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Groad Trip: Unbound Gravel preparation and the FKT community

The stoke is growing. While connecting online has been great, many of us are looking forward to coming together in person for the Super Bowl of gravel in Emporia.

When I traveled to Unbound Gravel in 2019, the excitement was palpable as I got closer to town. Seemingly every driver in a car with a bike on the back waved or honked. Upon entering Emporia, there is a city-wide stoke that envelopes you like a magic cloak; a feeling of welcomeness and belonging. This feeling was part of what instigated my career switch from the WorldTour to gravel.

With events starting to come back online, I’ve felt this feeling return at the four local events I’ve attended this spring. We, the cycling community, are just happy to finally do a thing together. And yes, Unbound, the gravel Super Bowl, is less than a month away. Every industry email thread I see ends with “See you in Emporia soon!”

With one month to go it’s time to hone in on the final preparation, to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. There hasn’t been a big national caliber event in 2021, so it’s a little odd that the first big showdown is the big showdown. I think it will become a little bit of a ”training camp champ” scenario. The guys and gals who perform best will be the ones who’ve prepared the best at home.

I’m lucky to have a very strong regional scene that’s put me to the sword a few times this spring, and I know folks coming from at least Colorado, Texas and the West Coast have a strong local racing scene getting the green light. A few of my former WorldTour colleagues who will attend do have an entire European spring classics campaign under their belt.

Wild Horse Gravel is my next stop this Saturday.

Hearing rumors of the start list, I believe the field will be deeper and faster than ever before, both men and women.

My next month will have a few ideal tuneups. Emporia is a three-day drive from California, and the gear required for Unbound is so logistically challenging that I need my van. It’s chock full of all the spare parts and last minute changes I may throw at Big Tall Wayne, my soon-to-be-exasperated mechanic.

First I am headed east to Colorado for the Roll Massif Wild Horse Gravel on May 15. While not a “race” it’s a fun gravel event on a dude ranch highlighted with some timed segments for a quality hit out and some campfire shenanigans.

I’ll then return to my birthplace of Boulder, Colorado, and boondock the van in my mom’s driveway for the last weeks of preparation. There will be a quick jet out to Hico, Texas for the Gravel Locos 150. The main lure is to explore another new-to-me region and experience a thriving gravel community that exudes passion in everything they touch. But in terms of performance, the GL150 is conveniently similar terrain and climate to Unbound, and at two weeks out, it gives me enough time to adapt from the load it’s sure to provide. 

From the equipment side, I’m also stepping into the final preparations. I’ve discussed gearing ratios with my Shimano guru Nick Legan (I will run a 2x 50-42 up front), and I’ve settled on my ideal IRC tire choice (the 42cc version of the new Doublecross). In 2019, my rookie innocence had me on the back foot around aid stations. I now know they’re nearly as important as legs, so I’m working with Wayne on our protocol to make sure everything is smooth. Stay tuned for the entire bike release, there are sure to be some fun eye catching details courtesy of Canyon.

My mechanic, Big Tall Wayne, working on my bike for Kokopelli. He will also be helping me at Unbound Gravel. Photo: Christopher Keiser

Lastly, one ace I have in my pocket is the fitness I hope the Kokopelli Trail FKT attempt will provide. I made a record attempt on the infamous 140-mile Kokopelli MTB route on April 22. This route is a bucket list ride and deserves its own limelight, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t consider how beneficial it would be to prepare for Unbound. An arid 10.5-hour effort, six weeks before Unbound, where the fastest men will hover around the 10-hour mark, is perfect endurance building.

I will do my best to give the Kokopelli the attention it is due. In the coming weeks a video will drop. Beyond me personally trying to attempt a fast athletic pursuit, our real hope with the video is to focus on the why amongst the broader community. Why FKTs? And why the Kokopelli? I cannot wait to share it and I hope you all enjoy and gain some extra motivation for your own summer adventures.

In interviewing different Kokopelli playmakers via Zoom, it struck me how supportive this FKT community is. All of us want to see times lowered, impressive rides had, and inspiration found. The virtual Zoom calls around solo FKTs reminded me of the greatness this gravel community possesses that has been hard to feel at times over the past year.

Whether in Colorado, Texas, or Kansas, I couldn’t be more excited about the chance to interact in-person with the people that make this community what it is.