A successful Unbound Gravel requires many things and many people. Just for one individual like myself to finish requires gallons of liquid, buckets of food, a dependable bike with tire reinforcements, and much more. But the most critical thing is not a thing; it’s people.
At Unbound Gravel this year there were two checkpoints where you could meet your crew and take on more supplies and get mechanical help. Outside of these spots (mile 68 and mile 156), you were on your own.
Support crews take on many forms. Some are professional mechanics, like ‘Big Tall’ Wayne Smith, who works for Pete Stetina. Some are friends and family, like 2019 XL third-place Kristen Legan, who crewed for her husband Nick Legan. I was lucky enough to get on board with the crew from BluBird Communications, who in turn had folks from Enve, Wahoo, and Ventum bikes pitching in to help with the multi-day effort.
Also read: Unbound bike and gear test
Support crews form pop-up villages in the checkpoint towns, complete with color-coded signage by neighborhood to help harried racers locate their people quickly.
The night before the race, those of us on the BluBird train loaded a labeled bag for each checkpoint. What will you need at the one-third and two-third points of a 12-hour race? What food will sound good at that point? And how many tire plugs, tubes, CO2 cartridges or new tires will you need? Who knows!
My basic plan was three similar sets of stuff: a CamelBak Chase vest and two tall bottles to start with, and then the same set-up for each checkpoint. I packed my jersey pockets with food and my top-tube bag with GU Liquid gels, and replenished at each checkpoint. At the second checkpoint I also had things like a spare tire, a powerful headlight, and a pickled sausage.
Big thanks to Tim LeRoy of BluBird and the rest of the checkpoint crews. And also thanks to the volunteers at the water stops and those who handed out bottles at random spots by the side of the road. Grabbing a cold bottle on the fly from a kid I’ve never met encapsulates the spirit of this event for me. Thank you, Kansas!
Here is what I used, and how it worked — or didn’t!
Clothing and gear
Giordana FR-C Pro bibs: Our CEO Robin Thurston is a hardcore cyclist, and he insisted on getting Giordana’s top-shelf kit for both VeloNews and Outside. The chamois on these is ideal; no seams or ridges or any other nonsense. I was riding two days later with no skin issues, if you know what I mean. I would like to see a version from Giordana with a pocket or two.
Velocio Radiator Mesh jersey: Our black VeloNews and Outside jerseys look sweet, but, well, they’re black. And Kansas was bloody hot. The Radiator is my favorite hot-weather jersey, so I went with that. It felt best after fully submerging in a stream, or dunking myself under a spigot. I wish it had a zippered pocket for my phone, though.
Specialized S-Works Evade helmet: My friend Spencer Powlison suggested that I retire this circa-I-don’t-even-know Evade helmet. It is pretty ugly. I like it, though, and as long as you or the wind are moving, the airflow is great for an aero helmet. It’s also a DK/UB tradition for me at this point.
DeFeet Disruptor socks: The world’s fastest socks! I got an email from DeFeet a few days before the race touting their boundary-layer-tripping tall socks, which they wind-tunnel tested for WorldTour use. I joked with DeFeet founder Shane Cooper about how, if a pair can save 8 watts, that I would wear 10 pair for an 80-watt boost. I cracked up to see my friend Nick Legan wearing the same socks on the start line. While I could have certainly used 80 watts at the end of the day, I appreciated the compression of the tall socks.
Specialized S-Works 6 XC shoes: Circa 2017? I love how these fit and feel. Super stiff for pedaling, but lightweight and comfortable for hour after hour. They are starting to smell terrible. I put new cleats on a week before the race, and realized it wasn’t my pedals that had been squeaking.
KOO Demos sunglasses: I picked these for the wide lens and the fact that they stay on my face. I had a pair of POC glasses drop off when looking down on a previous super-sweaty ride, and didn’t want to repeat that.
Elastic Interface Race gloves: The company that has been making chamois pads for cycling clothing brands the world over now has a few options for padded gloves. You can get them aftermarket from DHB, Giro, and a couple others. These were a nonbranded sample. I normally ride without gloves, but race with them, and I prefer super-thin gloves. These, for having such thick padding, were surprisingly comfortable. And the padding feels light and compressive, instead of heavy and bulky like gel. Pretty cool.
Cold bandana and towel: Volunteers at the first water stop were passing out bandanas soaked in ice water. Hallelujah! I also picked up a small iced towel from our crew at checkpoint two. It felt great immediately but also over the coming miles as a swamp cooler of sorts.
Small top-tube bag: Aside from my delicate roadie sensibilities, my main issue with top tube bags is that they often hit my knees, whether a top mount or a frame bag. Apidura’s magnet-closure bag is slick, but is so tall that my knees hit it when out of the saddle. This one is small enough to stay out of the way but still fit 5 big liquid gels. You can operate the zipper with one hand if you use one finger to hold the bag in place. I don’t know what make or model it is! It came with a Trek Checkpoint demo, and I’ve held on to it, but I don’t see it on the Bontrager site.
CamelBak Chase vest: I’d like a lighter, simple, more breathable version of this. On the chest straps in particular, I don’t think you need multiple layers of zippered pockets, especially in thick, nonbreathable material. Maybe next year I’ll take some scissors to the chest straps. That said, having 1.5L you can drink with both hands on the bars is vital for Unbound in the first hour or two when the group is huge.
CamelBak Podium bottles: The insulated bottles work okay for keeping things cold for an hour or so. Mostly the volume is what I’m after, and the lock closure on top is great, whether putting bottles in a checkpoint bag or your kid’s soccer bag.
GU Roctane: 250 calories per bottle plus branched-chain amino acids and electrolytes. Yuri Hauswald gave me a tub of Strawberry Hibiscus when we were clowning around in Arizona earlier this year, and I like its not-to-sweet taste. I put this in all three Chase vests.
Skratch hydration mix: This is what we use in the house, for soccer and cycling. Normally Lemon Lime, but I went with the Summer Peach in a couple bottles.
Skratch Rice Crispy bars: Prepackaged rice crispy treats from Dr Allen Lim and the crew? Yes, please. I scissored open the packaging on a few of these and jammed by pockets with them.
Big Mama Pickled Sausage: The last time I did the race I cramped horribly with 25 miles to go. As in, I walked for a while, because just pedaling at 40 watts would cause my leg to lock up. I resolved to Do More Sodium. So I bought a neon-red pickled sausage in a gas station somewhere in Kansas. I took a bite and nearly vomited, instead spitting the thing out and chucking the remainder on the road.
Pickle juice: Tim served up a full Solo cup of pickle juice at checkpoint two, and I knocked it back like a frat boy with a beer in such a red cup. Then I had another half cup.
Ginger: Despite all the Roctane, Skratch, water, and pickle juice, I still starting cramping like it was my job in the last 20 miles or so. I rode from the second checkpoint largely alone for a couple dozen miles. Then Payson McElveen, Zack Allison, and Ryan Standish came along, and saved me from myself. Aside from an oh-so-welcome draft, Ryan also offered up some fresh ginger from his Chase pouch to ward off cramping. “Good for 20 minutes,” he said. Sure enough, about 20 minutes later, I was seizing up again. But the spicy bite was also a welcome change from all the sweetness I’d been consuming all day.
GU Liquid Energy Gel: This was new to me and welcome – an easily drinkable gel instead of a sticky, chewy mess. Think SIS gel, if you’ve had one of those. I had at least three Lemonade and two Cola gels. They’re easy to get down, and come in caffeinated and non-caffeinated.
Bobo’s Oat Bites: Bobo’s Bars are good, but in my experience when you buy them from CostCo they’re a little stale and tough. The Bites have filling that seem to keep them fresh. I brought two Apple Pie and two Strawberry. They feel and taste like food.
Coke: Tried and true towards the end of long rides and races. This year a pop-up water stop at mile 104 had mini Cokes. I grabbed one, and then a few miles later Flavia Octivera passed me another one as we had been riding together for a while.
Water: You simply can’t take on enough of the stuff. And it’s hard to overstate how good cold water feels to drink and bathe with on a 90-degree day after hours and hours of racing. Again, one of my favorite things about this race is how locals hang out roadside, handing out cold bottles to strangers like myself. The fact that it’s unexpected makes it feel like a minor miracle. Here’s to the kindness of strangers.