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Cycling

Unbound Gravel, The Country’s Coolest Bike Race, Is A Beautiful Sufferfest

Riders tackle a stream crossing.
Screenshot: Unbound Gravel/Instagram

Perhaps you do not think of Kansas—determined by science to be flatter than a literal pancake—as the sort of place that could host one of the U.S.A.’s coolest races in a topographically obsessed sport like cycling, yet Emporia, Kan., is home to one of the nation’s greatest two-wheeled spectacles, Unbound Gravel.

The 206-mile meat grinder of a race takes place in the Flint Hills, with the vast majority of racing done on unsparing gravel roads. The field gets more prestigious every year, and even though several World Tour veterans now take the start line, riders are more or less on their own through 10-plus hours in the saddle—though there are legions of fans staying up all night to cheer on riders, including what one participant characterized to me as a “very aggressive guitarist at around mile 180.” That means they are responsible for fixing the punctures and mechanical issues endemic to riding on spiky terrain. They also must cross dozens of small streams throughout the race. If big-time road racing, with its extremely slick facade and army of helpers ensuring that the sport resembles a straight-up fitness contest to the greatest degree possible, is a luxury yacht coasting along at a steady pace, gravel riding is a pirate ship, reveling in its shameless dirtiness. No wonder it’s cycling’s fastest-growing discipline.

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“In gravel there’s no bullshit or sneaky tactics. Everyone races for the win with honor,” 2019 champ Colin Strickland wrote before this past weekend’s race. “[G]ravel racing has emerged from the ashes of the road scene, and it leaves the BS tactics behind by keeping only the authentic and relatable aspects of the sport. We are all racing hard, we are all trying to win, and we are all pushing ourselves to the maximum.” Finishing, let alone competing hard, at Unbound Gravel takes an immense effort, and even riders who’ve competed at the very highest levels of the sport talk about the gravel grinder like a baptism of sorts. Third-place finisher Emily Newsom compared it to childbirth. Strickland stressed that its emotional challenges are just as demanding as the physiological ones. “It just takes you to such a deep dark level and then you somehow make it through—it’s amazing what it can do to shift your perspective,” veteran rider Amy Charity said. “I was dodging possums all night long, and snakes,” XL winner Lael Wilcox said.

This weekend’s race was the first under its new name and first without its founder Jim Cummins. Last June, Cummins wrote in a Facebook post that the shooting of Atlanta man Rayshard Brooks was “justified,” which prompted race owners to boot him. (He later apologized.) Before that incident, activists called on the race to change its name from Dirty Kanza. The Kaw people native to the area were referred to as the Kanza by early settlers, and the rider and writer Christina Torres was successful in her attempt to get organizers to change the name. “To preface Kanza people with “Dirty” shows a disconnect of the history of place, violence, and colonization that has been justified with terms like “dirty” that is connected to America’s Legacy of anti-Indigenous violence,” she wrote.

The race was not run in 2020, thanks to the pandemic, and this year’s return was as anticipated as any event in American cycling. The reality is, American road racing is not in a good place. The Tour of California was the country’s marquee event, but now it’s done. The Tour of Utah is also not being run in 2021. Several of the United States’ best men’s riders have eschewed the prestigious, uptight world of road racing for full-time gravel racing, including Peter Stetina, Ted King, and Ian Boswell. “Traditional road racing is in shambles in this country,” Strickland wrote. “Why? In my opinion, the road racing format is difficult to communicate to new fans in America. It is overly complex, boring, negative, non-inclusive, and difficult to relate to in general (with the exception of fast-paced criterium racing).”

The race features a variety of distances, up to an XL distance of 350 miles, though the premier event is the 200-miler. Riders in this year’s race had to suffer unforgiving headwinds and blazing temperatures out there alone for over 10 hours. Lauren De Crescenzo won the women’s race in style, coming back from a 25-minute hole after two flat tires in the early going to win solo. De Crescenzo’s win caps off one of the most remarkable comebacks in recent cycling history, as she almost died following a crash in 2016. In this year’s men’s race, an elite pack of five riders featuring King, Strickland, Stetina, Boswell, and Laurens ten Dam (a legendary 16-year pro veteran and one-time top-ten Tour de France finisher). Boswell and ten Dam had a little two-up sprint at the finish line, and as you’ll see, it was a rather glacial one. Still, I cannot imagine the mental challenge of having to sprint against someone after 10 hours and 18 minutes of jiggling on spiky gravel. I have lost every bike race I’ve ever started, and competing is never not an emotionally draining experience. Boswell and ten Dam were both utterly spent, yet they gave everything they could, as Boswell won.

But as Strickland hinted in his blog post, gravel racing is not just about who wins. It is about survival, ruggedness, and overcoming the inherent hostility of racing hard on such a demanding parcours. Basically anyone who finishes, or really, anyone who starts the race is a hero. Four-time finisher Noah Schabacker told me he made it to the line after “bouncing back from dehydration, walking a few hills, and riding for four hours in the dark.”

“The real magic of the race is about more than the people at the front. It’s always been about the people who finish at the end as much as the people who win.,” Schabacker wrote in an email. “In the run-up to the race we’ve been deciding about equipment and figuring out how to stay fed and hydrated. We’ve been worrying about whether there will be death mud in the first 15 miles (like in 2015, when the entire field carried their bikes for hours), or whether it will be almost 100 degrees (like 2018, 2019, and 2021).” He said that the community support as well as camaraderie within the ranks help everyone get through the suffering. “As the day wears on there’s a lot of roadside carnage. People fixing flats. People lying under bushes and trees. People walking hills. The energy from the start gives way to determination and endurance. Spirits get low,” he said, though, “Even at 2 a.m., there are people cheering at the finish line.”

Kiel Reijnen, current World Tour pro with Trek, was perhaps the biggest story of the weekend, and he didn’t even finish. Reijnen took the start line as one of the favorites, though he was unlucky on the day, suffering catastrophic wheel damage just 29 miles into the race. In a normal road race, this wouldn’t be a problem, as a team car trailing just behind the peloton would have been there to get him onto a new bike in minutes. But Reijnen was out there alone, so he either had to repair it himself and hope to make it to the first checkpoint, still 40 miles away, or hope that someone along the road could offer him a spare wheel. He tried to fix it, though he only made it one mile before his slapped together repair job failed. So he ran. In his socks. For 18 miles.

The winners of the XL edition raced for around 24 full hours, with neither winner men’s winner Taylor Lideen nor women’s winner Lael Wilcox stopping to sleep. That’s hardcore shit, which is so much more demanding than the road races gravel wants to distinguish itself from that it really feels like a different sport. And that’s what the hardcores want. “In essence, gravel racing is a shared experience,” Strickland wrote. “All riders complete the same course with a stubborn self-reliance, from the first finisher to the last. This equality of the challenge across all riders—from the winner to the final finisher—is gravel’s most important quality. It makes what the elite riders do RELATABLE to everyone at the race.” I’d say racing for half a day on rocks is “relatable” in the same way that, say, a Shackelton expedition is, in the sense that you can’t help but feel your body shuddering at the thought of all that suffering.