The Unlikely Outcome of a Pro Athletes’ “Disastrous” Introduction to Gravel Racing

The Unlikely Outcome of a Pro Athletes' "Disastrous" Introduction to Gravel Racing

Unbound Gravel is a two-hundred-mile bike race around the Flint Hills of Kansas, but to simply call it a bike race is a disservice. It’s a festival of cycling; it’s also an event I thought I was going to hate.

Gravel is a relatively unique, relatively new form of bike racing. Picture a traditional road bike with drop-style handlebars, then add tires which are a mid-point between those of a road and a mountain bike. It’s a hybrid machine, capable of handling the road but then allowing you to jump onto the trials too. It’s the do-it-all bike.

My personal background is on the road, and up until this year, I was a gravel naysayer. In the winter of 2022, when my road career wasn’t going the way I expected, I took a step into the privateer world. The privateer model is similar to that of pro-triathlon or mountain bike, where riders bring together their own group of personal sponsors to fund their calendar rather than rely on a traditional team.

The relationship between road and gravel is an interesting one. Many ‘roadies’ look down on Gravel racing for not being as serious or competitive. Gravel racers laugh back as to how serious and fun-hating the roadies are.

A small group of cyclists racing on a slight incline

Unbound is the Tour de France of the gravel world. It’s where all of the money, media and attention are focused. If you win at Unbound Gravel, you will never have to buy a drink in Kansas again. There’s a bucket load of money involved too. Win Unbound Gravel, and sponsorship dollars will come flying in.

Emporia, Kansas, is a town that is best known as the Disc Golf Capital of the World. For one weekend only, it’s the Gravel Capital of the World as well. While the front end of the race is reported about in world media, the unique theme of Unbound is that thousands of amateurs are on the same start line at the same start time.

We roll out from Emporia at 6 am on Saturday morning, it’s cold, and there’s an air of anticipation. It’s a nervous start. The first few miles are behind a Police Cruiser before we take a right-hander onto the gravel. It’s early, and the sun is rising over our left shoulders. Strap in for ten hours or so of racing; this is Unbound.

A small group of riders taking a bend at pace, kicking up the dust

There is a concoction of excitement and nerves brewing inside of me. The dust coming from the riders in front of me already makes visibility that little lower. The course twists and turns for the first few miles, with nobody willing to blink. Wasting energy here would be stupid.

We’re ten miles in as we hit the first short climb. I get knocked to the side by someone to my right and lose all my positioning. We take a slight right-hand turn and head into what can only be described as a mud bath.

A photograph of Joe's mud splattered name tag on his clothing

It had rained cats and dogs the night before, and the hard mud-packed road had turned into a bog, a bog that is impossible to ride. Everywhere you look, people are hopping off their bikes to run. Our bikes are so caked with mud that the wheels stop turning, and thousands of dollars worth of equipment is snapping all around me. It’s chaos. Pure chaos.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’m hiking my bike for what feels like an age. I later went over the data from my race and saw it was a little over four kilometres that I walked. My race is over, and I’m grumpy. I’ll be grumpy for the next few hours. It’s only after the first pit-stop style aid station that my grumpiness turns into enjoyment.

I’ve accepted my fate. My race is over, but considering the destruction it caused, the mud of Unbound ended up making my day. It was the destructive mud that caused me to take a step back and appreciate the race for what it is.

Joe snacking on some crisps in-between stages

The event isn’t about the hundred or so of us pros out front; it’s about the cycling community. Whether that be trying to win the age group category, beat a previous best time or simply finish the mammoth event.

After the mud section, I wasn’t racing; I was riding. I stopped in at least two rivers to wash myself and the bike off. I’d ride from group to group, sometimes pushing hard and sometimes stopping to chat with friends.

Joe pushing his bike through the mud in heavy rain

It was while riding up a climb with some ten hours or so of riding already in my legs that a biblical rainstorm came down. We’d gone from temperatures that cause heatstroke to rain that caused you to shiver.

There were so many things that could have made me hate the race. From the destructive mud to the vast weather swings – and the fact that I spent twelve hours pedalling, but, as I rolled through the university campus, which marks the final couple of miles, I couldn’t help but smile.

Local residents were honking their car horns in support, and we were waved through a red light at an intersection. There were cheers and whoops of support as we hit the finishing straight. I was some two hours down on the winning group, the group I wanted to be in; in any other circumstance, I’d have been grumpy. Not at the Unbound.

The Emporia community are proud of the Unbound. They’re proud that people from all around the world travel to this town in what is, with all due respect, the middle of nowhere to compete in their event. I’ve raced in a lot of towns, at a lot of races that are on paper a much bigger deal than this, but this was somehow different.

“Joe races for the Ribble Collective, and this 5-minute mini-documentary provides an excellent insight into the phenomena that is unbound”

I raced Unbound on my Ribble Gravel SL Pro, which retails at £4399, with a custom wheel set up and Ribble Collective custom paint job and wore Velotec bike kit. The bike and kit did an awesome job, as for many others, the mud and wet meant hefty repair bills or painful chaffing, and I was happy to avoid both.

Joe, feeling proud at the end of the race, soaked and muddy

About the author of this feature
Joe Laverick is a professional bike rider and writer, racing on the road, gravel and TT and writing for top cycling titles in the UK and internationally. Follow Joe on Instagram via @Joe.laverick and read his substack

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