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The Grind: The right amount of anxiety for Unbound Gravel

If Type 2 fun is what we call these events in retrospect, what do we call the anticipation of them? Type 2 excitement?

The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.

Lennard Zinn used to describe cyclocross as having ‘the right amount of anxiety’. For many participants, Unbound Gravel is the same way.

Like a lot of things Lennard says, this ‘right amount of anxiety’ concept made me wrinkle my brow at first, but it makes sense. Many of us are attracted to a challenge, something that requires a plan and some follow through.

A ride around your neighborhood block has zero anxiety. Nor does it enthrall the imagination in the slightest. Jumping out of a plane, on the other hand, is for many of us on the other end of the spectrum; too much anxiety.

For Unbound Gravel, many of us who are slated to race on June 4 are now slotting into that Goldilocks level of anxiety. There are myriad logistic and gear details to obsess over leading into the race, some worries about weather and fitness, and some fully legitimate questions, like can we actually finish this ridiculous thing?

I’ve done Unbound exactly once, in 2018, when my friend Chris Case and I put on a clinic at mile 25 of what not to do when you get a flat. (Short version: I was stopped for 24 minutes — because of a single flat!) In the lead-up to that race, I really enjoyed the homework: pestering veterans like Josh Patterson and Neil Shirley and others for advice, doing the miles, and tinkering with the gear.

Chris Case and I did not do well in 2018. But we still had some laughs.

This year, there are some 1,116 people on the start list for the 200-mile race. There is an 88-year-old. There is a 17-year-old. There are WorldTour riders. And there are hundreds upon hundreds of everyday folks, many of whom, I suspect, are excited and just a little bit worried about what the long day in the Flint Hills will hold.

I’ve started going back through my notes from last time (‘drink more pickle juice,’ was one), and again asking for tips and tricks from more experienced friends.

After making fun of Chris for using an aerobar (not aerobars, but a singular aerobar), I am looking at ways to get more aero this year. Our plan in 2018 was to ride in the front group as long as possible; we soon found ourselves doing a two-man time trial for 150 miles… That to say, my 2021 aero quest is obviously not with the intent to win, simply to improve upon my last attempt and be better prepared for time in the wind, perhaps hours and hours and hours.

2018 was so much fun, I gotta do it again. You with me, Chris? Chris? Photo: Brad Kaminski

I’m not fully prepared. But really, how can you be fully prepared for 12 to 16 hours on a bike? Especially when the chances of something going wrong, at some point, are quite high.

Here’s some advice from Neil on riding Unbound that applies to any gravel event, really:

“Being mentally prepared to roll with the punches and staying committed to getting through the day regardless of what’s thrown at you is something you’ll reflect back on with a lot of pride,” he said. “It can be easy to give up if you have an issue, especially if you have a specific performance goal, but that’s not at all what the spirit of the event and gravel riding, in general, is about.”

Thanks, Neil. I’ll try to keep that in mind.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go shopping for Skratch, and pickles.