In the heart of Kansas, in the middle of America, where the green fields and cows are the only thing you’ll find for miles, there is a small town named Emporia. Who knew this sleepy old town could get all eye’s attention of cycling fans worldwide? Unbound is the biggest, longest, and wildest of them all. Two hundred miles – 320 km, with obstacles making every cyclist regret taking on the challenge. Yet, riders keep returning to this weekend at the beginning of June.
This would be my second Unbound after last year. It became a death marsh after my cut to the side wall of my tire. I was riding the 200-miler with a brace with a fractured hand after a crash in Rule of Three two weeks before.
I am hoping this year will be different. I have a great team behind me led by Alan Pocock, a cycling friend working at Cadence Cyclery. Felt Bicycles support me with the mechanic Chuck and the marketing expert Brock.
I had a promising Gravel Locos two weeks ago. I have been in the last weeks in Dallas with the Ray family and my Team Cadence Cyclery, with time to acclimatize and train well. I should be in my very best form. Last year’s winner, Ivar Silk, used Schwalbe G-One RS tires, also my go-to tire. After last year, my worst nightmare is puncturing in the Flint Hills, where the rocks are razor sharp, and you’ll see just as many riders on the side of the gravel road as on it due to punctures. I pray for luck.
This is the story of my Unbound 2023.
READ FIRST: Unbound Gravel 2022
My alarm wakes me up, and I jump out of bed. 4 AM. I prepared everything yesterday, so just have to put on my CCN Trailblazer kit. It’s the day of the Unbound, the World’s premier gravel event. I feel ready, chugging my morning coffee, a healthy portion of oatmeal, and juice. Alan ensures all the nutrition is packed while Chuck pumps air into the tires. We do 40 PSI to have a little less risk of flats. Brock log into my IG account to share the day’s content. We are ready.
I start at 5.50 AM with the pro men’s. You’ll find all the biggest hitters in American gravel racing mixed with riders from all over. Africa, Asia, and Europe. The Dutch mafia will be strong with Laurens ten Dam, Ivar Silk, and Jasper Ockeloen. Many ex-World Tour roadies are now doing gravel and still have great engines. My fellow Norwegian Simen Nordahl is here too, and it’s nice to have somebody to speak my mother language too.
I roll out of the door of our Airbnb at 05.25. Riding to the start will take me about 10 minutes, so there is not too much time to waste now. It’s dark. Sun is not up yet.
– I will ride with you as I didn’t bring lights; I tell another rider also doing the commute to the start.
– You know lights are mandatory? He replies.
Ops, he is right; I forgot it. I quickly rush back to the Airbnb, run in, and get my lights. I get on my bike and keep going to the start—a little stressful start to the day. I’m waking up.
The start is in Downtown Emporia, on the historic main street. The road is full of excited riders lining up to the event. The further I get to the front, the increasingly more serious and experienced the riders look. The pro men are in the first line. I find my way through the hundred riders waiting to start their challenge if it’s 200, 100, or 50 miles—only 10 minutes to the start.
The speakers aren’t working. Problems before we even start. Is it a sign of what’s coming? The race organizer tries to communicate with the riders. He screams, but I can barely hear him. Something about mud and just riding through. Maybe hike-a-bike. Mile 10.
After the National anthem, I hear him yelling out 5-4-3-2-1-Good luck!
It’s a beautiful morning. The sun is rising, and the fields are misty—adventure mode.
I make it to the front and lead the pack on the gravel roads. No action yet. We are passing 8 miles. It’s increasingly tense as more people want to get to the front into mile 10.
Suddenly we are there. The first riders push into the mud, and the rest follows. Then one after another has to stop as the mud clogs up the bike until the wheels aren’t moving. Some riders realize it’s better to ride the grass ditch. We all follow their example. It’s a long line of riders. I cannot overtake riders. I have to be patient and follow the line. The ditch is ridable most of the time, but it is narrow, and there are some hidden rocks here and there. Ride with caution. I try the road where the road is drier, but it soon gets muddy again.
READ ALSO: Gravel Locos
This mud is something else. It’s the most sticky you’ll ever see. Some riders rip off their derailleurs, trying to pedal through as the mud stops the wheels from spinning. If you run, you won’t be able to click on the pedals again. It won’t be good either way; you must get through one way or another. I have the mud stick I didn’t bring last year but missed. This is ten times worse than last year. And so early in the race.
Keegan Swenson passes me on a more ridable section, and I follow. He is the main favorite in this race. Not long after, my bike clogs up, and I have to stop to peel off the mud. Oh, this time, it’s jammed. I clean the drive chain and wheels for mud for more than a minute before I manage to get going again.
It’s a massacre. I do not know why the organizers want to destroy the race by adding this section so early in the race, but I guess this is typical Unbound. Nobody said it was going to be easy. Only the strongest survive.
Then I finally arrive on more solid ground. I can pedal normally again. The bike is noisy, the wheels are moving slowly as the mud on the frame hits the wheels, but at least there is a forward motion. Groups are gathering, and it looks like a normal bike race again. We are all dirty; it’s hard to recognize riders around. One American rider screams something to me. I can’t hear what he says, so I ignore him.
I feel strong and push the pace. A rider tells me to slow down, but I want to make up ground to the first ones. I am now about 40th.
Our group is getting up to speed, but we cannot see anyone up the road. I am together with six riders. Among them are riders like former WT-pro Travis McCabe and Jan Bakelants. And there is the rider who yelled at me. Wait – it’s Adam Farabaugh. I know him; we raced together in China back in 2014. Great to see him again.
No time to talk about the old days, we are 20 miles into the race and need to catch riders up the road.
The following year after I met Adam in China, I went to Belgium for racing. I lived in a small town called Vorselaar, in Antwerp province. Therefore, it’s pretty fun I now find myself in a two-man chase with Jan Bakelants. He is from Vorselaar. What a small world. Now we are riding away from the others in our group.
– It might not have been a good move, but we must work together now.
Jan Bakelants motivates me to join forces with him. He doesn’t need to convince me; I’m more than happy to push the pace. We dropped the other riders and are now alone. It’s a long way to the finish, and we must try to catch more competitors.
As the sun is warming, we turn into a narrow and rocky downhill. Bakelants leads the way. There are sharp rocks, and I try to dodge the biggest ones. But then, BANG. I hear the terrible sound of a leak. I hit a rock, and my front tire is deflating! Puncture. Not this year again!
The tire holds some air, so I try adding CO2, hoping it will seal. It is looking like the pressure rises. Can I keep riding? I try a few hundred meters, but no, I have to plug it. I stop once more. I find a plug in my Almsthre bag and search for the hole in the tire. Where is it? I cannot find it. It’s too much mud. But I hear the sound of air leaking. There it is. But it’s a sideways cut of the tire. It’s hard to see how wide it is, but I try my Dyna-plugs. Then I try another CO2. No, it doesn’t work. I also have a bacon strip, so I give it another go. I kind of holds the air, so I try to ride another few hundred meters. No, it doesn’t hold, either.
The next option; insert a tube. I feel I already have been struggling with this for an hour, but I’m sure it is more like 10 minutes. I’m out of CO2, so I must pump my tire when I finally get the tube in place. A familiar rider stops next to me as I’m about to ride on.
– What a shit show.
It’s Dylan Johnson. He is one of the more experienced riders in the Gravel game, and we have done a few recon rides together. Great guy. He continues:
– You should just keep riding. In the end, you’ll be surprised how many riders will drop out of this race.
Dylan should know, and it gives me hope. I wish him good luck and tell him I’m done with the tire, and he’ll probably catch me later.
As I start pedaling, I soon gather with Kenny Looser. The Austrian is a well-known MTB rider, and we work together. Well, kind of. He keeps going very hard in the climbs, but I pass him on the flats. Dylan Johnson makes his way up to us. Soon, I pedal away from them both and take on the chase myself.
In the next downhill, my nightmare happens again. Another flat! WTF? Konny and Dylan pass me as I take up my second and last tube. I make a pretty fast switch and start pumping again. Why is it not inflating? I try for a while until I conclude it must be a problem with the tube. Man, what shall I do now? There are 10 miles to the aid station. I guess there’s only one thing to do; start running. So I run.
As I run, I feel I am a part of a bad dream. A nightmare. Or a comedy movie.
Not long after, a friendly guy I remember from Gravel Locos is passing me. He asks me if I need anything.
– A tube, maybe, I answer.
He hands me a tube and CO2. Thank you! There is still hope I can race.
Then, after another tube change, I’m back on the wheels. A tandem bike with two strong Dutchis are going 30 mph / 46 km/h. It’s Tristan Bangma and Patrick Bos. They pass me, and I hang on for my dear life. They are fast. Behind them is Jeremiah Bishop. He encourages me as we fly over the fields on a wide gravel road. Due to the crosswind, I must stay a little off the car wheel tracks, which would have been the fastest line. But I manage to follow as we approach the aid station at mile 78. Three miles to go!
It is happening again. Another puncture. Man – what a disaster. Again, out of tubes. I’m close to the aid station. I just got to grind over there.
I try to roll down the hill on my rims without any airlines. Even at 9 mph/15 km/h, it’s a challenge. The road is flattening out.
A rider offers me a tube and a CO2. It’s very kind, but running the last bit will be the quickest now. So I run.
I am moving. But running is slow. Many riders are passing. Surprisingly also well-known riders. They must have had problems too, being so far back.
There is the town of Eureka. I can see the aid station. Finally.
DO YOU REMEMBER: Arctic Everesting
I first meet Brock. He calls the others, explaining I have a punctured front wheel and they should be ready for a quick fix. I am not too stressed now. I realize this race is over. I got to treat this as an adventure ride now. Chuck changes my front tire while Alan is helping me clean my face from the mud. Brock takes care of rinsing the bike from the sticky mud. It’s not a fast stop, but we get the tire on. I put lots of gels into my pockets and take on a new, clean hydration pack with 1.5 liters. All three bottles with hydration mix I had on my bike are also changed with new ones. I have been out 5 hours, so it makes sense to get plenty of water. And it is getting warmer.
Chuck gives me a go. I accelerate and get on the gravel road once again. I’m number 99th. Far back.
The sun is shining, and it’s getting hot. I dodge a snake on the ground. You have to be careful about where you ride here. More than sharp flint stones to avoid.
I’m passing a farm. I see a beautiful horse with a stagecoach. Two or maybe three kids dressed in straw hats, blue shirts, and black pants. They look at me strangely. Like I am weird. Then behind them, I see a barn under construction. There are no walls yet, but inside, 30 men with straw hats, blue shirts, and traditional black pants with suspenders are sitting around a table. I have never seen anything like this before. Were they Amish? Am I dreaming?
I get excited. I am fascinated by Amish’s dedication to their beliefs. I’d love to get to know them. Not today. I have another mission – to get to Emporia.
I have been passing riders regularly since the aid station. But I cannot find anyone willing to keep my pace, so I am fighting the wind alone. I am now at mile 120, and the course is going north. I have a friendly tailwind. My pace increased. As the sun is shining, it keeps getting hotter. With winds in my back, the wind isn’t helping to cool me down. I’m riding in a sauna. Humid and hot.
Every time I pass fellow riders, they ask me when the water oasis is. At mile 128, I think. I am not sure. Only one thing to do – keep pushing.
For a 200-miler, there will be ups and downs, mentally, physically, and literally. The water oasis came at mile 123. I filled my hydration pack, cooled my body under the water tap, and got in a cold Coke before we went on. I felt refreshed.
Then I got caught by one strong rider. John B, it says on his bike tag. I hang on for a while, but then I couldn’t anymore. I felt empty. Then I had a Mana bar, and suddenly my body resurrected from almost dying.
I am pushing the pace again. Now I am catching and passing John B, and flying north. I feel great.
Then the wind makes a change and picks off. Raindrops also start falling. One drop, two drops, then it starts pouring. Heavily. It’s raining cats and dogs. Temperature drops. The raindrops feel like hail hitting my skin. It’s painful. I almost get thrown out of the road by a strong wind gust. This keeps getting worse. Am I riding in a hurricane?
Lightning, heavy rain, and wind gusts like I never seen before. I pass some riders from the 100-miler course stopping to take cover. But it’s not much coverage to find here. It’s open fields and no place to hide. This might be the worst riding conditions I have been in, but only one thing to do – got into my Viking mentality and grind through.
I’m going as fast as I can to get through the thunderstorm. I have a lot of respect for thunders. Electricity will always choose the shortest way, and there are few higher things around now. Except for a small power line along the road, I am the next best way for the lightning to get to the ground. I hope I won’t get hit. I don’t want to end my days here in this misery.
I am not catholic, but I still cross myself. Quickly. I need two hands on the handlebars in this storm.
It’s straight American roads here. Normally I think those long stretches are boring, but today it’s good. I don’t have to see where I’m heading; just keep straight. I can’t see anything either; my glasses are full of dirt and fog. I have the eyewear halfway on my nose to see above them.
Just one thing to do, get this over with!
As the thunderstorm finally calms, I pass a rider lying on the ground. Did he get hit by lightning, or is he exhausted? It looks bad, but there are three other cyclists around him and a car there. They won’t need my help. I keep pedaling. Almost at the last aid station.
Thank God I made it through this storm.
I pass the Almsthre booth. It means I am almost home—just another 10 miles. Now I know the roads. It’s a relief. I am about to finish this insane bike ride.
I have two riders following my wheel, and I am happy they are there. I have a quick stop at the aid station. I just swapped bottles and got some more gels. I didn’t want to use a minute longer than needed, as I am getting homesick. I want to get to Emporia and home to the Airbnb.
I have been getting my speed up and passing many riders. Lots of riders from the 100-miler, but also elite riders having troubles, cramps, or just out of gas. I have plenty in the tank and am hammering away. It feels like I am getting better the closer we are to the end.
A few miles back, we hit again a really bad mud section, but this time I managed to balance through it. It was ridable as long as I managed to keep the momentum and stayed in the middle. It was muddy, and my 1x chain dropped due to mud just as I exited the dirt road. It didn’t hinder me much, and soon I was hammering again. Then I caught up with a familiar rider. It was Adam! My Chinese cycling buddy. This time I recognized him, and we shared a few words about the fun old days.
Now he’s holding my wheel. I don’t mind doing the pulling. Adam’s tank is empty, but I have been lonely, so having company is nice. It’s still raining light. It’s not cold, but I look forward to getting into a proper shower—enough with these rain showers.
CHECK OUT THIS RACE: Unionsrittet July 1st and 2nd
I hear the train coming as we are closing into Emporia. I accelerate to ensure we don’t have to stop at the railway crossing. We make it. Now it’s only Highland Hill to go.
I make another acceleration up the climb and drop my companions. Now I can see the finish line. Alan is waiting for me with chocolate milk.
After being so determined to finish this event, fighting through mud, punctures, heat, and storms, it is strange to cross the line finally. It’s a relief. I am both happy I made it and disappointed to see I’m more than 2 hours behind there group where I wanted to be. Keegan Swenson wins the men’s race. I finished 47th in 12h 22min. At least I did finish. Many riders have to abandon.
Punctures, mud, crazy weather. Some would say this is gravel racing. I would rather say it’s Unbound. This is something else.
I am unsure if I want to do this again next year. On the other hand, I have something undone here. I want revenge on the Flint Hills. No flats. I want a clean race. No mechanicals. Suppose it’s even possible in this course. As long as this is the World’s premier gravel race, I must give it another go.
Now, a 30 min shower, 2-hour bike wash, 4-hour dinner, two days of travel back to Norway, and a week of recovery!
Thanks to Felt, Alan from Cadence, Almsthre, Schwalbe, Muc Off, riders, and volunteers. Thanks for this year. I will probably be back in Emporia next year. We will bring our gravel bikes and light up this sleepy town again!
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World’s premier gravel race in Kansas, US.
Unbound is known to be the absolute premier gravel event in the World, and it’s potentially the most prestigious race in America. More than 4000 participants, and all of the best pro gravel riders in the World.
I raced last year and how it went can you read here:
READ: Unbound Gravel 2022
The Flint Hills are home to some of the most beautifully rugged gravel roads in the US. These challenging courses feature some of the most scenic rolling hills through the Tallgrass Prairie.
Although some blacktop roads will be necessary from time to time, the vast majority of the course will be on gravel and dirt roads. Some of these roads receive little to no maintenance throughout the year and can be quite primitive in nature.
In the event of inclement weather, gravel, and dirt roads can become mud roads. Riders are therefore encouraged to prepare their bikes, their bodies, and their minds to be ready for any and all possible conditions.