Race Report: Unbound Gravel
Unbound Gravel, formerly called “Dirty Kanza” or “DK”, has exploded in recent years to become the biggest bicycle race in the United States, and the biggest gravel bike race in the world. After reading and hearing about it for years, I signed up to race the 100 mile version and made the trek to Emporia, Kansas, aka “Gravel City USA” last weekend to put on a race number and test my legs on the Flint Hills gravel. Here’s everything the aspiring racer should know!
Emporia is located in southeastern Kansas, between Topeka and Wichita, and is home to Emporia State University. The closest airport is 60 miles away in Manhattan, Kansas. Driving from Denver took me 8 hours, and was an easy, if boring, drive across the plains. There where numerous hotels, airbnbs, and even university dorms available to post up for the weekend, but I chose to tent camp in the nearby county fairgrounds. The setup was fine, a little warm to sleep in a tent, but the price was right, and the fairgrounds had bathrooms, a shower building, and was only 2 miles from all the action in downtown Emporia.
The All Things Gravel Expo was a happening zone, lots of booths from big and small vendors in the industry, a beer garden and food trucks. It was completely outside, which made it feel pretty safe as far as covid concerns, but was also hot. Highlights included the Garmin booth where they were helping people load the race course onto their computers, and Muc-off, who was offering an awesome free bike wash! This is definitely going to be the place to show off new gravel gear to the masses, so bike nerds take note!
It was pretty crowded, and this was the first event I had attended in quite some time, so I walked through quickly and left the crowds behind to meet up with friends at Radius Brewing, which has excellent beer and pizza.
The main event is the Unbound 200, which attracts both former and current world tour pros, mountain bike legends, and your average enthusiast looking to really challenge themselves for a big, long day in the saddle. There is a 350 mile XL event, reserved for the hardiest of endurance racers, and the 100 mile version that I chose to race. The 100 mile race kicked off at 7am, and although billed as a neutral start, was a spirited dash out of town as riders jockeyed for position ahead of the first gravel sector, which comes at about mile 3. I clung onto the rear of the front group for the first 30 miles, which we covered in an hour and twenty minutes. Hitting the gravel sectors at speed is the closest I will ever get to experiencing something like Paris Roubaix, massive dust clouds, sounds of rocks kicking up and banging off of frames, spokes and shins, and the blind faith put into the bike handling skills of those just in front of me was both exhilarating and terrifying. Fortunately for me, I dropped off the back of the front group just as the gravel got really rowdy, so I had plenty of space to navigate the first caution sector, a rough rocky double track plunge down a short steep hill. Plenty of riders littered both sides of the descent with flat tires, and water bottles were everywhere. From here on, I mostly rode in small groups or alone, which was a blessing in the rough patches, and a curse anytime the course had a headwind, which was often, and continued to worsen as the day went on. There was a huge support area halfway at mile 50, and not really anything before, or just after. From about mile 75 to the finish, there were some absolute angels randomly on course with coolers full of cold water, which saved me from drinking out of a cow pond, which at times I was seriously considering. Signs were posted at 20, 10, and 5 miles to go which helped motivate the legs to keep pedaling, and random people I would pass, or would pass me, would all offer up encouragement, and sometimes a wheel to sit on for a bit. I finished in just over 7 hours, for 75th place out of over 700 starters. The race was won by Stephen Hyde, a multiple time National US Cyclocross Champion. The 200 mile race was won by former world tour pro Ian Boswell, and the podium was rounded out by other ex world tour pros, some serious racing pedigree all around!
I have heard absolute horror stories about the Flint Hills, an area so named from the abundant residual flint rock that erodes from near surface level bedrock. Coming from the Rocky Mountains, the hills were short, but intense efforts nevertheless to pick your line and keep the rear wheel planted in loose terrain. The last big climb at mile 75 or 80, into a punishing headwind, might have well been a high mountain pass it was such an absolute grind. The gravel itself, to me anyway, was rough, but not that bad. All the really gnarly sectors had caution signs, and since I was well off the back of the front group, it was easy to slow down, ride cautiously, and pick a good line and move on. One hundred percent of the course is rideable, no hike a bike required anywhere. The scenery is stunning - lush green pastoral beauty as far as the eye can see, contrasted brilliantly with clear blue skies. There were sections of double track that had a smooth green ribbon of grass on the road’s crown, and riding on this green carpet felt magical and mystical. At 80 miles in, you look for all the inspiration you can! I would give the roughness a 6 or 7 out of 10 - I would not ride a road bike out here under any circumstances, but at the same time a mountain bike would be too much bike, for most people anyway. Fortunately for us, a gravel bike is the perfect weapon to conquer the Flint Hills gravel.
I rode a stock 58cm Alchemy carbon fiber Ronin gravel frame. The frame itself is a tube to tube construction made entirely in our factory in Colorado, using California made uni-directional carbon fiber. The beauty in a handmade carbon frame is the angles and layers that make up each individual tube, allowing the ride quality to be tuned to achieve specific goals. For a gravel race bike like the Ronin, this means an oversized downtube and stiff bottom bracket, which translates to solid power transfer from the pedals to the wheels, and an otherworldly comfort achieved by the frames ability to absorb and distribute road (read: rock) chatter. Even after 100 miles, I wasn’t overly sore or beat up. The bike also featured an Alchemy carbon fork, Enve G Series wheels, a Shimano Ultregra Di2 2X 11 speed drivetrain (with a Dura Ace crank), and Terravail Cannonball 42mm tubeless tires. I had a saddle bag with tubes, tire plugs, and patches, with I was fortunate to not need, as well as a frame pump, handlebar bag with tools, and top tube bag filled with food and hydration mix. I stupidly forgot my hydration backpack at home before leaving, which would have been nice for the extra water, but also pretty hot. I think the better solution would be to run 3 water bottle cages, which is an option on the stock Ronin. Tire pressure was set at 40 PSI front and 42PSI rear, although I pumped the tires up the night before the race, and didn’t bother to check them in the morning. I had two ounces of Stans in each tire, and although I lost some sealant during the race, I never had to stop or even slow down. The sealant worked and I was able to keep on grinding! Full Disclaimer: I grew up riding and racing mountain bikes in the 90s, and this bike setup is a far more efficient mountain bike than my Specialized Rockhopper ever was. For most people bike choice should be based on personal comfort, and skill level. If you are coming from a road background, run bigger tires and bigger gears, a more adventure gravel setup. If you are an experienced mountain bike or cyclocross rider, you can probably get away with smaller tires and a racier setup, like Alchemy’s Atlas All Road frame. Most people were running tires between 38-42mm, which for me was the perfect choice for having enough rubber to get over the rough stuff, while still being somewhat fast on the smoother sections.
Emporia really embraces this event, and the community it attracts absolutely thrives here. Everyone was nice, everyone was stoked, there is a tremendous party vibe at the finish line, including a beer garden outside the Granada Theater where you can line up on the finishing chute barriers with a beer and a cowbell in hand and cheer on the finishers. I finished my race in time to get a beer (or three) and cheer on Laurens ten Dam and Ian Boswell in the final sprint of the 200 mile race, and that felt awesome to be able to experience in person. I highly recommend this race to anyone willing to ride some rough gravel in the prairie heat, and hopefully have given enough quality information for anyone on the fence to go for it and sign up!I plan on riding the 200 mile race next year, so hopefully I’ll see ya in Emporia!