For many, the mass start is the most appealing aspect of the gravel racing phenomenon and this concept is perhaps most pronounced in the crowning event of the gravel calendar—Unbound. For a variety of reasons, the Unbound 200 has become the most renowned event on the dirt racing scene. Founded in 2006 (when only 34 participants lined up), it is certainly one of the original single-day gravel events. The distance is appropriately intimidating—the recent cohort of ex-WorldTour converts are well trained at 6-8hr races, but pushing that to a 10+ hour effort still provides ample challenge. For the remaining majority of the field—from back-of-the front-packers to those just sneaking in under the 21hr cutoff —the idea of just completing a double-century across the Flint Hills and under a hot Kansas sun is worthy and daunting. Come race morning, pros, relative amateurs, and everyone in between line up in downtown Emporia for the collective roll out just after sunrise. For all, a finish is never guaranteed.
This was my second time racing the Unbound 200 (first time in ‘19) and the day amounted to doing my best to manage myself and my effort, and later to adjusting expectations—I’m not/have never been a pro, and I was out there for the personal challenge. I had some setbacks leading up to the day of the race that certainly played a role and affected my goals, but at the end of the day, the finish was still oh-so-sweet. I also spoke with former WorldTour rider and PEARL iZUMi ambassador Alexey Vermeulen about his inaugural Unbound experience (for it is truly an initiation of sorts), who spent the day at the pointy end of the field. Read on for both of our takes on riding the Unbound 200, info about our respective set-ups, and race day recaps.
Describe your cycling background and your current relationship to the sport.
AV: I came into the sport through the road. My grandfather raced in Holland before immigrating to Canada after the war. I think his love for bikes rubbed off on me a bit and after doing a couple kids triathlons I found I liked one leg more than the others! In my first tri, I actually ran with my helmet, so it is safe to say it was a match made in heaven. From around 14, I rode more seriously while playing other sports as well, and by the time I was 16 I was pretty dedicated to cycling.
I won US Junior RD nationals, went to Europe with the national team for over two months and got to race the World Championships in Copenhagen. I fell in love with what you could see on a bike—you can travel so far. Hockey was cool, running was fun, but they weren’t like bikes. My career progressed from BMC Development out of juniors before signing with Lotto Jumbo as a WorldTour rider in 2016. In 2019 I moved to the dirt and started playing bikes back in the states and here we are!
HM: Up until three years ago, for me, bikes were mainly about utility—a free form of transport that I used as a broke high school kid (when gas prices were soaring above $4/gal) and later to commute to class in college. When I moved to Colorado in late 2016, I actually didn’t own a bike as I’d sold my tried-and-true clunker after completing my undergrad in NC two years prior, before embarking on a six month climbing road trip. I’d been dedicated to climbing almost exclusively for the previous five years (with a little running here and there) but that started to change after moving to Boulder. In the summer of 2017, I bought an old school Centurion commuter off a co-worker; it was set up as a single speed and I got to know Boulder by tracing the myriad bike paths that run through town.
By the following summer, I’d just about maxed out my perimeter on the Centurion and wanted to keep exploring, so I bought a gravel bike. As a climber, the risk of injury inherent in mountain biking had always been a turnoff, and pavement seemed boring, but the low-traffic gravel network surrounding Boulder held much appeal. That fall, I went on my first bike tour and completed my first century ride. The following year—2019—I did my first bike race in Boulder in February then rode Unbound for the first time later that spring, in full survival mode. My favorite type of riding is most definitely touring—for me, the immersive experience of spending all day on the bike, seeing new places, is unmatched. But I also find value in the occasional all-out effort that an event like Unbound offers!
Was this your first year doing Unbound? What were your expectations and goals going into the race?
AV: This was my first UNBOUND! I put a lot into being ready mentally and physically: I went to win.
HM: This was my second time lining up at Unbound. My training had been inconsistent leading up to the race—as I’d been managing a knee injury from February through early April—and I was leveled with a stomach bug for five days about 10 days out from the event. Thus, my goals were (in order of priority): 1) to finish, 2) to stay positive, steady, and focused, 3) to best my previous time from ‘19, and 4) to complete the course in 14hr flat.
Setup: bike, gearing, tire choices, etc.?
AV: Canyon Grail, 50/34 front – 11/30 rear. I ran 40mm Kenda Flintridge tires on one wheelset and Alluvium on the other. My survival pack included: superglue, multiple types of plugs, duct tape, five co2’s, hand pump, two tubes, multi-tool and chain lube.
HM: Rodeo Labs Trail Donkey, 36t front – 9/46 e13 cassette in the rear. I ran 42mm Rene Hersé Hurricane Ridge tires on my bike and had the same tires setup on my extra wheelset. My repair kit included: one tube, dynaplugs, two co2s, hand pump, multi-tool, valve core remover, and chain breaker (with extra links). My crew had my chain lube and extra sealant (among other emergency repair items). I also ran aerobars as the forecast showed that 10-20mph winds would be out of the south all day.
How did the day of the race play out against your expectations?
AV: The day started off pretty well. I was in the front—we had a couple hard fights for positions going into mile 25 and then again at mile 42. At mile 45 I had my first flat, nothing bad, but had to stop, plug it and put a little air in. Seven miles later I pinch flatted the same tire, most likely because I didn’t add enough air after the first flat. Managed to avoid the crashes and started chasing hard again. Rolling into the first feed zone, the gap was already at 8min to the leaders. I was probably in about 20th place, but I knew how long this race was. I grabbed a new front wheel, a hydration pack, new bottles and headed back out.
Between mile 69 and 126 I rode back into the race with an old friend, Dennis Van Winden. We rode into a group of 4 of us that was racing for 6th. We stopped at the second neutral water station and refilled before getting ready to take on the 30 miles to the last feed. One mile out of that water station I slashed a sidewall and had to do some real repair work on the side of the road. I dropped to around 22nd while repairing and had to nurse the tire all the way into the second feed. I ended up using three plugs and superglue; it was the rear tire though and the ends of the plugs kept hitting the chain stay, so I would have to stop every two miles and push the plugs back in and pump it up again. By about mile 140 I was out of c02’s and would stop and pump as fast as I could counting to 300 and then ride as long as I could before refilling. This got a bit trying, but I knew the feed zone at mile 156 would bring new life.
I finally made it in and changed wheels, grabbed food and ice and headed out to rip the last 50 miles alone. It was really cool to see all of the 100 mile racers finishing, but the final stretch was just hard. Headwind and crosswind was all the help that we got into Emporia. I came over the line 18th overall (11:29:58) and was content. We all set goals, but somewhere along the line those goals change and being happy with the way you executed a race beyond the result is the real win.
HM: My day started out great. Leaving Emporia I was so excited to revisit the course and ride my bike all day. The energy at the start of Unbound is catching. I hit the first feed zone at mile 68 right on my time goal (4:03), swapped bottles, grabbed snacks, and lubed my chain. The following section to the first neutral water stop (this year around mi 102) felt like the slowest section of the course to me—more pronounced climbs, looser road surfaces, capped off by the grind through Little Egypt. I was a little too hubristic leaving the first aid and only left with one full (liter) bottle, and a 28oz bottle of coke (I’d started the race with two liter bottles, picked up the coke at the first feed, leaving my second liter bottle empty). We were entering the hottest part of the day, and at mile 93 I was incredibly relieved to see a resident out at the end of his driveway with cold water. I pulled off with a few other riders to top off for the last section of climbing before the water stop. There, I was treated to a surprise coke—which I gladly gulped down—and left feeling revitalized.
The next water stop at 126mi seemed to come up quickly but I stopped again, ducked my head under the tap, chugged a bottle, filled bottles and was off. The route had already turned back south at this point and I knew we were in for a long battle against the wind for the remaining 80mi. I was able to hop on with a group of riders here and work with them to counter the wind. Unfortunately, I was slowly accepting the fact that I hadn’t budgeted enough calories for the 88mi stretch between the two feed zones and around 10mi out from the 156mi stop, I totally cracked. Riding with the group had been a strategic move to avoid being left out in the wind solo, but I’d also been riding just a bit harder than I felt was sustainable. That, coupled with running out of calories resulted in a devastating bonk, and I all but soft-pedaled the last 10mi into the second crew-supported stop. As I sat on a tailgate slowly trying to eat despite my nausea, I could feel my day coming apart. I knew I was losing a lot of time but I also knew that if I didn’t eat, I wouldn’t have any gas for the last 50mi. After a too-long stop, I left feeling bolstered that the end was in sight.
During the last leg, I compared the final 50mi to riding home to Boulder from Fort Collins—a near(ish)by city that I ride to/from often. Around mile 175, I caught back up to a guy, Patrick, who I’d ridden with earlier, from about 126-145mi. Even though we were basically strangers, it was a huge lift to see a familiar face toiling it out to the finish. I remembered the final, punchy rollers up to the dam from ‘19, and tried to ride them hard as I knew after the dam the climbing was (blessedly, finally) over. On the other side of the dam, about 20mi of open riding, fully into the south wind separated me from the finish and I spent most of the time tucked in the aerobars, emptying whatever energy I had left. I finished 29th female and just under 14:54, a couple minutes faster than my time in ‘19 (when the course was also 3mi shorter!). Although I didn’t really come close to my time goal, I accepted it and I was content to finish my second Unbound, sans crashes or mechanicals.
Knowing what you know now, would you have made any changes to your race day set-up and/or strategy?
AV: In hindsight, I would have brought more CO2’s, but I had 5—I think I just had some bad luck with the timing of flats. I also would have brought an exacto blade to cut plugs off. Otherwise I was really happy with my fueling plan AND execution. Mechanicals and flats are part of Unbound, my goal would just be to have them at better times!
HM: While I was overall very satisfied with my bike/tire setup I think I could improve upon my fueling strategy. In the future, I’d rely more on liquid calories, as this year I primarily used Spring Energy gels (which, though I quite like—they’re higher calorie, made with real food so they taste like mini smoothies rather than cake icing, and are thinner in consistency which helps get them down—but are not the easiest to ingest on the bike), and I’d wear a hydration pack, or pack a bladder/hose into a half-frame bag for more water capacity.
Will you be back at Unbound in the future?
AV: I will definitely be back! 200 miles is a really hard distance—in the pro field I feel like we are used to racing hard for 6 hours, but taking it to 10-11+ hours makes it a whole different ball game. There were moments that I debated my sanity for wanting to take on such a tough event, but the feeling of finishing it off was 10x more powerful. Already excited for 2022!
HM: During the race itself, of course I was thinking “yeah, two times is enough,” but shortly after finishing I already knew I’d be entering the lottery for 2022. I love this course and still feel like I have yet to have my best run!