The Groad to Kansas Part 3: The Spirit of Gravel
Unbound Gravel has become North America's biggest cycling event, with over four thousand participants and media coverage that dominates both social and cycling media channels for weeks. Taking its place in the late spring lull between the cobbled classics and the Tour de France also allows the extra hype from big name world tour pros in attendance, Peter Sagan being the marquee rider this year. Although much of the traditional media focuses mainly on the twenty or so male and female riders vying for the 200 mile victory, the real spirit of the event exists far behind the front group on the road.
In order to win a race like this you need a lot of help and support, and if good luck has little to do with it, you most certainly need to avoid bad luck. For the average rider however, the key is to anticipate and prepare yourself to handle bad luck, and most importantly, to keep a positive mental attitude as well as those legs spinning.
I personally did not have the best training coming into the event, often sacrificing sleep to juggle work, a shop move from Denver to Golden, and taking time to raise and care for a 5 month old baby! I was able to squeeze in designing, painting and building the perfect bike for the event, but was nervous how this jockey would take to the new steed. I actually thought about deferring to next year because the weeks leading up to the race were so hectic and busy. My Airbnb fell through, and all the hotels were booked. I had already spent a lot of money on the registration, so ultimately decided I had to go through with it, and drove the ten hours from Evergreen to Emporia in an old car with an axle issue and set up my tent in a wet field, hoping to get a decent night's sleep.
Up at 4:30am, in the dark, checking the weather and trying to eat and drink a little bit before the start proved to be too much, as I threw up riding to the start line an hour later. I told myself it was just nerves, and joined the masses at the starting area, lining up somewhere in the middle of the more than 1,200 racers.
The race start was delayed 5 minutes by a passing train whose heavy rumbling and shrill whistle in the gray dawn was the perfect firing gun to start this epic adventure. Commercial Street was absolutely jam packed with fans and well wishers for blocks and blocks, screaming and shouting, cheering and hollering and ringing cowbells. It was just awesome and awe inspiring, the spirit and energy adding a huge moral boost as we made our way south towards the first right turn and onto the first gravel road.
All went well until it did not! The first twenty miles were pretty quick under the overcast morning skies, we rolled through some water crossings, and the group got a little smaller with each passing roller. I followed wheels, including former winner Alison Tetrick, and went a little too fast through a water crossing and cased my rear wheel hard on an unseen underwater obstacle. I was prepared for this, located the puncture, jammed a plug into the instantly flattened tire, and got CO2 out of my saddle bag, airing it up and getting back into the fray in a few minutes. I had never used a plug before, so was dismayed, but not surprised when I felt the rear tire get slowly squishier over the next few miles. Dismount, air up, pedal, repeat. This cycle went on for about 12 miles, until I finally decided I needed to put a tube in. Found a good spot to pull over, got out all my tools from my saddlebag and hydration backpack and went to work. I thought I was a genius with my Slime tube pre-filled with sealant, until I realized the tube's valve stem wasn't quite long enough to get a pump onto. I had another tube, but this one too had a 45mm valve stem for a 40mm rim. I wasted a C02 hoping to get a little air in, but to no avail. The front group of the 100 race stormed past, and I sat there on the roadside in the light rain out of luck, barely 30 miles into the ride and ten miles or so from the first water oasis and any hope of salvation. I was finished. I couldn't believe it!
Just then I remembered I had a ninety-nine cent presta-schrader adapter to use at a gas station. I quickly fished it out, screwed it on, and finally had some good luck! My Silca frame pump head works with both valve types, don't leave home without it! After 40 minutes of fussing by the roadside, I was back in the saddle and praying the tube would hold. Hold it did, and I made it to the first water oasis in a mixed group of 100 and 200 riders, where I used a floor pump to dial in the pressure, than made myself sit in the wet grass to eat a homemade rice, bean and bacon burrito, as well as drink an entire full water bottle before refilling and setting off. I was already so far off my pace of "racing the sun" that I just concentrated on using the small groups of riders ahead of me as carrots, leapfrogging my way onward. Riding at my own pace, alone or in small groups, I really began to notice the scenery, and appreciate its raw beauty in a way I had not in the previous years Unbound 100. We were on a doubletrack dirt ribbon, winding its way through treeless rolling hills of lush green grasses, and it felt like being above treeline on a high alpine peak, or a faraway planet's green moonscape.
"Goddamn!" exclaimed a rider next to me as we grinded up one of the never ending rollers. "Goddamn what?", I asked.
"Goddamn, this is beautiful!" the rider enthused! I agreed, and we pedaled on, happily enjoying this shared moment, unsure of what lay ahead. I soon passed a familiar bike on an uphill, a custom Ronin I had painted for a customer a year or so ago. Kelly and I talked about our bikes, paint, and other rides we had done, and he kindly stopped with me briefly to tighten the bolts on a loose headlight mount. We were talking about some races later on this year when we became separated on a loose steep and sketchy uphill. I stopped to pee after the top, hoping he would catch back up, but it wasn't to be.
"Watch out for rattlesnakes! I'm serious" warned a passing rider as I relieved myself in some tall grass.
Miles later I encountered another small group of three that worked really well together, rotating the last 10 miles of steady headwind into the first checkpoint at mile 77. It began to steadily rain as we hit pavement and rolled into town thanking each other for the pulls and talking about the course, the weather, and how many miles lay ahead.
I paid for the crew for hire option rather than dragging a friend or my wife along on this journey, which proved to be an excellent option. They hold your bike and fill your bottles for you, get you your pre-packed bag of resupplies which included 80mm valve tubes, more CO2, and best of all, gummy bears! I ate another homemade burrito, very stoked I had planned ahead on having tasty real food that is easy on the gut. I also had a banana, a Payday candy bar, and several shots of pickle juice, which supposedly helps prevent lactic acid buildup, and tastes delicious. I set off again chasing a small group who departed just ahead of me into the rain.
Slowly but surely the clouds dispersed, and the sun finally decided to show itself! Somewhere around this point I passed the hundred mile point, on a lonely stretch of straight gravel, and was feeling pretty good about my chances to maybe, just maybe race the sun with a strong steady pace over the back nine. A tacky descent followed, and up ahead I noticed a lot of riders walking. Undeterred and unconcerned, I kept pedaling through the suddenly slick mud, slipping and sliding about, fighting to keep the bike upright until so much mud got stuck between the front wheel and fork that it became impossible to maintain forward momentum. I realized why everyone else was walking, and looked for a stick to scrape some of the sticky peanut butter mud off my frame before shouldering the bike and trudging behind the long line of fellow hike a bikers. No one talked at first, everyone silently hoping this would pass by quickly. That was not the case, and as we collectively realized this was going to suck for a long time, my hopes of racing the sun dried up like the caked mud on my shoes. Some riders made jokes, most complained or simply moaned in exasperation. Misery loves company, and I took some solace in how bummed everyone was, and tried to be mentally strong to remind myself that we have no control over nature, and that at least my tires had air and the rain had stopped. We slogged single file, trampling the grass on the shoulder of the mud pit that was once a road for probably 45 minutes. When we finally got to a left turn and a dry road, there was a tent set up with a disc golf throwing challenge for a chance to win a Kuat rack. Someone ahead of me yelled "there's a creek, we can rinse the mud off!", and funnily, not a single person stopped to throw a frisbee. We waited our turns to climb down the embankment and into the creek, up to our knees in dirty water, passing sticks and rocks around to scrape ourselves free of the sticky mud. The collective mood was lifting as the weight of the mud washed downstream, and we all hoped we would not encounter any more mud bogs in the remaining 85 miles.
At the second water oasis I finally removed my arm warmers and vest, which I had worn since the start hours and hours ago. I ate my last burrito, finished my gummy bears and a whole package of caffeinated shot blocks, and remounted, feeling good and basking in the sudden sunshine and heat.
The final 80 miles were my favorite part of the ride, as I stopped to pee (for only the second time) a fellow rider shouted out "Alchemy!" at my titanium horse that was leaned against a fence. I caught up to the rider on the climb, who told me they had an Alchemy Xanthus road frame that they have traveled and ridden all over the world with! We would continue to pass each other back and forth over the remainder of the ride, and gave each other encouragement every time we passed. It became easier to make more than small talk with riders, as our back of the pack group was riding at the same pace and constantly passing and repassing one another. Upon yet another, fortunately much shorter, muddy hike a bike section, another fellow Alchemy rider, Chris, on a RoninTi, recognized my bike from social media, and we walked onward joking about how we were determined to beat one another. We would split up and cross paths again and again, Chris making fun of my creaking bike as I told him it wasn't the bike, but my knees.
We stopped together at yet another water crossing to use the rushing stream to wash more mud from our tired shoes and weary wheels. This part of the course was so gnarly and wet - water crossing after sketchy water crossing, trusting the wheels in front to guide me to the other side. At the final checkpoint I did something I never do mid-ride, and drank an ice cold can of Coca-Cola! Coke usually makes me sick to my stomach, but 160 miles and 11 hours into the ride I just wanted it, so, I drank it, along with more pickle juice and a bottle and a half of water. I set off into the waning sun, nervous about my loose light situation, but otherwise feeling good. Close to twilight I came to a 4 way stop full of parked pickup trucks and locals hooting and hollering "who needs water, who needs beer, who needs something harder!"
These incredible humans were set up in the middle of nowhere, just over twenty miles from the finish, cheering, partying and sharing their spoils with the weary racers. I chugged a bottle of water, passed on both Coors Light and Jim Beam, but borrowed some electrical tape in a last ditch effort to fix my rattly light mount, which had lost one of its two bolts after my last feeble attempt to fix it some hundred miles back. The tape wasn't going to work for long, but I headed off anyway, not really caring enough to properly deal with it until absolutely necessary. I had a bunch of zipties, and figured once it got too dark to see that I could somehow secure the light to my helmet. As luck would have it, I closed a gap to two riders just as the sun was setting who were totally smashing at a strong pace, and more importantly, had bright lights! I sat in for a bit, then when we turned onto what appeared to be a long straight stretch, offered to pull for a turn as long as I could continue to benefit from the guiding lights. Taking a pull, in the dark, at race pace 180 miles into a ride without a light is sketchy as sketchy gets. We turned a corner, I sat back on, and one of the two riders disappeared behind into the darkness. I clung to my guiding lights wheel, no words exchanged, the only noise from our tires crunching gravel and our freehubs spinning in the dark. The wheel I chose, or the wheel that chose me, proved to be excellent. The pilot was motoring at close to a 20mph pace, and was picking perfect lines through the dark, narrowly skirting puddles and potholes without missing a beat. It was a real life version of the craziest video game I have ever played, just blindly trusting a stranger in the darkness at the fastest possible speed I could maintain. As gnarly as it was, it was the best part of the whole day for me, and maybe the best part of any ride ever. The rider in front selflessly pushed onward, and managed to point out road obstacles to my benefit, although I was so glued to the wheel in front I was rarely in harm's way. We crossed train tracks, rode over a covered bridge, and inched closer and closer to Emporia. We finally hit pavement a few miles out from town, and I rode up next to this saviour in the street lights and introduced myself properly to John from Seattle. We rode the last three miles into town and through the college campus side by side, recounting stories from the recent but much distant past of earlier in the day. Like me, John had dealt with a recurring flat. Also like me, it was his first time riding the 200. I had experienced the same finish on the shorter ride a year prior, so I was able to help guide us through the rather confusing route through the campus and back into town. There was no way I was going to sprint after following this shining knight's light for the past hour, so I sat up in the finishing straight, and rolled in behind my new friend and we exchange a solid fist bump and a hearty congrats after the line. The time was 10:13pm, 16 hours, 8 minutes, and 200 miles after the starting train whistle!
Enve's after party had just started a few minutes prior at 10pm with free food and beer, so, at least we didn't have to wait around to celebrate! I wiped off my face with a wet towel, got my photo taken with my new best friend (my bike, who performed magically and flawlessly) and wandered over to the beer tent, where I found my fellow Alchemy rider friend Chris! He beat me by a few minutes, and we sat and sipped beers and talked about our incredible days. It was amazing to have someone in cahoots to celebrate the ridiculous day we both had. There may not have been many spectators or much of a crowd at the finish, but sharing a beer with someone who had suffered and preserved over the same endless rolling hills and gravel roads was just priceless. I think we had two beers together before parting ways, and I entered the line for the Muc-Off bike wash with a full beer, and then was given an ice cold can of Modelo from the Muc-Off team! I left them with my bike and wandered off in search of food, trading my post ride meal ticket for 6 deep fried tacos. I could barely walk at this point, and to my embarrassment, could not stomach the Modelo and put it in the trash. I got back on my clean bike, and pedaled the 2.5 miles back to my campsite in the lonely dark, eating 4 of the 6 tacos I was carrying on my handlebars en route. I housed the other two tacos at the now very wet campsite, got a fresh tall can of beer out of my cooler and headed to the showers. In the line for the showers I met a fellow who had finished the XL route, 350 miles of gravel, darkness, and mental torture. It was his first time at Unbound, and he completed the 350 in 26 hours and still had not slept! A true champion! I drank my beer in the shower, and didn't care when I dropped it and spilled the remainder down the drain. I retired back to my tent, thankful it was still dry inside on the squishy ground. After such a long, arduous, and beautiful day, it was hard to fall asleep, recounting the miles and friends I had made along the way, drifting off to sleep late into the night, comforted by the completion of my quest to find the holy gravel, which lay completely in the spirit of the fellow riders I had encountered, suffered with, and befriended along the way. The Spirit of Gravel is truly what made this ride so incredibly amazing, and makes me already look forward to next year!
To John from Seattle, if you ever find yourself in the Front Range of Colorado, I would be honored to be your ride guide! Cheers to you, and everyone else who raced, rode, organized, and supported!!
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