Unbound is a 330 km gravel race across the flint hills of Kansas State in America which has grown into one of, if not the most competitive gravel race in theWorld. It’s a race of attrition in which every rider faces adversity, whoever faces the least and does the best job dealing with it generally wins. It’s similar to 24 hour racing in which basically the last one standing wins. I’ve raced it twice before in 2018 and 2019, both years running into multiple flat tires. In 2018, after double flatting twice early on, the legs were on fire, going from around 800th place to 14th at the finish. In 2019 I made the selection and was in the lead group of 9 riders, over half way into the race when two flat tires and a mechanical left me walking 4 miles to the closest farm house for a pair of pliers and bike pump to get rolling again. 3rd time is a charm right? Here is the story from this year as my Kona teammate Rebecca Fahringer and I tackled this beast of a race in the Midwest.
4:30 am: Wake up Call. Rebecca was porping to get to the line and was like a swiss watch leaving the hotel @ 5:20 am to get there bright and early. I’m still stumbling around with a bowl of oatmeal at this point, eventually arriving at the line at 5:51 am. Rolling to the start the body and mind are in a good place, I’m thinking “finally this could be my year..”
6 am: Race start. This one is always sketchy with 900+ riders of all abilities fighting for position on loose gravel… gotta stay close to the front..
The next hour rolls by with gravel being thrown everywhere. Our sunglasses turn into safety glasses from the flying debris, a mouth guard would also be smart for these starts. Eventually the pace picks up as we hit the first bad road of the day, a rutted out tractor path with baby head rocks all over the ground. In 2019 I picked Geoff Kabush’s wheel to follow through here, it was great until he flatted. This year he wasn’t racing so it was a guessing game who to follow, the first guy hit a rock and went down hard, I’ve learned to leave gaps on these sections to avoid crashes and to give a bit of visibility to avoid obstacles. Inexperienced riders would yell from behind “close the gap”, at one point one guy filled the hole only to hit a rut hard and go down, nearly taking me with him as I no longer had any
Psstt, lots of flat tires, I notice 4-5 of the contenders pull over to fix flats, thank goodness it wasn’t me this year!
Finally we reach some smooth roads on the other side of the mayhem, the lead pack is down to 50 or so riders but it swells back up to 200+ as the pace is relaxed. Cruising along near the front I notice white tire sealant on my leg and then see some on the rider ahead of me. Geeze everyone is flatting, soon realizing this time it’s me as the front tire is spraying sealant everywhere. My heart sinks knowing this might signal the beginning of the end and the start of a gong show. I pull a tire plug and co2 canister out while rolling along, preparing for a quick fix as I pull off to the side. It was my lucky day as the Squirt tire sealant with beadlock, seals the hole and I can jump right back into the action, chasing to the back of the 200+ rider lead pack. Back in the group, a sense of relief hits as I take a quick breather and some water. This was a mistake. Looking up I see the pack stretching out as someone is making a move. My heart sinks again,oh no, is this the selection already! In 2019 nothing major happened until after the 1st feed zone.. New year, new race, and this edition was loaded with front end talent from the World Pro Tour. Once these guys go, if you’re not on their wheel it’s basically game over.
I start the chase but it’s a bit late, the front of the race is gone in a dust cloud and theirs around 200 riders between me and them. The next 20 minutes is like a hockey drill going around defence men, weaving in and out of racers, over rocks, and through ruts. The first 150 racers are pretty easy to pass but the closer to the
front the harder it gets. Crushing one descent I come around a corner to see 5 riders from the lead pack scattered across the landscape, 2 lying in the ditch, 2 half
standing up looking stunned, and one Trek guy grabbing his shoulder as he walks out of the carnage. Having had major shoulder surgery 4 months earlier, I cringe my teeth looking at his likely dislocation. Eventually I end up in the chase group, about 12th-20th in the race. A young rider from Movistar (Matteo Jorgenson) catches us from behind and takes over the chase efforts. He must of had an early mechanical as he is flying and we can barely hold his wheel. We have 8 guys with us, he drops 5 of them, but then misses a corner, which costs another 30 seconds. At Unbound the course is unmarked so all the riders must follow their GPX tracks, when you’re going 60 km/hr down hills following a wheel, it’s easy to miss turns. Rolling into the first feed the only thought is to get in and out as quickly as possible. The leaders are a couple minutes up but with a quick transition this could be a chance to get alot closer.. 3 new bottles, 1 USWE hydration bag, a handful of clif bars and back to the chase. 24 hr racing has helped fast track these pit stops which is a big advantage. Thanks Jason English for the schooling over the years!
Our chase group is different now, losing a few riders but gaining a few including MTB pro Jeremiah Bishop, in 2019 we rode in together after both having tough luck. We can see the leaders ahead, and figure theirs an outside chance of catching them as our Movistar friend continues to crush it. The risk is that we are going way over a sustainable 200 mile pace, it’s a gamble to stick with it but the other option is to drop back to a slower group and then be the one at the front doing the work. Leading into the race the legs were stronger then ever according to the Strava segments I test them on each year. After 2 poor races at Dirty Kanza (Unbound), I opted to put all the chips on the table and go big or go home this year, my goal coming in was to be in the lead group contending.
Suddenly I begin to lose contact with the chase group, I’m not breathing hard, heart rate seems fine, but the legs are heavy. Oh no, what is happening? Pretty soon I lose touch and start drifting backwards. Sprinting briefly, hoping the legs will come around but the system is falling off line. Riders start to pass bye and their is no response from the legs. For the next 2 hours groups cruise by, I try to hold on but keep getting popped, the system is overheating, the legs are spinning at recovery pace and all the warning lights are blinking on the dashboard. Now I start thinking, “ok it’s time for a flat tire, this will give me a breather.” No flat tires come, the last 2 years the legs are firing but flat tires galore, where are the flat tires now!?
The last time the body blew up like this was probably in Juniors. Is it because I hadn’t been in an intense race environment for 18 months? Is it the heat? Is the body still rebounding from being at high altitude for 3 weeks? This is very possible. Training at 2400-3000 meters is great for the lungs, blood and overall system, but the muscles can lose some power as you’re training with lower power numbers due to the lack of oxygen. At sea level their is about 20.9 % effective oxygen in the air, up at 2400-3000 meters it’s closer to 14-15%, which means your muscles have less O2 supply and your power output on the bike is around 10-15% less. This is can lead to a slight loss in muscle strength, which is quickly regained once at lower elevations, but sometimes theirs a small lag in the system once coming back from altitude camps. I knew this coming in, but the long term benefits pay off. Unbound was a wild card race with the risk of flat tires and the fact it was my first race since 2019, so I figured why not add one more x-factor to the cards and then hope for the best.. Whatever happened to my once strong legs, my day was done. At Unbound this can be a mind game as their was still 120 miles to go, much of it into a headwind! Everyone who comes to Unbound, except maybe the winners, will hit rock bottom at some point throughout the day, for me it was a lot earlier then expected. With the race out of hand I had to find some sort of new motivation. The first couple girls come by me, one of them being paced by a male teammate.
Right then I found the motivation, my teammate Rebecca was a contender for sure, hoping she was having a good day, I could work for her to the finish line. I keep looking back waiting for her green Kona kit to show up, at one point I think I see it, my heart rate goes up as my body is still screwed but it will have to come back alive so I can help her, i’ll be going straight back into suffer mode. It wasn’t her, heart rate relaxes again. Rolling into the 2nd feed station I sit down and wait as Marco and Mike from Velo + look after the Kona Libre, change bottles, and hand over some snacks. The stomach is growling after a pile of sweet stuff and is craving salt. Seeing Rebecca’s bag of salt and vinegar Lays potato chips is like gold. The next 45 minutes is spent eating chips, layering more sunscreen, and chatting with Carl Decker across the pit. He was working for his teammate Kaysee, but they had a rough day and were now out. He comes over to munch on some chips when I realize the bag is nearing half empty and we better save some for Becca or she will kill me.
Eventually she comes in, having had a catastrophic flat tire early on, her race aspirations had also evaporated. Their were offers to call the day and get a lift back to the finish but we like riding our bikes so took off for the last 80 km into mixed a cross/headwind. It was a great ride, we picked up her friend Jen Luebke along the way and then ran into my buddy Thomas Turner towards the finish line. Our joke was to get in before dark, which wasn’t too far off as we rolled in at 8:06 pm, 14 hours after starting, just over 30 minutes before sunset! What a day, racing doesn’t always go as planned, especially at Unbound, but nothing can change the fact that riding bikes is fun. Not sure if I will be back for round 4 next year, or if its time to try the 350 mile XL version, or something else. Still need a bit of time to digest this one as the disappointment is real, although any day you get to ride your bike is a good day!
Big shout out to Maxxis for the race entry and great tires for the race (Refuse 40 cc on the rear, 45 C Rambler on the front). Shimano for the GRX drivetrain, USWE for the Outlander pro hydration pack, Squirt Cycling products for the dry was lube & tire sealant (which saved the race) , 7 Mesh for the Skyline jersey and RK1 bib shorts, Clif bar for all the nutrition and Velo + for the amazing support at the race and Marco and his family for hosting me in KC. And last but not least, Kona for all the support which allows me to keep chasing these races, and the great bike, the Kona Libre, which could win this race one day. Off on an easy few day bike tour around Kansas City to find some BBQ and then Colorado for some training up in the mountains.
Over and out from the Midwest.