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Unbound Gravel: Last minute tips and tricks from Ian Boswell

Boswell will be back to defend his title, but he also wants everyone out there to enjoy the ride.

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Last year, Ian Boswell put together a nearly flawless performance to win Unbound Gravel.

Leaning on nearly a decade of hard-earned strength and experience from his time in the WorldTour, Boswell averaged 247 watts for just over ten hours on his way to victory. While Boswell is an above-average cyclist, his attitude on riding is not dissimilar to someone thousands of places behind him. He’s in it to have a good time — it’s a group ride, the course is the course, the challenge is internal, you might hear him say.

Read also: ‘I’m kinda surprised!’ Ian Boswell sprints to Unbound Gravel 200 win

This year, Boswell will again bump and grind over the same gravel as everyone else. Experience has made him a master of relaxed preparation and he wants everyone to enjoy journey, wherever he or she may finish.

Here are some last minute tips and tricks from Unbound’s defending champ.

VeloNews: When should I do my last big ride?

Ian Boswell: The weekend before Unbound. It doesn’t have to be crazy but something like six hours. That’s the time to really dial everything in. Use that ride as event simulation. You want plenty of time to make modifications. Do the ride on the bike with the tires that you’ll use at Unbound. If you’re going to use a hydration pack, test that out. Use the nutrition that you’re planning to use in the race. Go through everything. Can you get to your pockets? Do you have a leak in your hydration pack? All these little things that come up. The biggest thing to be successful at the event is being ready and practicing for the ‘what if’ so it’s more routine rather than something new. Be thinking,  ‘if I flat, I know where my plugs, my co2, my tubes are.’ Do all of this ahead of time because in the days before, when you’re actually in Emporia, it’s a vortex of excess energy and stress. That’s when you start to get nervous and make mistakes. You decide to use something new or forget to check something. Do all that stuff at home when you have a clear head and can think strategically. I’d even say if you happen to have a spare bike, do your last big ride on your race bike the week before, wash it up and pack it. Then ride your other bike until you get to Emporia, that way you have time to think about what you packed and can catch anything you might have forgotten.

VN: What kind of shakeout ride should I do?

IB: Unbound is long. What you do the day before doesn’t really matter, you just don’t want to ride too much. 60-90 minutes will do. Make sure you’ve built up your bike properly, check everything over. Ride the first and last five miles of the course just so you know it. See the turns, know what to anticipate. Then when you’re at the race you can enjoy it rather than staring at your head unit trying to figure out where you’re going.

Boswell, back in the day (Photo: Courtesy Ian Boswell)

VN: How much should I eat for my pre-race dinner?

IB: Eat until you’re full and then take a couple more bites. And snack. If you’re someone who can’t eat a bunch in one meal, or you wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, have a snack.

VN: What should my pre-race morning look like?

IB: Again, prepare everything ahead of time. I assume you’re going to want to eat oatmeal, eggs, bacon or something like that. I’ll make my oats the night before. Last year I woke up around 4:20, my breakfast was ready so I didn’t have to think about whether I needed more or less food. It’s helpful to not have to think about that kind of thing and just go through the motions. You can spend that energy elsewhere like remembering to put on sunscreen! Give yourself more time than you think you need. One thing I’ve noticed in the longer events I’ve done, you eat so much the night before and the morning of, don’t be alarmed if you feel horrible for the first hour and a half or two hours. It’s probably a good thing because it means you fueled up your glycogen reserves. You’ll probably feel somewhat bloated. It’s a good thing to have your pre-Unbound photo a little bit puffy faced.

VN: How should I race the first couple hours?

IB: The most beneficial thing you can do in the first few hours is stay as calm as possible. Ride very much within yourself. The biggest thing I see once the race starts is people get super antsy and they waste energy for no reason. Don’t worry about making up ten places, realize how long the event is. More often than not, there will be lulls in groups ahead of you where you can get back without using extra energy. Bottom line, don’t be overly anxious. Try to ride as steady as possible. Sprinting to close a gap is pointless. Stay controlled.

VN: What about nutrition and hydration?

IB: The first few hours is the most important time to remember to eat and drink. You’re already full, you’re in a big group, you might have so much nervous energy that you forget to eat and drink. You can set an alarm on your head unit to remind yourself to eat and drink something every 20 or 30 minutes. Another way to remind yourself is to look around, if you see someone else eating or drinking, use those que’s to do the same. It’s easy to get two hours in and realize Oh shit, I haven’t eaten or drank anything.’ Remember that the minute you start riding you’re starting to deplete your reserves so keep them topped up as long as possible.

All of the snacks (Photo: Courtesy Ian Boswell)

VN: What’s a good mindset to have?

IB: With Unbound, it’s so long, everyone’s going to go through a bad patch. Whether you’re at the front or the back, you’re going to have times when you just feel horrible. You might think, ‘I’m not sure if I can keep doing this.’ As long as you’ve continued to look after your hydration and nutrition, and equipment, know that you will come around. Even if you need to stop for a couple minutes to catch your breath, gather your thoughts, eat something, drink something.

Think of your body as a fuel tank. Be constantly running these mental thoughts — ‘How do I feel?’ and ‘How far do I have to go?’ Use that as your gauge. If you’re 70 miles in and you feel horrible, well, you’ve got 130 miles to go, maybe find a group behind you. I hear so many stories of people riding Unbound by themselves. If you can find a group to hang with, not only will it make you go faster, it will also be nice to have the camaraderie of a group working together. I think that’s something that’s easily forgotten. Even if you feel like you could go slightly faster, just take longer pulls. Drafting makes a huge difference.

VN: What’s your advice for aid stations?

IB: As you’re approaching, start to think ‘Ok, what do I need to do? I need to fill my hydration pack, fill my bottles, get more food, check, check, check. Ok what else? Do I need more air in my tires? Do I need chain lube? Do I need more tubes?’ Rather than being frantic, enter the aid station calm and collected. The minute you get there, you start to get rushed with the energy of everyone around. You’re also likely to be coming up on a friend, or partner who’s super excited to see you, they might be more frantic and frazzled than you are. Speak with them ahead of time and get on the same page about staying calm and relaxed.

Last year, I put everything I’d need in a musette bag and I dealt with everything myself. I didn’t want anyone doing it for me because I had a mental checklist. I know what I need so I’m going to grab it rather than rely on someone who’s trying to rush and might forget to put bottles on the bike or something.

If you are going to take some extra time at the aid station, I would do all the things you need to do first. Fill your bottles, put them on the bike, pump your tires, whatever. Get everything done and then sit down and relax. Then when you get back on your bike, you don’t have to think about anything.

VN: What goes in your musette bag?

IB: Well, I had a second hydration pack, my bottles were premixed the night before. I had Picky bars, spare tubes, co2, and chain lube. I just planned for the basics: hydration, fuel, flat repair. No stress. Last year was my first Unbound, I didn’t really know what to expect and I was the first person out of the aid stations just because I knew what I needed before I got there.

Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance (Photo: Courtesy Wahoo)

VN: Avoiding flats is a skill, how do I do it?

IB: It just comes down to being calculated. Giving some space to the wheel in front of you just so you can see your line. Look at the person in front of you, what line are they taking? Does it look good? Most of the roads have multiple lines to take but inevitably you’re going to come across some unmaintained roads. These are the real pinch points, where selections happen. It’s also where people crash and have mechanicals. The biggest thing that will slow you down is a mechanical or a crash, so avoid that. Playing the long game of staying safe through those sections is more often than not faster than bombing through and hoping that nothing bad happens.

VN: Any advice on creek crossings?

IB: It depends on how deep the creek is. Sometimes they’re slippery. Try to not be the first person through it. [Laughs] If you see people having issues, stop and get off, if it looks ok, cruise across. But be safe, don’t just bomb through blindly and not think about the potential of something going wrong there.

VN: Thanks, Ian. Any last pieces of wisdom?

IB: Go enjoy yourself. Whatever distance you do, it’s a long ‘ol day in the saddle. This is a really big, quirky event but it’s something special. We’ve all spent a lot of time and money and energy getting ourselves ready. Be prepared to change your mindset from what you expect to happen. Whether you expect to win and that doesn’t happen, or just finish and that doesn’t happen, be accepting of what the race throws at you. There’s a lesson to be learned in any outcome. Be open to what it teaches you rather than being frustrated.