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EMPORIA, Kansas (VN) — Who is the favorite to win Saturday’s Unbound Gravel, the unofficial Super Bowl of gravel racing?
Ask the fastest riders on the streets of Emporia and you will hear a common refrain: Quinn Simmons of Trek-Segafredo is the likely man to beat.
“All eyes are on Quinn,” said Ted King, the race’s champion from 2018 and 2016. “He showed us what he could do at Leadville and I think he’s hellbent on winning Unbound. He’s coming from altitude and seems to have done multiple 30-hour weeks.”
“On paper, I’m nervous about Quinn Simmons,” said Eddie Anderson of Alpecin-Fenix.
“I know that Quinn Simmons is training a lot,” said WorldTour veteran Laurens ten Dam. “I don’t put myself on the same level as a 20-year-old youngster.”
Simmons has never raced any of the major U.S. mass-start gravel events, yet his favorite status springs from several angles. Riders remember his stunning ride at the 2019 Leadville Trail 100 MTB, when, as a junior, he suffered a flat tire early and then chased through the entire field to finish second overall.
Then, there was his ride at this year’s Strade Bianche, where Simmons made the front group alongside WorldTour stars Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert before a flat tire derailed his effort.
And riders also point to Simmons’ huge training load for his favorite status. Simmons posts his post-ride data on his Instagram page, and over the past six weeks, he has completed a massive bloc of training.
Plus, Simmons has been camping in Emporia this week and scouting the 200-mile course.
“It seems like he’s crossed all the t’s and dotted the i’s and I think he is paying very specific attention to how to do well in this race,” King added. “WorldTour riders like him have a different physiology, and there’s a reason why they are the best.”
Simmons told VeloNews that he doesn’t feel like the favorite — he’s a newbie at gravel racing and a first-time rider at Unbound Gravel. Still, he said he understood why other riders are looking his way. This year he leads a small contingent of current WorldTour pro riders at the gravel race, alongside teammate Kiel Reijnen and Movistar’s Matteo Jorgenson.
“It’s expected. When you ride second place at Leadville as a junior, and then everyone saw Strade [Bianche] — I’m not hidden anymore,” he said. “It’s not a road race though, so you can’t really mark anyone out at the end of the day. The biggest engine here usually wins.”
Who has the biggest engine? It’s a question that will likely be answered during the final two or three hours of the race, which often takes elite men 10 hours to finish. Simmons pointed to defending champion Colin Strickland as a favorite, alongside former Trek-Segafredo rider Peter Stetina. And then, there is ten Dam, the retired Dutch WorldTour star who rode 18 grand tours in his career.
“You can’t argue with years of grand tour racing, and you know how strong [ten Dam] was — he wasn’t pack fill as a WorldTour rider, he was one of the better guys,” Simmons said. “It’s really hard to say who [is favored] because we don’t race these guys every day. This is their goal event for the whole year and the format is super different. It’s not like it’s the world championships and everyone is on top level. For sure it will be hard and there are probably five of us who have a shot of racing.”
The rolling terrain and power-based effort appears custom-fit for Simmons, who is a budding classics rider who also excels on hilly terrain. But WorldTour success does not guarantee victory at Unbound Gravel, where the heat, the sharp rocks, and the 200-mile distance present obstacles that pro road riders never encounter in their events.
While dedicated gravel racers may lack the physiological gifts as WorldTour riders, they train specifically for the race and the challenges it presents. In 2019 it was Strickland who attacked with 100 miles remaining and then held off a group of WorldTour pros to win.
Whether that scenario plays out on Saturday is yet to be seen — but gravel specialists like King don’t expect the WorldTour riders this year to taken by surprise.
“In the past WorldTour guys showed up and it was like, ‘how are they going to race?’ and that’s not how it feels this year,” King said. “It’s a sign of the times when this many strong guys are showing up.”
Unbound Gravel kicks off a bloc of road racing for Simmons, and he leaves for Europe this Sunday to start the upcoming Tour of Belgium. To prepare for his next stretch of European races Simmons embarked on a sizable training bloc that kicked off with a six-day point-to-point trip from his home in Durango, Colorado to Park City, Utah. Simmons completed six-hour days on the bike each day during the trip before settling into Park City for a monthlong bloc of altitude training.
“After the classics, you take a bit of a break, and then it’s hard to motivate to get going, and I like bikepacking so my dad and I rode to Park City because I was spending the month there to train,” Simmons said. “We camped every night and got a bunch of good miles in. Time goes by a lot quicker when you have someplace to get to and you’re not just spinning the loop at home.”
Simmons said he didn’t have a specific strategy for race day other than to make it through the first feed zone without problems. He’s racing alongside his teammate, Reijnen, who completed the event in 2019. How the two Trek-Segafredo teammates compete against the lineup of solo gravel riders is yet to be seen.
The only sure thing is that Simmons wants to win.
“Ever since I’ve been watching what’s going on here it’s been a race I’ve wanted to win,” Simmons said. “For sure, I want to win.”