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Monuments of Gravel

How riders overcome the urge to quit at Unbound Gravel

Unbound Gravel dishes out plenty of physical pain. The mental pain is just as tough, as riders must overcome the urge to quit.

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EMPORIA, Kansas (VN) – Jasper Ockeloen’s lowest moment at Unbound Gravel came on a dry, dusty stretch of dirt, somewhere outside of the tiny town of Alta Vista, Kansas. Ockeloen, a top amateur racer from The Netherlands, had chased by himself for nearly 70 miles after suffering an early flat tire. As the miles ticked off, Ockelon saw one of the lead groups of riders on the distance, and he pushed the pedals as hard as he could, bringing the group within sight.

And then — pssssst! — Ockeloen’s tire went flat again. And this time, Ockeloen knew the situation was bad because he no longer had a pump or a CO2 cartridge.

“I thought I was prepared for the low moments, but it turns out there were a lot of low moments,” Ockeloen told VeloNews. 

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With no other riders approaching, Ockeloen saw a farmhouse on the side of the road. He walked up and knocked on the door, hoping that someone was home. Alas, the house was empty, and Ockelon had to sit on the side of the road for what felt like an eternity until finally, a rider stopped and let him borrow a pump. Hours later, Ockelon pedaled through downtown Emporia, stopping the clock at 11:05:20, good enough for 11th place overall. It was not the number placing that Ockeloen had hoped to grab. Still, the Dutch rider beamed with joy. Despite the numerous setbacks, and the occasional desire to quit, he had completed the race.

Why didn’t Ockeloen abandon?

“The one thing is there are not too many options to stop out there — It’s not so easy to quit this race and that is a good thing,” Ockeloen said. “And it becomes difficult to think during the ride. Sometimes you come into this zone where all you can do is go-go-go, and even the simplest calculation you cannot do because your brain is no longer working. That makes it more easy to keep going, like you are a zombie.”

Pedaling forward like a zombie is just one strategy that riders pursue at Unbound Gravel, the 206-mile gravel race across Kansas’ windswept Flint Hills. Since its origin, the race has forged a reputation for dishing out hours of physical suffering, but the mental and emotional hurdles posed by the race are just as daunting as the wind and the heat. On race day, riders must overcome flat tires, exhaustion, cuts and bruises, overuse injuries, GI problems, and a long list of other setbacks, all of which contribute to the urge to quit. Yet every year, more riders complete the journey than drop out.

VeloNews spoke to riders at the finish to hear their stories of overcoming the constant desire to quit. Riders told us the mental games they play in order to finish: Breaking long segments up into shorter, more manageable distances; thinking of friends and family back home; eating tasty foods as a pick-me-up; reminding themselves that quitting is far worse than continuing.

“The 170-mile mark was the lowest. It was a dark moment,” said rider Garrett White, who wiped tears from his eyes at the finish. “You’re trying to think whether you want to race your bike again. You ask yourself why you signed up for this. Maybe you want to pick up competitive chess or bowling as your next hobby. That was the darkest time. And it’s like you signed up for this, buddy. You’re here. Keep fighting.”

Garrett White drinks Pedialite after finishing in Emporia.

A cruel edition

Cycling fans will likely remember the 2021 edition of Unbound Gravel for the race’s comeback after COVID-19, and the first edition since the race changed its name away from the title “Dirty Kanza.” For the participants, the 2021 Unbound Gravel will likely be remembered for another element — the extremely fast and furious opening 50 miles. In years past Unbound Gravel has often started with a spirited if manageable pace, as riders warm themselves up for the coming physical tests later in the day. But in 2021 pre-race jitters, matched with added horsepower in the elite field, aided by a gusting tailwind, meant that the group roared out of Emporia at top speed, and riders had to mash massive watts in order to follow the group northbound.

“I think everybody would agree that it was a fairly stressful start, and that has been an escalation over the years,” said Ted King, the 2018 and 2016 champion. “I used to categorize the beginning of the race as stressful — I told people ‘it’s like two hours of neutral riding!’ and this was like ‘braaap’ and a little precarious, and that speaks to the growth of the event and the horsepower on the start line.”

The fast opening hours had major consequences for riders later in the day. As riders made their way north with a tailwind, then headed west and then south, directly into a headwind. And as the miles ticked off, and the winds increased, riders who spent too much energy in the opening 50 miles began to pay for their early efforts.

One rider who suffered the consequences of the opening start was Travis McCabe, the reigning U.S. criterium national champion. McCabe, who retired after 2020 from pro road racing to try gravel. McCabe survived the early accelerations and made the first major split to ride with the frontrunners through the opening 70 miles. But after he lost the group on a hill, McCabe was by himself. And as the day wore on, McCabe began to pay for his early efforts.

“It wears on you and it never ends, and you look at your computer and see how much more you have left, and you can’t give up. It’s easy to give up — it’s not easy to just finish this thing,” McCabe said. “I think there were multiple times when I wanted to quit, and I just told myself I can’t. I can’t. It would be a waste of so much time and money and effort. And there’s not really an option when you’re out there. You can call someone up but then you’re just sulking out there the whole time. Or, you keep riding.”

At some point, the race becomes one of attrition for everyone. Photo: Wil Matthews

Former U.S. road champ Eric Marcotte found himself in a similar position at the top of Little Egypt road. Marcotte stayed with the front group through the opening 105 miles, only to become dislodged on the famed Little Egypt climb. With the next group of riders more than 10 minutes in arrears, Marcotte had to push himself on by himself, with only his emotions to keep him company.

To find inspiration, Marcotte thought o his personal relationships, and how they could motivate him to finish.

“I have a pretty awesome girlfriend, and she has a boy, and I don’t want to leave them and not finish this,” Marcotte said. “I want to be able to show her the hard work that you put in and what’s possible, for her and for him.”

“It’s an outlet for us to express our human potential,” Marcotte added.

Another rider to make the front group and then fade was Robin Carpenter, who was making his debut at Unbound Gravel. Carpenter struggled with cramping and digestion issues in the final 100 miles and said that he ended up relying on the other riders in his group to help him get to the line. Rather than try to chase groups down, or hold other riders off, Carpenter said his goal simply became to finish.

“Just in a group of three trying to get to the finish, 40 miles to go. You never really know what’s going on out there,” Carpenter said. “You have no idea where the next group is. It’s tough. You have to be super self-motivated. There’s no motivation with the guy you can see — the rabbit, the carrot — or the group coming from behind. You need to know how long you can go and how hard you can go without overcooking it.”

Camaraderie through competition

Shayna Powless finished 5th. Photo: Wil Matthews

Riders who spoke to VeloNews at the finish echoed Carpenter’s sentiment. At some point, everyone in the race — save for a few elite riders at the front — reverts to survival mode. Finishing becomes the primary goal and not a number placing. And when this happens, riders band together to share the work into the wind, to give themselves short rests between the effort.

In these hours of agony, the true flavor of Unbound Gravel reaches the competitors. Yes, it’s a race, but the event is also a day of camaraderie with complete strangers in an effort to finish.

“I got to ride with one of my teammates for three hours, that was really rad, and then I rode with another gal, Moriah Wilson, for like 125 miles and it was fun to have a strong woman around,” said Jess Cerra. “I was just enjoying myself. I’m riding my bike all day long, how bad could it be?”

Other riders didn’t have the luxury to finish with groups. Marcotte rode for nearly 70 miles by himself and spoke of the emotional challenges of pushing onward solo. Shayna Powless, who was fifth overall in the women’s race, rode with small groups for the first 150 miles. But in the final push to the line, Powless decided to strike out on her own, and the effort required plenty of focus to get through.

Powless said the final solo effort nearly cracked her. She kept reminding herself, however, that the disappointment of quitting would be fare more painful than the aches in her body.

“I just tell myself that no matter what low point I’m in, no matter what negative thoughts I’m feeling, it will pass,” Powless said. “The pain and negative emotions are only temporary. And it was. I’m so happy I was able to push through that and finish strong.”

Temporary pain may hurt in the moment — the joy of finishing, however, lasts much longer.