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Monuments of Gravel

Robin Carpenter diary: Dodging rooster tails of tire sealant at Unbound Gravel

Robin Carpenter replays his debut at Unbound Gravel, which saw him learn some important lessons across 206 miles of wind and gravel.

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I have now had a couple of days to digest what just happened to me in the Flint Hills of Kansas and I think I can finally pull together a cohesive report without sounding like a distracted dog who keeps chasing different squirrels. Seriously, we’ve all been there post-race, adrenaline pumping, hyped on caffeine gels, hurriedly relating any and all events from the past few hours to anyone who is kind enough to listen to our demented ramblings.

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I came into Unbound with the sense that I had the fitness to do reasonably well — I was hoping for a top ten— but the rest was a series of nerve-wracking unknowns. I tried to do a lot of research in the three weeks leading up to the race; I listened to a lot of podcasts, read many articles, and generally annoyed all of my friends who have raced it before with countless questions. What was I supposed to carry on the bike to repair flats? How many bottles would I need? How would I be able to swap bottles and Camelback, re-up on food, lube my chain, check my tires, and replace any used CO2s/plugs in under one minute at the aid stations? I was very nervous. In the end, many things went wrong, but I think that for the first attempt it wasn’t horrible.

The race started at 6:00 a.m. on the dot in Emporia, just a few minutes after sunrise. I set my alarm as late as possible — 4:45 a.m. — and got started by making a quick pancake breakfast and coffee. By 5:30 a.m. I was kitted up and rolled from the house I was staying at in town, to the start, about a mile away. I could tell everyone on the start line was feeling giddy. I saw some photos of myself just before the start and let me tell you, my eyes were bugging out. I looked completely manic. The race began after the concluding bars of the national anthem and I immediately felt right at home because riders were fighting for position on the bumper of the lead car despite the sign on the front very clearly demanding riders stay more than ten feet behind. Would it really be like this? 206 miles to go and people were going to fight for the bumper in the neutral? One hour later found out that yes, the first half of this race is deadly serious.

Carpenter (left) with his eyes “bugging out” at the start.  Photo: Wil Matthews

Instead of giving a very specific blow-by-blow account of the first 95 miles or so, I want to summarize, because each selection was very similar. Two things would conspire to either remove riders from groups or catapult people forward. First, one had to be able to pick their lines. I was told that the gravel was the chunkiest it has ever been this year; now I believe it. We careened over the crests of hills only to find rutted, rocky doubletrack with deep rain gullies surrounded by rocks with razor-blade edges. If you were too close to the rider in front of you, you were forced into bad lines with big rocks and crumbly road edges, risking flats and crashes. If you were too far back, you were gapped by riders going too slow or crashing in front of you. I watched Payson McElveen descend right through a field of arrowheads (flint rock) and immediately have a catastrophic rear flat. Riders pulled off left and right with sealant shooting into the air in huge rooster tails of gooey latex.

The second set of selection points were, like any bike race, the climbs. If you are under the impression that the front group of riders 30 miles into a 206 miles race might meter their efforts, and try to save the legs a bit, you’d be wrong. There were at least half a dozen points in the first 95 miles where I was going just about as hard as I could. The climbs were steep and numerous in the beginning, culminating with a “road” called Little Egypt.

Coming into Unbound I knew the road existed but didn’t know where on course it started, ended, or really what it looked like at all. I was in a select group of eight riders, and it quickly became clear that something was going to go down. I led on the downhill to the last climb on this road and was quickly passed by Peter Stetina who was apparently determined to make it as hard as possible. I was having trouble getting the bike into the small climbing gears and had also dropped the bike at the first aid station, breaking the metal clamp that held my front shifter onto the bars. This forced me to ride exclusively in the drops and I just couldn’t surge on the climb to make the final selection. I also was thinking to myself that there’s no way I can go this hard with over 100 miles left to race and not blow up somewhere down the line. I crested the climb only about ten seconds behind the front five riders but I could see immediately that they were all riding together in full cooperation, making it impossible to close the gap. Did I mention that nearly all of them had aerobars? (Don’t worry I won’t go there today) In hindsight, I think I could have pushed myself a little harder on the climb to maintain contact, but I wasn’t sure what was coming next or where the next respite would be. That’s where experience came in. I have immense respect for the effort that the top five were able to put out, and I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say I was somewhat disappointed to miss that split. On the other hand, I’ve heard more than a few stories of people going well over their limit and having to limp to the finish line, hemorrhaging placings all along the way.

At this point in the race, it was a battle not with other riders for position or power, but with myself, trying to figure out what kind of pace was sustainable for another six hours, what I had left to eat and drink for the next one hundred kilometers, and keeping the bike from further falling apart. I rode with Eric Marcotte for a while before I flatted on a seemingly benign section. This ended up being a huge blessing. I got to stop in the shade for around eight minutes trying to fix a flat. This small respite had a huge impact and I felt so much fresher afterward. I was caught by a group of three which included the current European Beach-Racing champion (look it up) who I was able to work with, on and off, for the rest of the race. Seeing as the rest of the course (110 miles) was almost exclusively headwind or cross-headwind, this was a major advantage. Eric had carried on ahead when I flatted and he did not fare well. We caught him almost fifty kilometers later and he looked absolutely haggard. He was soon dropped from my group.

The rest of the race was fairly straightforward. We traded out guys from our small chase group as some flatted, some caught us, and some were dropped. From mile 160 to the finish I was with two others, and at that point, the day became a quest to make it to the finish without bonking, flatting, or getting caught by anyone else.

Riders were fighting for position on the bumper of the lead car despite the sign on the front very clearly demanding riders stay more than ten feet behind.  Photo: Wil Matthews

At about a mile from the line, in town, I asked my trio-mates if it was all the same to them, would they mind just rolling in for the minor placings? I was greeted mostly with silence. Jeremiah Bishop offered to rock-paper-scissors for who would take sixth. Dennis van Winden didn’t say a word. Apparently, it was on! I led out the sprint from a way out, and just barely held off van Winden, flying into the finish shoot so fast that I nearly crashed and didn’t even get one of the “finisher” lanyards. A volunteer yelled at us to slow down, which I was trying to do in quite a hurry. I don’t think there were too many people finishing the 100 or 200-mile event at 35 mph!

I felt — and still feel — very satisfied with that ride and how I was able to manage myself for the distance, the terrain, and the stones on those roads. I only had a small flat and felt like I was riding technically sound all day. I had a major problem with dropping the bike in the aid station and my shifting somehow was unreliable even before that. But I managed during the day, and did not let it affect my performance too much. I will say though, riding 140 miles in the drops has my back in a bad way, even three days later!

A massive thanks is owed to my team, Rally Cycling, for their support in this adventure, as well as Felt Bicycles, who were able to provide me with a prototype gravel frameset just weeks before this event.

I’ll be back.