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Monuments of Gravel

Lauren Stephens pedals into the unknown at Unbound Gravel 200

The reigning U.S. road champion steps up to Unbound Gravel's 200-mile distance after winning the 100-mile race twice in a row.

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EMPORIA, Kansas (VN) — Lauren Stephens always knew she’d compete in Unbound Gravel’s 200-mile race.

She just didn’t think it would be this year.

Stephens, the two-time reigning champion of Unbound Gravel’s 100-mile race and reigning U.S. road champion, was expecting to once again defend her title in 2022 in the mid-distance race. A few weeks ago, however, Stephens learned that her EF Education-TIBCO-SVB team had signed her up to compete in the 200-mile race instead.

“It’s an event I’ve always said I’d do, I just expected to do it after I retired from full-time road racing,” Stephens told VeloNews. “So it’s coming premature for me. But that’s alright with me.”

Stephens doesn’t know how her body will respond to 200 miles of racing across Kansas’ unforgiving flint hills against a field stacked with women’s talent. The longest she’s ever raced her bicycle was at SBT GRVL, which boasts a 145-mile course. She’s never ridden 200 miles straight in training.

“This is going to be my longest day on a bike by far,” she says, “For both time and distance.”

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Plus, so far in 2022, she has trained almost exclusively for shorter pro road events. She completed a European bloc of racing in the spring that culminated with the Ardennes classics. Then, she returned to the United States to race the Joe Martin Stage Race, where she finished fourth on the opening stage.

During that race, Stephens said she learned of her team’s plan for her to race Unbound Gravel 200 instead of the 100-mile race.

“I told them I was already registered for the 100 and they told me that the team’s plan was to do the 200,” she said.

Stephens knew she needed more miles in her legs, so she decided to ride her bicycle from the Arkansas race back home to Dallas. Stephens, her husband Mat, and two friends completed a 400-mile bikepacking trip across three days.

Still, Stephens’ long history in pro road cycling — and her keen racing intellect — make her one of the top women to watch. Her two victories in the 100-mile race sprung from smart and savvy tactics: On both occasions, Stephens accelerated through the peloton to the front just ahead of a sketchy section of double-track where crashes often occur.

In 2021, that strategy helped her avoid a pileup that stopped or slowed a sizable percentage of the riders in the 100-mile race. She was the only female rider to make the split and ended up winning the event and beating all but six men.

Stephens knows that she will have to be more patient in the 200-mile race. Accelerating too early might cook her engine before the race hits its painful crux. But good positioning is also key to her strategy.

“You don’t have as many matches to burn [in the 200] compared to the 100 due to the length, but there are also some really important sections of hills and double-track in those first 20 miles,” she said. “Making it into a good group is going to save you some energy and also prevent the yo-yo effect that’s going to happen behind. There are definitely moments when I’m going to have to burn matches.”

That mentality could give Stephens an early head start in the women’s race. Every year Unbound Gravel sends its women’s field off alongside the men, and the chaos of the opening 50 miles forces the top women to navigate groups of men. Within this reshuffling, women can gain an advantage on each other through savvy positioning.

But the race’s final 100 miles usually cater to riders who have the stamina and strength to push into the wind by themselves. That’s where Stephens could see herself going head-to-head with defending champion Lauren De Crescenzo, Amity Rockwell, or endurance mountain biker Rose Grant.

How will she fare against more seasoned gravel racers? Stephens will have to wait and see.