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That Unbound Gravel Edition
Mud, hike-a-bike, two-hundred miles and more
It’s mile eleven of Unbound Gravel. The peanut butter-clay mud that makes the now infamous “D-Hill'' unrideable is caked all over my Ribble Gravel SL. The tool I’d bought to help clear the mud is now so muddy that it’s no use. For the umpteenth time in a matter of minutes, I’m using my hands to clear clumps of mud and hopefully get my wheels to spin. If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.
It was a race I really wanted to hate but it was the race that opened my eyes to gravel. From southern hospitality, to my American confusion, hike a bike, radical weather and smiles. It was an Unbound Gravel for the ages.
My week starts in Kansas City Airport. I’d flown down after BWR Vancouver with Haasie, and after a connecting flight via Denver, we landed in the midwest. We claim our bikes and say our goodbyes.
Privateer life can make the somewhat simple task of getting from the airport to the race very complicated. Nathan had already plans with one of his sponsors to pick him up, and with the Ribble Collective not arriving for a few more days, I was left to sort myself out.
A taxi gets very expensive, as does trying to rent a car at my age. So, a couple of weeks before landing, I turned to trusty social media. I put a post in the Unbound 2023 Facebook page, asking if anyone will be on a similar timed flight and willing to split the cost of gas. A James ‘Jim’ Markel replies to my post, saying he’d be able to help me out.
Little did I know when chatting to him on the phone a few weeks before, that this would be the first of who knows how many examples of the famous ‘southern hospitality’ throughout my week. I hop into the Jeep and we’re on our way to Emporia. In hindsight, the biblical storm that follows us on the 90-minute drive was a form of dramatic foreshadowing.
With all due to Emporia, it’s in the middle of nowhere. A town of 25,000 people, for seven days a year, it becomes the beating heart of the fastest growing discipline in cycling. With the Ribble guys still not due to arrive for a few days, I head a few miles out of town to stay with Chris Mehlman and his mum, Cecily. This encounter had come about via Twitter, another great example of social media actually being for good.
The Mehlman’s take me in like one of their own. Chris is preparing to race the Unbound XL, a 350-Mile, twenty-plus hour epic. And you thought I was crazy doing the 200…
There are so many things I could, and probably will write whole articles about. The gravel fever dream that the Emporia high-street became, the friendliness of bike shops who stayed open after hours to help out and the cowboy-esque wedding I saw while out on a ride. The whole week was like to a music festival, but focussed around gravel bikes.
In the background to all this, there were some travel issues with the rest of the Ribble riders getting to Emporia. I was due to meet up with them after just one night with the Mehlman’s but disrupted travel plans meant they arrived less than 24-hours before the start. When they did arrive, I got the full American experience moving into an RV that we’d rented. The lack of running water or air-conditioning is a story for another day.
Now, if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if I thought it’d rain, or what tyres I’d be running, then I’d just about be able to pay back the extortionate $300+ entry fee. As a Brit, I was in my element: the weather was the main topic of conversation all week. Boy oh boy, it would be the weather that made race day epic.
It poured and poured and poured the evening before the race. That rain wasn’t just inconvenient for our al fresco camper park dinner plans, but was to wreak havoc on the course.
“I wish I was good enough to still be riding on the road”, I say half-jokingly as I trample through the mud. It’s not even half six in the morning and I’m questioning why I’m here.
The pro race had rolled out at 05:50, in front of thousands of people. The start was nervous, but easy. Nobody was willing to burn an ounce of energy in what was due to be a ten hour day out. We hit D-Hill and there are big issues. The race explodes. Ten or so riders manage to squeeze through the mud pit, the other two hundred or so pros are off their bikes walking.
The mud is so thick that it’s impossible to ride. It's impossible to turn the wheels, chains won’t move and there are who knows how many thousands of dollars of rear derailleurs snapping. It takes minutes to clean the bike, you try to ride it and it clogs again. Even pushing the bike causes it to clog with mud. People are walking, running, crawling and crying. “Only 190 miles to go”, I heard someone say.
It takes me thirty five minutes to cover three and a half kilometers. I come close to snapping my rear mech, and have to stop multiple times to clear the bike. My race is over, and I ride a few miles with the mud-splattered Haasie who I’d been yo-yoing with throughout the hike a bike section.
We stop again clean our bikes in a puddle and crack on. I push on up a hill in an attempt to clear some more mud. His bike falls victim to another blockage. I don’t see him again, he pulls out later after and gets a lift back to town.
I’m grumpy. I’ve traveled a long way with pretty high ambitions to have my race come apart immediately. That's bike racing. Unlike pro road races when this happens, you don’t detour back to the camper and sit in sorrow at your DNF, your day turns to enjoyment.
I’m still a touch grump at the first aid station, around four hours in. Our local support crew worked in record time to fix a bottle cage that was apparently hanging off, as well as clean my bike and sort my nutrition. There’ll be a full piece coming on them soon.
I cracked on from the aid station with fellow Ribble rider Metheven Bond. He’d waited up for me after a problem with his GPS file that meant he couldn’t navigate his way. Suffering from heat stroke, Metheven dropped off almost immediately, leaving me with fellow Brit, and Gravel National Champion Danni Shrosbree.
Danni had no clue where she was in the women’s race, and with my race long gone, I decided to give her a bit of help. She was suffering with a touch of heat stroke herself so I think a friendly face and a wheel to follow was well received. I rode with her until we found the next big group of female racers on the road. She eventually finished 4th - one hell of a ride.
The weather changes were ridiculous. Everywhere you looked there was a poor soul suffering with heat stroke and going backwards . Then, suddenly a storm came in. From baking thirty degree heat, to chilly sub fifteen and painful rain. I rode hard to the next aid station, at mile 165. There was one simple reason for pushing on: I needed to poop.
At the final aid station, after a quick visit to the portapotty, I relaxed and had fun with our support crew. There was lightning and more biblical rain. Staying undercover and having a chat seemed to be the best idea. I was in no rush to get to the finish line.
The final 70km was fun. I was catching a lot of riders and enjoying the new found novelty of a ten plus hour ride. Although, the final hike a bike section - another two miles or so - certainly took its toll.
I crossed the line with a smile I went in with one goal: a sub-10 hour finish time. If I’d have achieved that, then I’d have won the Unbound Gravel. Not a single rider went under ten hours in 2023 and the race was some forty minutes slower than the year before due to the mud.
I don’t even know where I finished, but I had fun. I’m not just saying that either. I enjoyed my day out there. I love racing for the win, but when so much shit happens, it’s nice to take a step back and enjoy the event for what it is.
I wrote this in my CyclingNews article, but I’ll say it here too. I think I accidentally found the spirit of gravel in those flint hills of Emporia. The spirit of gravel isn't all serious racing for the win, or having F1 style pit crews. The spirit of gravel is enjoying the day for what it is, making new friends out on course and having a laugh.
I go to all races with the aim of being in front group and competing for the win. But, it was nice to be on the other side. I'll be back to Unbound in future years with serious goals of a good finish position. In a way, it was nice to get the relaxed Unbound experience in year one, learn and build from it.
A race I really wanted to hate. A race I came out loving. It’s everything cycling should be. People of all abilities, shapes and backgrounds coming together to challenge themselves. Pros and amateurs alike sharing a beer late into the night and cheering on those riders who are still finishing after dark.
I really didn’t expect to be saying this, but if you want to experience what cycling should be like, get yourself down to the Unbound next year. Whatever side of the barrier, whatever distance you do or don’t complete, you won’t regret it.
It’s Tuesday morning, I’m writing this on a train back to Toronto Airport. On Sunday we drove ten hours to Chicago, on Monday I flew into Toronto and got to an airport hotel. I had high hopes of exploring the city today, but after grabbing an Uber into town, I realised I left my wallet in the room so back it is. This weekend brings the final race of my trip, the Blue Mountains World Gravel Series. Bluntly, I’ll be flying or fucked. Only time will tell which.
Thoughts and Prayers To:
Everyone who had to hike a bike.
Chris Mehlman who finished 5th at the XL, but managed to wear through the carbon on his frame.
My Velotec kit which may never, ever be clean again.
While you’re here…
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