Pro Gravel

Unbound Gravel 200

07/06/22
Jonas Orset

On June 4th, 6000 riders hit the gravel roads from Emporia, Kansas, for the World's premier gravel event. My first edition, and I was ready for the pro race, with 200 miles on gravel roads. What a ride it was!

Pro tip: Check out Velophoto.tx to find your photo from the event!

Welcome to Kansas! Photo: Marc Arjol Rodriguez, Velophoto.tx

WhatUnbound Gravel (formerly known as Dirty Kanza)
Where: Emporia, Kansas, USA
Distance: 200 miles - 321 km (Route)
Elevation gain: 9100 feet - 2700 meters
Date: June 4th 2022
Starting time: 6.00 AM
Weather: Clody, showers, some sun, 14-22°C

Team: Team Cadence Cyclery
Bike: Team bike Specialized Diverge
Tires: Vittoria Terrano Dry 38mm with Vittoria airliner foams
Race kit: Team Cadence Cyclery
Helmet: Met Manta
Shoes: Fizik Terra X5
Chain lube: Muc Off


The World's biggest gravel race

Unbound is something unique. I've done lots of races around the world, from China to South-Africa to Colombia, but staging up here is something special. For several reasons.

First, lining up for a 200 mile ride is not something you do everyday, nonetheless on gravel roads. You know it's gonna be a long day out. At the same time, if you race, the competition nerves hit you.

Second, the field is stacked with well-known pro riders. I am side by side the best racers in gravel, such as Laurens Ten Dam, Peter Stetina, Ian Boswell, Keegan Swanson, Payson McElveen, Sofia Gomez Villafane and Lauren De Crescenzo.

Peter Sagan is also at the race, signed up for the 100-miler.

Strong field starting from Emporia. Photo: Marc Arjol Rodriguez, Velophoto.tx

Third, for me as a Norwegian, it is kinda surreal to be somewhere in the middle of America. In the Kansas prairie. Five years ago I would never even think about going here. Now I am.

Forth, I like long distances, but as a first-timer, it is a lot of uncertainties. I only know the last 10 miles from the spin yesterday, and the rest of the route is unknown for me. What about the Flint hills? Would I flat? Would the riders stop at the water station at mile 41?

Fifth, I was signed up back in 2020, but covid canceled the race. Now, 3 years later, I am here. My training goal for the last years. Finally.

READ MORE: Expectations before Unbound

Mile 0 and out of Emporia

98% of the route is supposed to be gravel, and after a mile naturalized start on tarmac, we hit the gravel and the race is on. The speed is high with a few attacks, some crashes, and lots of rock chips and flying rocks into my legs and face. Glad to have eyewear.

Off we go. Photo: Marc Arjol Rodriguez, Velophoto.tx

There is a few crashes in the group and several riders are going down. I am staying on the wheels. Pretty happy with that. Especially since I ride with a hand brace for my fractured wrist from Rule of Three two weeks back, and don't want to make it worse by crashing again.

We hit the more narrow gravel paths. A few river crossings. Some sections are muddy. Other times it's a rocky surface. The selection starts.

I am staying with the first 30-40 riders climbing up the beautiful Tower Hill. It's green and pretty. Some cattle are running alongside us. It's cloudy and 16°C. Perfect riding conditions.

41 miles in and the first water stop comes. I was planning to refill my bottle, but nobody stops, neither do I. Happy to have the hydration pack. I carry two 0,75 liter bottles and 1 liter of water in the backpack. It should keep me hydrated until the 77 mile checkpoint.

The 6000 riders stretched out on the course. Photo: Marc Arjol Rodriguez, Velophoto.tx

Mile 50 and technical problems

My biggest fear for the Unbound is the flats. I heard a lot about the flint in the area, and the trail has a lot of sharp rocks. Suddenly I get my first problem, but it's not a flat. It's my saddlebag. It's loose. The straps are ripped off. I have to stop and put the bag in my Camelback.

I start riding again and then I realize I have another problem. A flat! I have to jump off the bike again.

I try inflating CO2, but it doesn't seal. I can't see the hole. Oh, now I see some sealant coming out from the sidewall, really close to the rim. I am trying to plug it, but it is too close to the rim. It is a slow leak, and with my airliners, I give it a try. I add some Vittoria PitStop, and continue.

Quite rough gravel, and easy to catch a flat. Photo: Marc Arjol Rodriguez, Velophoto.tx

Riding on the airliner works, but isn't fast. When I hit bumps my rim is smashing into the ground. I need to do something. I stop again and dismount the wheel. But my broken wrist? It will be painful to get the tire off. Well, there is some air in the tire, it's not completely empty. I give my Vittoria PitStop another try, but it's also almost empty. I do a few pumps with my hand pump. Okey, let's try again. It works!

It isn't perfect, but I don't care. Only 20 miles to the checkpoint and I can change the tire there.

Mile 77 and into the patient game

I am far behind the first riders, but there are other riders around also having problems and I eventually get in a group. After 4 hours of riding, we ride into the checkpoint in Eureka. 77 miles done.

I get service from Patrick and his wife from Specialized Dallas. They help me to swapp bottles and stock up my jersey with energy bars. We lube the chain and pump the tire to 32 psi. It was 15 psi, but the leak seems to have sealed. Almost at least.

2 min later and I am back on the road.

I was pushing on, mostly alone. Photo: Marc Arjol Rodriguez, Velophoto.tx

I leave the feed with 5 riders. We catch some others and soon we are 8. With a pumped tire I could push on. Steady, but at a good pace. Later we were only two left. Then the rain starts to pour down.

It is about 18°C. Not very cold, but with all the splashing dirty water it is pretty tough out there. It was a heavy shower lasting for about 20 minutes.

The mile tracker moves slowly and it all feels never-ending.

Supposedly, we had just passed the water station at mile 119, but I never saw it. And now I really need water. I guess, since they had to reroute just a few days ahead, all the information on the website hadn't been updated, so the water station was at mile 114, but as I didn't see any signs, I passed it without stopping. Too late now. I just have to press on.

Mile 140 and it gets hard

I catch a few more riders. We're in a good pace. To be honest, I hadn't felt great the whole day. My legs weren't fresh. Now it was about getting to the finish.

I am out of water and I have potentially not eaten enough either. I have stomach pain and feel pretty weak and nauseous. I feel sick. And as the sun starts to shine, I begin to suffer. Now it's I that get dropped by riders!

I am lucky to get a bit of water from a road marshal and have enough to get to the last checkpoint at mile 160.

Beware of cattle. Photo: Marc Arjol Rodriguez, Velophoto.tx

Mile 170 and I'm getting stronger again

I meet Patrick at the checkpoint. I fill my pockets and change to new bottles. My rear tire is low on air again and we pump it up. As Patrick takes care of it, I chug a coke. A quick 3 min stop and I am back on the bike.

The coke seems to restart my body. Now I feel a lot better.

Soon I arrive at a really muddy section. After the rainfall, the mud got wet, and now with the sun the mud starts to dry up, but first gets compact and sticky. It is unrideable for about a mile. The bike gets all clogged up. I can't spin the wheels. I have to peel off the mud with a stick to be able to role on the tires.

Muddy bike. Photo: Marc Arjol Rodriguez, Velophoto.tx

I get on the road again. 25 miles to go. I start to sense the smell from the food trucks in the finish area.

I feel I am getting stronger every mile. I catch some riders ahead. A great feeling to be able to push hard toward the finish.

Mile 200.4 and it's over

When you pass the finish line after such a long day you have lots of feelings. Maybe relief as you made it home. Maybe also a bit disappointment as you were hoping for another outcome. Or proud to exceed your goals? At least you should feel some happiness as you had an amazing day out.

I passed the line after 11 hours 19 minutes, 101.place and 68. in my group.

I was full of mixed feelings. A long day of suffering. I had lots of lows, some highs. It didn't go as I hoped for, but on the other hand I made it to the finish, which is never a given in such a tough race. Didn't really know what to feel. I needed to absorb it.

But I was happy to hear my dutch friend Ivar Slik took the win. I met Ivar both in China and Poyang Lake, and also Gravel Locos and Rule of Three. A great guy and such a strong rider!

SEE RESULTS: Unbound Gravel (external link)

Finisher! Photo: Marc Arjol Rodriguez, Velophoto.tx

Mile 600 and back in Dallas

During the 400 mile drive back to Dallas, I got the Unbound a bit on distance and can finally start to evaluate the event. It had been such an experience, and amazing route. Beautiful landscape. Great atmosphere and good people. The event was well organized, fun, and Emporia was a cool place to be.

I would have liked to stay off technical problems, and have a good day on the bike. But I guess, taking into consideration my crash two weeks earlier, just finishing the 200-miler is something to be happy about. It also gives me a reason to come back for revenge.

I feel I have something unsettled with the Unbound and will start to work forward to 2023!

Thanks to my sponsors and the team for making this possible.

Shout out to:
Cadence Cyclery
My drivers to the race, Andrew Bailey and Logan Mattern w/Taylor
Team TNT
Velophoto.tx (Check out all the photos from Unbound).


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