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Cycling

I Got My Ass Kicked By America’s Dirtiest Bike Race

1:34 PM EDT on June 12, 2023

SOMEWHERE IN THE FLINT HILLS, Kansas — The 1919 Tour de France was a perfectly unlucky 13th edition of the most famous race cycling has ever known. Restarting after a World War I–sized hiatus, the race was a grueling slog, as the war left France's roads destroyed, damaged, or otherwise in disrepair. Riders competed every other day, for 15 stages between 196 to 300 miles in length, and on their off days, they rested, repaired their bikes, and traded stories and handshakes for food at raucous banquets in whatever town they happened to be in at the end of a stage. 

After covering nearly 3,500 miles, only 10 riders finished. Their average pace of 15 miles an hour is the lowest in Tour history. The race was largely self-supported, in part because bike companies were still recovering after joining other industrial firms in the war effort. Accounting for the rudimentary equipment, nutrition plans that combined hot chocolate and brandy with the occasional toot of ether or strychnine, and the fact that all the competitors had lost four years of training to an all-consuming war, managing even that pace for that long is an accomplishment that is simply impossible to fathom a century later.

Partly that's because I'm not big on ether, but I return to that attrition-slog 1919 Tour 104 years later because I attempted to race just one 200-mile day in atrocious conditions last week, and sadly it did not end with me, at the finish line, getting badgered for a race report by drunken Frenchmen. It ended with me lying against some mailboxes in Neal, Kansas, having just escaped a terrifying lightning storm and trying to text directions on a mud-soaked phone to my pregnant wife who was driving through a scene from Twister in a desperate bid to rescue me from my own decisions.

Unbound is a 200-mile race on the dirt and gravel roads around the Flint Hills of Kansas, and is notorious for its extremely challenging course and weather conditions. Unbound is now the most prestigious bike race in America. It's the crown jewel of gravel racing, a sub-discipline of cycling that prides itself on being far more independent and inclusive than Euro-style road racing. If the modern pro peloton is so high-tech and ready for the limelight that it's got its own Drive to Survive-style docuseries on the way, gravel racing like Unbound is closer to the Tour's early days: Here's the course, you figure it out, see you at the finish line.

Gravel riding’s ethos—that anyone who wants to show up is welcome to ride whatever and however they can—has helped the sport (and Unbound in particular) explode in popularity over the last few years, including in Europe, which has always scoffed at America's long cycling tradition. The first Unbound, in 2006, had 34 riders show up. This year, the race's 4,000 openings, across distances ranging from 25 miles to a ludicrous 350, were so popular that they were allocated by lottery.

Gravel riding—traditionally distinguished from mountain biking by its insistence on riding road bikes at road bike distances on roads not remotely hospitable to road bikes—dates to the 1990s as a rejection of spandex culture (and a tacit admission that, advances in racing-bike fanciness notwithstanding, people have been riding bikes on dirt roads since bikes were invented). Gravel racing’s history is alloyed with equal doses of individualism and adventure, making it perfectly suited for America's vast network of unpaved roads. The whole idea was to give a home to anyone who wants to do really hard things on a bike.

Waiting in line to pick up my race packet—unlike road racing where you pin on a number and race with your category, gravel races generally use mass starts and operate more like marathons—I saw the usual suspects you'd see at a premier race: the laser-jawed, lanky pros; the slightly-less-laser-jawed lanky dads who take it more seriously than the pros; so many guys in brewery t-shirts. The line with other 200-mile riders made clear that even this event, which is far longer and harder than any amateur road race and most of the professional ones, attracts a much wider mix of ages, identities, tummy sizes, and leg hair quantities than the average person's cyclist stereotype likely accounts for.

The widening interest has brought money and investment to the sport. Unbound is now run by Lifetime Events, a major promoter that includes the race as part of its Lifetime Grand Prix race series, which has a $250,000 prize purse. That’s huge money for a sport that was more DIY than anything else not that long ago. Fame and demand have driven up entry fees, as well. The amateur road races I participate in usually cost below $100, and usually have at least a support motorcycle to keep an eye on the group. Unbound cost me $330 after taxes and fees; since the race requires each rider to have their own support person or crew to help them at pit stops and pick them up if they quit, my travel costs also included bringing my far-too-patient wife.

The last few years have seen some purebred gravel racers decry the influx of semi-retired World Tour pros entering the sport, following the new money, or looking for more independence, or a second act to their career, or a chance to move home from Europe. The biggest news heading into Unbound this year was that, for the first time, the race would have the pro men's and pro women's fields start in waves ahead of the rest of us. Gravel racing has long prided itself on being a great equalizer: Everyone starts together, everyone finishes on their own. But here was proof that Unbound itself has gotten too big for that format: A mass start of that many riders isn’t safe.


Unbound started in 2006, but that year's biggest cycling news was the Tour de France starting without Lance Armstrong for the first time after his record-setting (and since-revoked) seventh win. The Lance era inspired a massive boom in American road cycling not seen since the '80s—one that collapsed nearly as abruptly as Armstrong’s public image.

Road racing in the United States still hasn't recovered from its post-Armstrong fall, and it isn't helped by the simple fact that America's automobile drivers now make Death Race 2000 look like a documentary. (New ventures like the National Cycling League, which is focused on spectator-friendly, NASCAR-like criteria, are trying to change that.) But judging by the unbelievable pace with which every bike company on Earth has released not just gravel bikes, but gravel-riding shoes, gravel-riding helmets, and even gravel-focused chamois creams designed to protect your grundle from the horrors of riding on shitty roads, gravel riding has taken over the cycling world. When European pros are lining up at all the major American events, and even the fussiest, most traditional French and Italian bike manufacturers are touting the virtues of their ungodly expensive gravel machines, it's clear the American gravel scene has inspired a new wave of interest in cycling unlike anything in years. 

One of the coolest things about bike racing is being able to race the same roads on the same equipment as the pros; literally lining up at the same time on the same day with those same pros takes the feeling of community to another level. But the welcoming nature of the start line stands in stark contrast to the course itself. I've raced off-road a fair bit, but at 6:45 in the morning on Saturday, as I trudged through three miles of mud in a double-file line thousands of people long, all carrying or pushing or dragging bikes clogged and broken by some of the stickiest, grossest slop I've ever encountered, I admit I found myself asking WHY in the HELL this is the future of cycling. I'd trained for months, obsessed over gear and strategy, and spent literally thousands of dollars to get myself and my wife to Kansas, and 10 miles into the race, my plan was already totally, irreversibly fucked.

The author, looking extremely wiped out at Unbound 2023
Derek Mead

At least I got to continue. Aside from plane tickets, I can assume everyone out there spent at least as much time and money as I, clawing their eyes out thinking about which tires to use and which sugar slurries to slurp for the biggest race of the year. And as I trudged on, I passed at least a half dozen people, bikes already broken beyond repair, calling their spouses or partners or friends to figure out how far they had to walk to get picked up, their day and dream over. 

That mud section has become the biggest talking point of this year's race, with an outpouring of criticism toward race organizers on social media and cycling forums. The most important strategic difference between road racing and gravel racing is pacing. In road racing, if you lose contact with the group, your day is over: Drafting is essential in order to keep in contact with the pack; fall behind, and you have to work solo to catch a bunch of people expending 35 percent less effort than you. Gravel racing is more like a marathon, with everyone taking the long view and hoping to stick to an individual pace to get them through the day. Losing 90 minutes or more to hiking a few miles of mud at the very beginning of the day was enough to wreck that pace for many people, which would help explain why a remarkable portion of the field didn't finish: If you’re already planning on spending 18 hours on a bicycle, the unplanned addition of a couple more might simply be too much. And the slowdown hurt slower-paced riders disproportionately: The farther back you were in the crowd, the more the mud was churned by the time you got there; lagging riders also reported water shortages at the aid stops.

For all the tactics and strategy that make road racing so fun, there are generally four outcomes of any race: you podium, you finish, your bike breaks, or you crash. But here were thousands of people who traveled to a race that doesn't stop for weather, course conditions, or acts of God short of a literal pandemic, and for many, their race didn't even last 15 miles. This is what's saving cycling?


The Wednesday before the race, I attended the induction ceremony for the second class of the nascent Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame. Two of the inductees, Alison Tetrick and Yuri Hauswald, were training partners of mine from here in Petaluma, Calif. Alison came from World Tour road racing and Yuri from marathon mountain biking, but each has helped pave a path for a new breed of pro cyclist after winning Unbound. I'm lucky to count them as friends, because both are great ambassadors whose energy for encouraging newcomers outstrips even their endurance on the bike. Few sports encourage you to drink beers or talk strategy with the champions a night or two before the biggest event of the year, and it's clear that openness and personal connection are part of why this discipline has grown so quickly.

While the "spirit of gravel" is the only thing in the sport debated more endlessly than tire choice, I think it's fair to say people generally agree that they want gravel to be more inclusive than other forms of cycling. Race organizers have taken note, making a welcoming atmosphere a stated goal at all events—at The Mid South, another prestigious race in Oklahoma, every race finisher famously gets a hug from race organizer Bobby Wintle—and adding more course options and more inclusive fields, including nonbinary fields and paracyclist fields.

The debate over this year's course conditions is unlike anything I've seen in years of following Unbound. While pros in general are just there to race, veteran amateurs I spoke to over the course of the weekend seemed both blown away by the harshness of this year’s race as well as generally surprised that the reaction has been so poor. That’s not necessarily a contradiction. 

Cyclists carry their bikes through a horribly muddy section of Unbound 2023.
Youtube

Gravel racing, like other ultra-endurance sports, demands and celebrates rugged individualism. Historically most races have been self-supported, and by definition take place in remote locations with little in the way of infrastructure or emergency services. It's a genuinely dangerous sport, with higher risk of being stranded away from any help than other forms of bike racing. Unbound is extremely explicit that riders need to be prepared to take care of themselves on course in any eventuality, and that should they need to exit the race, they have to arrange it on their own. 

Ultimately this isn’t much different from many other outdoor sports, the communities around many of which, from surfing to mountain climbing, can be intimidating to outright hostile to newcomers. Debates over the preparedness of "tourists" going to Everest, for example, have raged for decades. One the one hand, unprepared people in an environment like that can put others at risk, but on the other hand, you have to admit that they're still climbing fuckin' Mount Everest. A similar debate is brewing around the most important thing to happen to American cycling in years. As gravel racing fields grow and entry fees go up, expectations change. What started as a couple dozen psychos trying to grind themselves into dust now counts thousands of people spending thousands of dollars to prepare for a self-supported event that's popular largely because of its brutality. 

To be fair to the organizers, staging these types of sprawling events is a massive undertaking, mostly invisible to the riders themselves, involving complicated land- and road-access issues that can cover multiple government agencies, jurisdictions, and agreements with private landowners. And in my experience, gravel race organizers provide far more detailed pre-race information on the course and equipment needs than those in any other cycling discipline. But as gravel has boomed, the gap between the desires of the diehards and the newly curious seems to be growing.

It boils down to a question of how hard the sport needs to be to live up to the reputation that drew everyone into it. An event like a Tough Mudder can have insane electroshock obstacles because anyone can drop out at any time, with medics not far away. Risk is part of the allure for those events because the risk is more experiential than existential. Participating in a race in the middle of nowhere requires risk by nature, but given the reality of that risk, all participants expect to be able to mitigate it as much as they can.

This is part of the true Spirit of Gravel: It's amazing what people will do to help each other keep going. People in road races aren't stopping to help other competitors, but it's a central part of the whole pact in gravel racing. Every time I sat down on the ground at Unbound, people would slow to ask me if I was alright, or offer advice. Competitors will help each other fix their bikes, or offer up food or drink or a kind thought. One central rule of Unbound is that competitors can only accept outside help if it's available to all racers, which means locals handing out drinks along the route is a major part of the community feel. These races are beautiful and they can be terrifying, and the idea is that we're all in it together.

But then I saw the comments on an Instagram post from Unbound making a cheeky comment about the hellishness of the mud. I think they sum up the tensions facing the sport, between the punishing nature for which it is famous on the one hand, and the inclusivity for which it is also famous on the other. 

To wit: A whole lot of people have criticized Unbound’s organizers for not changing the route after rains during the week turned this notorious stretch of road into a sticky mess that either derailed their plans to the point of failure (as was the case for me) or outright left their bikes or bodies broken just an hour into the race. Given that race directors gave what many have said was unclear communication during a pre-race meeting about whether this stretch of road would be rerouted, and given the sheer investment every rider made to show up to the race, it's understandable frustration. I certainly would have liked to have spent more time riding my bike and enjoying the scenery before my day went to hell. But more importantly, many of these commenters feel that race organizers broke their compact by making the course unnecessarily hard.

On the flip side are the folks applauding the race organizers for not changing the course to suit the demands of the new influx of participants, preserving Unbound’s status as the toughest, grossest, most unflinching gravel race in the country. Those folks say it's anyone's job to show up prepared for every eventuality, as the hugely volatile conditions are what makes Unbound what it is. (When talking about my storm experience to one veteran of the race, he replied that at least I wasn't there the year there was a tornado on the course. I don't think he was joking.) That reputation is confirmed in all communication from the race: the guides for anyone signing up make abundantly clear that riders should over-prepare or risk DNF or worse.

And then there's the folks like the gravel NIMBY(?) who said this damn mud section was the "perfect way to weed out and piss off gravel gentrifying roadies,"  and you start to wonder if the famed spirit of gravel might be less about getting everyone out on a bike for a hard, beautiful day, and more about protecting what has always been an outsider niche of a niche sport from its own popularity.

To me, gravel racing’s inclusivity isn’t just ideological, but functional. In road racing, where drafting is paramount, riding in the pack is all that matters: To lose the pack is to lose any hope of winning. It creates an unusual dynamic where everyone is technically working together while entirely riding for themselves or their teammates. By its nature—by the variability of the terrain and how this disrupts the importance of pure aerodynamics, by the remoteness and risk involved in participating—gravel is the opposite. While the pros may be fast and equal enough to race in packs (much to the chagrin of gravel traditionalists, who have decried roadie tactics taking over the sport), most folks end up spending most of the day on their own, making temporary friendships and alliances as they go. At Unbound, my position in the race fluctuated by hundreds of spots as my body’s and bike’s performance ebbed and flowed from "operating like shit" to "operating like a smaller shit." I spent some of my time riding well with a line of folks getting a nice draft on my wheel; another time, when my feet were soggy and hurting so bad I could barely pedal, a very nice guy paced me for half an hour just to get me to the next pit stop. 

One hour, while I was battling some severe overheating, I happened to intersect with a guy from New York who was in hour 20 or so of the 350-mile race. He'd recognized my jersey, and chatted with me for an hour as we both tapped out the best pace we could. Up to that point I'd been stopping every few miles to hide under a tree and cool off—riding on the drying dirt roads was an experience like sharing a steam bath with a few stray dogs—and just having someone to talk to and help pace me got me an hour farther than I otherwise would have gone. And when I got caught in perhaps the most terrifying thunderstorm of my life, stuck on an exposed hill with lightning pounding all around us and painfully hard rain blowing in at 45 degrees, the folks around me on the road all rushed to a barn nearby, working together to let ourselves in and wait out the storm.

Now, there's the side of me that says that if I hadn't lost two hours in the first hour of the race, I surely would've outrun the storm. And again, I did plenty of training and testing in advance, and decided just how prepared I wanted to be: prepared enough to deal with the conditions of the race that day, but not prepared for all of them at once. That’s a choice I made, rooted in my preference for not having to ride at the pace, or as loaded down with gear, as aiming to finish the course on that day would have required. Gravel courses require solving a puzzle that's changing in real time, and I chose my approach, and it wasn't what I needed to solve the puzzle on that day, and I can live with that. I had one hell of an experience, and if it wasn't the race I wanted, at least I know I did as much as I could. To quote Geraint Thomas, at least the course smashed me. It would have hurt worse to get to 170 miles, tantalizingly close to the finish, and then break.

But I also have to think about the faces of the people I was surrounded by that day. Gravel racing prides itself on being gnarlier than other sports while still allowing room for a laugh. Seeing folks trudge through mud at 6:45 in the morning, hearing the defeat in their voices at seeing people far ahead on the course still walking, I don't envy the role of race organizers or anyone else trying to grow a sport that only exists to be extremely fucking punishing.

Plenty of experienced folks said this was an unusually treacherous year, if not the worst they'd seen. (Many people hold up 2015 as even gnarlier, especially given Yuri won with one of the most epic comebacks in cycling history.) That's just the deal. As Defector's own Patrick Redford texted me after I explained that my original reporting plan, which involved me being fast and beautiful and successful, had fallen apart: "the lord god well and truly got your ass."

And so we come to the question that faces anyone who loves anything that suddenly becomes popular: Do you try to hold to tradition, knowing that memory evolves and traditions are extremely hard to keep frozen in time? Or do you change to build the sport, build the culture, and bring something you love to more people than it could reach before? Can a culture that's popular because of hundreds remain palatable to the thousands? 

In my case, it's something I've been reckoning with all year. I long ago made my own peace with cycling’s inherent dangers. Crashes and injuries just come with it. It's something my wife Sarah understands as well, and I'm so lucky she supports me in doing something I love. But this year I've put her through a lot. There was the race where I got stuck on top of a mountain in freezing weather and had no choice but to ride back as quickly as possible. I spent the three-hour drive home in the car shivering uncontrollably as she held a conversation with herself about whether or not I needed to go to the hospital. There was the Copperopolis crash, where I had to call her to meet me in a Chili's parking lot—the logical halfway point of a three-hour drive—because I didn't think I could ride any farther. We ended up spending the rest of the day and night in the emergency room, which is no fun place to be. 

That was in early April. Even afterward, she didn't question me when I still wanted to race Unbound, just a few weeks removed from her having to help me shower and change my bandages on account of a broken hand. The night before the race, Alison joked to Sarah that I am delusionally optimistic, and I swore that after a tough season I was going to soar through this race. I never expected a series of cascading problems that set me hours off my schedule, and in such a shitty position that I had to get rescued in conditions I never, ever wanted Sarah to deal with, especially after asking her to fly across the country to support me in riding some dumb race.

I've had plenty of bad days on the bike: poor performances, bad crashes, getting threatened, getting hit by various cars and one particular minivan. Sitting under a tree at Unbound, trying to send directions to Sarah with spotty service on a touchscreen so wet and muddy that it couldn’t sense my fingers, hearing her cry with stress and fear as she drove herself and our unborn child along a road she couldn't see in a blinding storm in a shitty rental car—that's the worst bike-related moment I've ever had. I ride my bike because it makes me happy and healthy, and I tell myself that all the time it takes away from my family at least pays off with a happier, healthier, longer-living version of me. I've never felt so selfish as in that moment. 

Riding a bike is pure, simple joy. But bike racing is a sport that always demands more, because there's always someone willing to give more. First you train five, then 10 hours a week. Then you find out other people are training for 15, or 20, or doubling your mileage like it's nothing. Plus there's all the gear you have to maintain, the additional exercises you have to do to protect your body from the contorted position you force it into, and hours of research and obsession over your numbers, your training, your diet, everything else. It feels incredible to push beyond your limits, but if a sport's only metric success is doing more, it'll never be sustainable for any but those willing to give it everything.


My favorite way to pass the time on the road is to catalog all the wildlife I see. Seeing the hawks and the foxes and the newts is a great way to feel far away from the ordinary day-to-day world. Bikes take you places your feet never would, and let you see and hear and feel the world in a way that cars are designed specifically to avoid, one I will always wish more people would experience. On the last ride I had at home before flying to Kansas, I looked over to a field full of cows and saw a calf being born. As in, I looked to my right and the calf just plopped out into the world.

Right before the storm that ended Unbound for me, I'd been praying for some rain to cool me off. As the deluge started, a young woman riding near me started whooping and cackling with emotion—joy? Terror? A nice mix of both?—at the drama of the world. Her reaction brought a smile to my very sad face, and for a little bit I felt great again. I've lived in enough places where rainy season is Rainy Season to know that there's a point where you simply can't get any wetter. Riding through a storm on the prairie will make any nagging stress of life in 2023—being left on read, overanalyzing the syntax of Slack messages, the stark fragility of 21st century human civilization revealed by all the various global crises happening at once—feel pretty small. 

At the Gravel Hall of Fame dinner, Michelle Davis gave a truly wonderful induction speech on behalf of her partner, Unbound cofounder Joel “Big Grin” Dyke, who passed away in 2017. She spoke of Dyke's punk ethos for bikes, his perpetual desire to get more people riding, so they could see a different version of the world than we're normally given—including the vision we have of who rides bikes. Michelle spoke eloquently of the need to keep gravel weird, to make sure it was still a home for anyone who isn't a skinny man in tight clothing and garish sunglasses. The original motto of Dyke and fellow cofounder Jim Cummins was “keep it simple, but make it difficult," a principle meant to ensure the event would remain open to anyone brave enough, reckless enough, or just plain needing enough to show up and give it a shot. I was thinking about this while marveling at the aforementioned whooping banshee in rain so heavy it was hard to see. You'll never experience this much life if you don't show up. Even if it sucked, at least it very much was a lot to feel. 

As we trudged toward the nearby barn, lightning still going ripshit, I did my scan for animals and saw four horses in a paddock absolutely losing their minds over the storm, which is not a vibe I ever want to see. That snapped me out of whatever reverie I was in. I’d been feeling the awe of everything, but now I just felt wet, cold, and exhausted, like a fragile bag of meat held together by paper-thin (but highly aerodynamic) fabric. I’d imagined myself a bold outsider on a journey to hell and back; now I was just a guy, outside, wishing he could kiss his wife and her tum.

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