year, pro riders from Trek-Segafredo and Education First mingle modestly with amateurs.

Any remaining pretence of superiority soon drops away and competitors quickly become comrades as all embark together on this journey across the vast expanse of the Kansas Flint Hills.

 

Welcome comrades

Once the initial melee settles I find myself in a group that’s whipping along at a decent pace in the opening miles (this is America, where metric hasn’t arrived yet, so distances are still in miles). Crossing the prairie we kick up a cloud of dust that I’m certain makes us visible from afar.

Visibility for the riders, though, is another matter. At times it feels like we’re riding blind. My eyes sting with the dust and ache from the constant squinting to make out a safe line.

Eventually the lack of clear vision has the effect of subduing the pace a little and I’m able to catch my breath and even manage to chat to some of the other riders. Most are clad in the Lycra trappings of the road racer, but many look like they have long since given up shaving their legs.

I’m making good time, until I feel the telltale spray of tyre sealant against my shins, as my front tyre lets out the carefully curated 32psi I’d put in it before the start. A plug and a quick inflation with a CO2 canister gets me rolling again, but the group is long gone.

I can see the dust ball a good distance further across the prairie. I begin the chase before realising my efforts are futile as the road starts to get narrower and more technical. Where we were riding six abreast on relatively well-packed gravel at the start, now there are only two passable wheel ruts, and even then one of them is full of rocks.

 

The stones get bigger and sharper, and I pass more and more riders fixing flats by the side of the road. I recognise one of them as Education First pro rider Taylor Phinney.

There are no team mechanics on hand here, or cars following behind with spare wheels. Unbound is very egalitarian like that. It doesn’t care if you are fast or slow, pro or first timer. Nobody gets to have a perfect day, and self-sufficiency is all part of the beauty and the challenge.

That said, after 65 miles I reach the first aid station where some outside assistance is permitted. Riders can bring (or hire) a support crew so, as I approach, the whole street is full of people looking out for their rider.

It takes me a while to locate my team. It’s 35°C, I’ve been riding for over four hours and my eyes are bloodshot from the dust, so my powers of observation aren’t at their best right now.

Once I find my crew I stop for longer than a lot of riders, taking time to stretch as well as top up my tyre sealant and raise my stem a little. I’ve already prepared my hydration pack, stuffed with food and brimming with fluid, ready to throw on. We’ll have covered 90 miles before I see the support crew and get the chance of a cold drink again.

 

Long and lonesome road

Ahead of us now is one of the toughest sections. Steep climbs and descents on some of the chunkiest gravel do, however, reward us with some of the most spectacular views. Miles of prairie stretch out as far as the horizon with gravel roads meandering through them like the patterns raindrops make on a dusty windscreen.

As the day gets hotter and the gradients thin the groups out, I find myself riding alone a lot. Even in an event with thousands of starters, the sheer scale of the ride and the landscape means the journey through it can often feel like a lonely one.

Rivers and streams mark the bottom of each descent and it’s in one of these that I eventually overcome my conviction to behave like a bike racer and decide to lie down for a full body submersion.

After ticking off the hardest 100-mile ride I’ve ever done, I’m still facing another even harder one. I take on a couple of gels, guzzle down some water and even pause to distract myself by looking at photos of my cats on my phone.

Like I said, this isn’t bike racing as you know it. Unbound will make you listen to your body. Everyone cracks at some point, and Unbound only really starts after it breaks you. Because after that, it makes you.

 

Feeding frenzy

I feel reinvigorated after my dip, my legs almost rejuvenated as I get back on the bike. Trees dot the landscape, and by this point under almost every single one of them is a rider seeking shelter in its shade. After taking my own moment of salvation in the stream I make a habit of checking they’re all OK.

A neutral water stop offers a vital oasis. Water, ice and friendly well-wishes are just what I need. Knowing where and when you can top up on fluids is key, because running out of water could be the end of you. Literally.

The second aid station looks like the Normandy beaches would have done if D-Day had been sponsored by a sports nutrition company and the soldiers had come ashore on giant coolers. People are either rushing around as fast as they can or lying totally still.

 

The heat has taken its toll on my appetite but it’s vital I eat. I’m finding foods I never normally crave suddenly seem delicious. I wolf down a cold can of Coke, quickly followed by a cookie, some pretzels, a frozen peanut butter sandwich and a couple of Pop-Tarts. I stop short of adding pickle juice to the gastrointestinal collage, though.

My legs are caked in mud, sweat and blood, and I realise I’ve just done my longest ever off-road ride. And I still have 50 miles to go. Better have another cookie.

200 down and still a few to go

The final three hours are gloriously rolling. The heat mercifully abates and the breeze picks up – not so much as to be speed-sapping but just enough to have a pleasurable cooling effect.

I pass Phinney again, fixing what is apparently his ninth flat. And I thought I’d had it tough with three.

 

Staring at my bike computer as I ride alone each mile takes longer than it should, but eventually the distance monitor finally clicks around to read 200. Unfortunately, I’m not quite done yet. There’s still a little way to go before the finish chute comes into view, a sight that almost makes me want to weep with relief.

Even though I’m arriving hours after the winner – Colin Strickland, who this year won the event in a record time with an average speed of more than 20mph – the run in is accompanied by a crescendo of cheers and locals keen to give high-fives as I pass.

I’ve finished the race, but the battle is not done. There’s still the fight to eat the largest possible amount of fried food at the post-event buffet to come yet. The spirit of camaraderie continues as we swig cold beer, stuff our cheeks and swap our battle stories.

Taylor Phinney finished, like me, hours behind the winner. And just like everyone else, he says he suffered in the heat and at times wanted to abandon.

Unbound Gravel demands respect but it’s also possibly one of the few races where a rider like Phinney can be passed by an overweight 50-year-old on a fat bike down a hill, and laugh about it afterwards.

A guy with a filth-caked face asks me if I would do Unbound again? I shock myself when without even a moment’s thought I answer, ‘Yes, definitely.’

Despite the arduousness of this epic event and a whole day in the blazing sun, I really have enjoyed it. Are there some things I would change? Yes. I would put more sealant in my tyres and fit a third water bottle cage. In bike racing terms Unbound Gravel is stupid, but it’s the kind of stupid that will have me coming back again next year.

‘Alexa, how many days is it until the 30th May 2020? Oh, and is it going to rain?’

 

The details

What: Unbound Gravel  
Where: Emporia, Kansas  
Next one: 4th June 2022 (entry by lottery)  
Distances: 25, 50 and 100 miles, but… 200 miles is the true UG distance, and there’s now also the 350-mile XL option too (however, entry is only available for previous finishers of the 200-mile race)  
Cost: $35, $50, $110 and $220 respectively  
Info: unboundgravel.com  

 

The rider’s ride

Cannondale SuperX, £3,999.99, cannondale.com

It might technically be a cyclocross bike but the SuperX has won Dirty Kanza multiple times before, and its big tyre clearances and efficient power transfer meant that it didn’t fail to deliver. It was a great choice for the event.

I equipped it with Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 shifting paired to an XT mountain bike rear derailleur to provide a 1x drivetrain set-up with a large-ranging rear cassette to cope with the climbs, of which there are plenty. The shifting was precise and flawless throughout.

If there’s one question you’ll hear a lot in the weeks before Kanza, it’s about what tyres to use. I opted for Donelly’s most robust offering, the MSO 40. These were mounted (tubeless) to Enve’s G23 wheelset, which handled everything the flint hills could throw at them.

The fact I suffered a few punctures is not a poor reflection on the tyres’ performance (everyone gets flats, no matter what their tyres) as overall they proved to be an excellent choice with a good mix of grip and fast-rolling tread.

 

Unbound tips

Don’t leave home without these essentials

  • Minimum 40mm tyres, and pick a brand with strong/robust sidewalls
  • Use more sealant than normal
  • A minimum of a 1:1 climbing gear will help you pedal, rather than walk, the steep ascents
  • Three pre-prepared hydration packs is a good strategy for saving time at stops. USWE and Osprey both make excellent, lightweight packs
  • A bandana to cover your mouth in the dusty early miles
  • Bottle cages that won’t drop your bottles. Lezyne’s Flow Cages are a safe bet
  • Three spare inner tubes. Tubolito’s are lighter and smaller than standard butyl tubes, making it much easier to fit three in a standard seat bag
  • Several tubeless tyre plugs and a valve core extractor (Enve makes one built into the valve cap) so you can carry a small amount of extra sealant and refill via the valve stem
  • Mini pump (unless you want to walk when you run out of CO2)
  • A small frame bag or bar bag for extra food and tools. Ortlieb offers some good choices
  • Food for the stops. After eight hours in the saddle you have no idea what you want, but a good spread of sweet and savoury options will help
  • Something to clean your sunglasses. Like you, they will get sweaty and dirty

 

How we did it

Travel

Emporia is too small to have its own airport. The best option is to fly into Kansas City, from where it’s around a two-hour drive to Emporia. 

There are no direct flights from the UK to Kansas City, but it’s a short connecting flight from a number of US airports including Dallas, Chicago and Detroit. Depending on the time of year and airline expect economy flight costs to be £800-£1,000.

There’s a good chance you’ll be among many other Unbound Gravel racers arriving at the same time so you might even be able to make a friend and catch a lift to the race.

Accommodation

Emporia has limited accommodation and it sells out fast. The race offers lodging in the university halls of residence and this is the best bet for most racers, but if you prefer some private space either book early or be prepared to drive out of town.

Another good option is what we did: get together with a larger group of friends/contacts and look to share the rental cost of an entire property (Airbnb, for instance). We stayed at a large country house with each of its dozen bedrooms filled to bursting.

 

Help

You’ll need a crew for the race as there is no neutral aid other than water stations. If you do go it alone, the race offers a ‘crew for hire’ service that lets you drop off whatever you need with local volunteers for a small fee, which supports local causes.

Thanks

Our thanks to Chris Lyman of Blubird Communications who tirelessly helped bolt most parts of this trip together for us. Thanks also to Enve for providing the accommodation and AJ Turner and Shelby Vandersteen who were my support crew. Final thanks to Mike Swim for photography.