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Monuments of Gravel

Groad Trip: Inside the front of the race at Unbound Gravel

Cramping eyelids, brutal headwinds, unforgiving rocks, and racing with honor. Unbound Gravel delivered!

At 6 a.m. on the intersection of Commercial and 10th in Emporia, you could practically see the excitement pulsating through the air. Gravel City, USA had opened its arms wide, and the days leading up had been full of hugs, high fives, and reconnecting with the greater gravel community. If there was any concern that COVID had dampened the “gravel boom,” that fear was quickly put to rest. Beyond arguably being the biggest gravel race in the world, the participants, media, and organizers had over a year of pent up energy to release. The anticipation at Unbound Gravel was high.

The gravel buzz in the WorldTour had grown as well. In 2019, four WorldTour riders including myself participated. In 2021, the gap year and sponsor pressure seemed to have convinced other traditional teams of the value of these events. There was more horsepower than ever before and all my colleagues agreed that this year felt different. It did indeed feel more like a road race… at first. When the gun went off the group was tighter and faster, the neutral rollout gave me flashbacks to road peloton days.

The fight for position and speed that we carried into the first decisive jeep track was frightening. I knew it was important to nurse the wheels and protect the bike. It was advantageous to lose a few spaces and chase later. Many others charged blindly into the shale with nerves of steel and blind faith; some came out worse for wear. After the next crucial section around mile 45, the group had shattered and maybe only 30 remained. Then it became the gravel grinder we all know.

The first two-track came at mile 26-30, and caused a number of flats and crashes. Photo: Wil Matthews

Over the next few hours the group continually whittled down. Heat, speed, and strong winds sapped legs and one by one a crash, puncture or fatigue would claim another; attrition in its purest form. By hour four the lead group was only 15 riders. I think we were all a bit alarmed how quickly the group became small. We knew the pace wasn’t sustainable but no one really wanted to back down either.

Coming into Little Egypt around mile 100, the roughest section of the entire course, I put in a move that made the final selection. I led the downhill, making sure to protect the bike, then charged the loose shale uphills and exited with four other riders. The quintette was comprised of Ian Boswell, Laurens ten Dam, Ted King, Colin Strickland, and myself. There was no one else I’d rather see there because I consider these four riders friends. Furthermore, we all share the commonality that we’ve staked our careers on this gravel movement. We all knew it would be an honorable and fair fight for the remaining 100 miles.

We self-neutralized during the water oasis and second aid station, agreeing to make stops snappy but not pick up arms until we all rejoined on the other side. We did not, however, ride easy. We continued to test each other out on course, looking for any chink in each other’s armor. The mercury had risen. We were fatigued and salty. The wind was predominantly a headwind so any true attack from afar would prove futile.

WorldTour riders – past and present – amassed at the front. Everyone wanted to see what was coming.

With 25 miles to go I played my card. There was a tough tailwind climb into a rough undulating jeep two-track. I attacked hard and Colin lost contact while the others clawed back. Laurens sensed the moment and came over me, hard. He charged the rollers and didn’t break on the downhills. I was on his wheel with Ian and Ted just behind. Suddenly in a rough section, my chain sucked up underneath my crankset and jammed. I couldn’t pedal and had to dismount to pull it out.

At that point, the race was on and there was no waiting for me. Allegiances had been broken and the gloves were off. It must have only taken 20 to 30 seconds but with the course turning back into a headwind it was three on one and I knew I was in a losing battle. I settled into a time trial with the vain hope they’d play cat and mouse or another rider would have a mechanical. No such luck, the gap widened further.

Eventually Ted got distanced on a subsequent hill, and while Laurens and Ian continued on, I was able to make contact with Ted, keeping my hope for a podium alive. Unfortunately, Ted was cramping “even in his eyelids” (his words!) and his strength was waning. I had an agonizing front row seat to Ian’s and Laurens’ final battle. I was stuck a minute behind them, unable to pull closer but able to keep the gap steady.

A stuck chain put me off the back. Photo: Wil Matthews

Ian nudged in front of Laurens for the sprint win, and arguably the biggest win of his career. I rolled across one minute later with Ted for third and fourth, respectively. The fact that the top four spots in Unbound 200 came down to one minute is proof how competitive the scene is getting.

I couldn’t be happier for Ian. He’s been dealt some tough hands over the last two years, and has rebounded spectacularly. I saw, during our Lost Coast training camp, that he still has the competitive fire, and I knew he’d only be getting stronger throughout the season. The fact that I could join these four on the podium was an honor. I think they’d agree that no matter what order the five of us stood there, we’d be content. No hiding, no cheap tactics. We all raced with honor and the best man won.

Up next: If there was ever a match made in heaven for me this would be it: Stage racing plus gravel… The Oregon Trail Stage Race.

What a day! I enjoy racing with Colin and the others. Photo: Wil Matthews