It isn’t clear why a race in Kansas covering 206 miles of farm roads became ground zero for all things gravel racing. But Unbound, in the wake of a raceless pandemic, a rebranding and a slew of riders seeking a milestone, had more anxiety and anticipation than ever in 2021. Velocio Ambassadors weigh in on the event:
I had one of those days that things went right. Luck is a huge element of Unbound, but in plenty of ways you create your own luck.
This race is always a priority for me, so despite the injury I tried to cover my bases as best as possible. Dot my i’s and cross my t’s. I had a funny internal dialog going into the race. Everyone was hyping me up saying how important experience is to success at Unbound, but in my mind it comes down to who has legs after six hours of racing. Basically, who is ready to start ramping it up in the final three or four hours and that kind of fitness is best honed directly in the World Tour.
Despite 800 miles of experience, Unbound 2021 was a series of unknowns. It was the first massive event as we tiptoe our way out of COVID, the first time Laura raced, the first time as a father with Hazel there. It was also the first time I was showing up with a broken collarbone that was repaired less than five weeks prior.
I had one of those days that things went right. Luck is a huge element of Unbound, but in plenty of ways you create your own luck. I relied on those years of Kansas experience and fought my way to my fastest ever finish. 4th place given how much horsepower was on the start line and given my lead up to the race, I cannot be anything but thrilled.
The fear of missing out was a massive pull and the great memories from my experience in 2019 were still vivid as the painful ones had long subsided.
Racing 206 miles of gravel at Unbound was somewhat of a last minute decision. I was unsure of my recovery from the Traka 360km three weeks earlier, international travel and vaccination. However, the fear of missing out was a massive pull and the great memories from my experience in 2019 were still vivid while the painful ones had long subsided.
The energy in Emporia was incredible and reconnecting with what felt like long-lost friends was invigorating. My main concern on race day was the hectic start; nearly 1,000 people going full gas into the first gravel roads meant dodging crashes and people going backwards with mechanicals. I remember really enjoying being pulled along at high speed in a pack of crazy people with the gorgeous morning light and mild temperatures. The field started to blow up as the Flint Hills approached. My race was going well and I expected to feel stronger as time went on. About 80 miles in, I took the time to plug a flat and was thrilled that it held for the remainder. The crew from Mulready's Irish Pub were the perfect support at the checkpoints (thanks Yuri!).
A few miles after the last checkpoint I started to unravel. I felt incredibly nauseous and could no longer take on food. I had to drop myself from a solid group with Jess Cerra and Moriah Wilson as I felt my energy levels crashing. It was a long, hard, lonely slog into a brutal headwind from there with two stops on the side of the road to coax myself into eating some waffles so I could keep pedaling. I contemplated packing it in but, thankfully, the mind games won over. A Coke from some locals at maybe 15 miles to go and the company of a rider from Ohio with cramping legs who needed to draft me provided enough energy and motivation to finish strong. It was a far cry from my performance in 2019 but an experience that will hopefully shape what is to come.
I am proud of the cycling community and how strong it was following a difficult year.
The 350+ mile XL race was such an incredible experience and I am beyond thankful to have been a part of it. I am fortunate to come away with the win but, even more, I am proud of the cycling community and how strong it was following a difficult year. I had no expectations going into this race other than staying positive in my own head and finishing. I have had a troubling year so far, with time in the hospital, surgery and some scary issues with my anxiety and depression. For me, the bike is a healthy outlet. Especially these longer events.
Results aside, it was a positive experience from a mental standpoint. I had my share of mechanicals out there like everyone else. In those moments, I really tried to stay calm and not let it rattle me. You are inevitably going to face adversity out in the Flint Hills.
Being around great friends really set the mental tone for going into my first big event back
I was super pumped with how well my first Unbound went. Training with Ted and Laura in the California heat definitely paid off. Plus, just being around great friends really set the mental tone for going into my first big event back. I look up to both of them and hearing Ted's advice about the race was really beneficial.
My approach was conservative. Laura King and I wanted to stick together and we managed to find each other in the chaos of riders near mile 15. Unfortunately, she flatted 10 miles later and I struggled to find a good paced group after that. I left aid station one feeling great. From there, I rode with my Pinarello teammate Jamie Bestwick for a long time, fixed one flat with ease and continued to keep my pace. From the halfway point, I rode with Olivia Dillon and ultimately felt very strong at the finish. I am absolutely stoked with 10th for my first time out.
It’s a family reunion – the yearly gathering that celebrates all that’s well and good about the power of the bike
It’s hard to put into words what Unbound Gravel means to me. Ever since I first set tires in the Flint Hills in 2013 and experienced the rugged, rough, and stunningly beautiful terrain, as well as the welcoming embrace of the gravel community, I was hooked.
Many miles of shared suffering, cooperation, and digging deep over the years have helped me forge lifetime friendships, so it’s safe to say that this event is way more than just a gravel bike race for me, it’s a family reunion – the yearly gathering that celebrates all that’s well and good about the power of the bike. While I’m no longer relevant at the front end of the field, I feel obliged as a past winner to give this race everything I have when I toe the line. To burn every match and throw every hammer, which is exactly what I did this year. The extreme heat tried to knock me to my knees but my amazing Mulready’s pit crew made sure it didn’t. I’m forever in their debt for their support because it enabled me to complete my 6th 200 and snag 4th in my age category. My body aches, my legs are cooked, but my heart is full. Until next time, gravel family.
As you get older you gain maturity for knowing when to call it a day, humble yourself and swallow your pride
What is it they say? The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? I went into Unbound knowing I was taking a big risk as I have historically struggled hard to race in hot & humid conditions and have found myself in numerous medical tents post race. When I began experiencing early heat stroke symptoms just 3.5 hours into the race, I knew I was in trouble.
With our one year old daughter waiting on mom and dad, it's changed my perspective on what is "worth it". I ended my race around mile 90 with another gentleman who had finished 6 previous editions and also wasn’t having his day. He said, “as you get older you gain maturity for knowing when to call it a day, humble yourself and swallow your pride”. Great wisdom and it was nice to hear that reminder as I waited for my crew.
Despite being heartbreaking to call it a day at mile 90, my heartbreak quickly turned to joy as I met Ted at the finish line and shared in his monumental day.
I heard countless stories about Unbound and how challenging the race can be, so I knew it was not going to be easy. I was prepared but my body was not cooperating, which left me with back pain like I had never experienced. This put me in a tough spot physically and mentally. I was grateful to find my teammate, Meghan, on the course to keep me moving forward. After finishing, I said I would never race Unbound again. But time heals all wounds, so we will see.
Going to a bike race for the first time in a year and a half was a shock to the system but also felt so familiar and like coming home. The preparation, the travel, the team dinners, the hotels and host houses, the crowds, the familiar faces, the nerves, the tears of pain, the laughter and the satisfaction of pushing ourselves beyond. This weekend had it all and it felt so good.
At mile 206, the finish line of unbound 2019, I called my husband and told him I would never ever do this race again. To never let me even think about it! But here I am now in 2021, a two time finisher of the Flint Hills. This time I decided to avoid the craziness of the 200 and race the XL 357 mile distance. To be honest, it was just plain crazy! But I would not change it for the world. We were out there in the daytime, in the dark and in our thoughts pedaling through some of the toughest terrain Kansas had to offer the XL riders. I was honored to be a finisher, 1 of 43 out of the 125 XL riders who started and honored to cross the line with my teammate and best friend.
Gathering with the gravel community after an extended break was the breath of life we all needed and heading to Kansas felt like we were coming home. Mix that with the solitude and beauty of the Flint Hills, and you have a truly unique experience. I am incredibly grateful to have found that finish line three times now. And while the 357 mile route is the unconventional approach, I got to experience two sunsets, a burnt-orange crescent moonrise, and a sunrise. All during one big bike journey with my best friend by my side. Every mile out there is earned, not given, and I’m proud of my body, bike, and gear to have made it through.
The rolling Flint Hills of Kansas did not disappoint. I had heard horror stories from past finishers of slashed sidewalls, bent wheels and heat exhaustion wiping out the field. After a year away from racing and hearing these stories, I was nervous at the start line and knew that it would be a memorable experience. Now, after 206 miles, I know why racers keep coming back year after year. The gravel community is unparalleled. Aid station volunteers are there with smiling faces, loud cheers, and cold water. Fellow racers are suffering with you and shouting words of encouragement. People stop to help one another. These things kept me pedaling all day, tackling setbacks and finishing with enough time to beat the sun. It was a day that I will never forget.
Racing Unbound was the hardest thing, physically and mentally, I have ever done. I knew it was going to be fast and chaotic from the start, so I moved up towards the front after the start and sat on Olivia Dillon's wheel for the first few miles. I eventually dropped when the pace picked up on the rocky parts of the course. I rode the middle part alone or in other small groups, only to find out at the 2nd rest stop that I was in 5th position! Unfortunately, after 150mi my back started to hurt and I couldn't sit comfortably on my bike anymore. I stopped at least 5 times to stretch and was passed by two women. Honestly, at that point I was almost going to pull out of the race. Now, I am glad that I finished the race and made it to 7th place!