Every year the gravel world descends on Emporia Kansas for Unbound Gravel in early June for 200 miles of constantly undulating gravel where the only things that can be expected are hard racing and the unexpected.
Every year the front of the Unbound Gravel gets more competitive, with professional racers from all over the world coming for their chance at glory and thousands of amateurs preparing to push their limits to finish before the 21-hour (3 am) cutoff.
I arrived in Emporia at noon Thursday, and town was already bustling with cyclists. My teammate and I got out to preview a section of the course from mile 40 to the first aid station at mile 77. We expected this section to be an important section of the race with plenty of rocky sections, the longer climbs in the first half of the course, and our first experience of the Kansas peanut butter mud.
Friday afternoon, there was one dry line through the whole section, and it was still a fast section if you stayed online. Friday evening, we organized flat kits, calculated calorie needs, planning aid station refills, and filled hydration packs and bottles before getting to bed as early as possible for a 3:30 am wake-up.
What will the Unbound Gravel course be like after last night’s rain
Saturday 5:30 am: As everyone begins to line up. There’s chatter about last night’s rain and what the course will be like. The first 10 miles of Unbound are always nervous, with the group thundering over the flat gravel roads while everyone tries to be close, but not too close, to the front and hoping that the flying rocks don’t hit you in a place that doesn’t hurt too bad.
Derailleur derailed by the mud
As we crested the last hill before the two-track/ mud section, there was already enough mud in my derailleur from moving up on the side of the road that it wouldn’t shift into a harder gear, and I was spun out and quickly off the back of the group. This allowed me to see everyone off their bikes and running through the mud, but I didn’t heed this warning and was immediately off my bike, pushing and carrying a 10+ lb heavier bike with wheels that didn’t spin. The following five miles were survival with lots of walking and plenty of stops to clear mud.
Helped out a friend
Around mile 15, I caught up with a teammate Garrett whose day racing for a result was already over also. We rode together for a couple of miles before stopping to help a friend turn her bike into a single-speed after the mud ripped off her rear derailleur.
For the next 190 miles, Garrett and I traded pulls and moved from group to group with plenty of more stops to keep our bikes rolling. There were plenty of times when I wanted to quit, especially around mile 120-150 when the temperature hit 104 degrees, and my feet were so hot they felt ready to combust.
170 miles in a thunderstorm blew in bringing cooling rain
Around mile 170, a thunderstorm blew through with sideways rain that felt like hail and crosswinds that had us on the lookout for tornadoes. Luckily the rain cooled us down and put us in a very positive mood rolling into the last aid station at mile 177.
Cruise to the finish line
With only 38 miles to go we thought it would be a cruise to the finish with a great tailwind. Unbound Gravel wasn’t done yet we still had plenty of mud and rain left to contend with, but we got to the finish! My GGA 38 wheels with Ride Smooth Technology performed flawlessly all day and smoothed out the ride, so I had zero back pain and minimal hand tiredness for all 11 hours and 17 minutes of rough gravel.
Moving Time: 11 hours 17 minutes
Elapsed Time: 12 hours 47 minutes (that’s a whole lot of cleaning bikes!)
Distance: 205 miles
Elevation Gain: 9,881 ft
Avg Power: 250 watts
NP: 282 watts
Avg Heart Rate: 144 bpm
Work: 10,000 kJ
Avg Temperature: 76 deg F
Max Temperature: 104 deg F