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Unbound and the Church of Gravel

In terms of Gravel racing there is Unbound, and then there is the rest. For Gravel enthusiasts, Unbound is more than a race, it's a pilgrimage, a baptism of dirt and fire that every follower dreams of one day living.

Emporia, Kansas, the sleepy rural town of less than 25,000 inhabitants, stands out as the mecca for a cycling religion that is gaining followers by the hour.

The growing appetite for ‘ultra’ events has established Gravel which, through the length of the races and the difficulty of its terrain, meets the specifications of extreme sport in all respects. This is no round of golf.

Unbound
Unbound
Unbound
Unbound

Here we are talking about pushing your limits, the choice ranges from 100 miles (160 kilometres) for the most sensible, to 200 and 350 miles for the most irrational competitors. The latter format will see most spend a night riding (and perhaps weeping) outside, testing their limits of sleep deprivation as well as their battered legs.

Nobody could foresee the global success of this race when first held in 2006. Back then 34 riders trundled across a 200-mile course on the rural roads of the Flint Hills in eastern Kansas. Today, the course is essentially the same, but the number of participants has increased dramatically. Back then there was no such machine as a ‘gravel bike’.

During this first weekend of June, the entire city of Emporia is transformed to welcome riders of all ages and backgrounds.

The surrounding territories crossed by the race also show their hospitality – a restaurant in the middle of the countryside displays an Unbound cheesecake, the local Methodist shack dedicates its worship to cyclists, and everywhere welcome signs and messages announce the event to everyone who draws breath here. One wonders how many CO2 cartridges the bike shop in Emporia has sold in the last 48 hours.

Unbound
Unbound
Unbound
Unbound

To the extreme distance and technical difficulty of the routes can also be added climatic conditions capable of further complicating things. In 2021, the race was hit with a heat close to 40°C, this year in 2022 it was with rain and the subsequent mud that riders had to deal with.

Saturday, 500 hours, 6th Avenue in Emporia comes alive. The flashing lights of the vehicles stamped SHERIFF give the place a theatrical atmosphere, a major event like this has the full attention of the local police. At close to 600 hrs, a few minutes before the start time, a swarm of drones take flight, and hover a few metres beyond the start line. More than a thousand bikes cross this line a few minutes later, forming an endless peloton stretching under the noses of a large crowd of spectators.

The Unbound course unfurls on wide paths as far as the eye can see. Some portions are for their part hilly, alternating for long, endless kilometres in a succession of dips and bumps. When the rain is unleashed halfway through, the conditions become daunting for all involved.

Unbound
Unbound
Unbound
Unbound

The mud makes its appearance and changes the configuration of the race. It forces riders to stop to unclog drivetrains, it makes its way everywhere, most dramatically painting the faces of every racer, transforming them into underground miners who’ve just surfaced from the bowels of the earth.

The 200 miles will be covered by the best in 9 hrs 22 mins, in 5 hrs for the 100er. On the team of the CDC-GT, Lydia Iglesias (winner of the 200km Traka) completed the 100-mile event in sixth place for women in 5 hrs 44 mins. Danielle Larson completed the 200 miles in 12 hrs placing her in the first quarter of the race. Maria, our 3rd racer, was forced to retire after roughly 80 miles.

Sunday afternoon, the day after the race at Kansas City airport. An abnormally high number of travellers pushing or pulling large suitcases wander, glassy eyed, through the airport halls. We can clearly see from their swaying gait and tired faces the efforts of the previous day out in rural Kansas. To finish Unbound is to suffer, but it is to undoubtedly belong to the church of Gravel.

Further Riding