Unbound Gravel is a massive hype fest. From the ‘riders to watch’ to the unveiling of products at the expo to the sheer magnitude of riding 200 miles, nothing about the event in Emporia isn’t epic.
This year, the fields are deeper field than ever, partially because the Life Time Grand Prix series has brought a new breed of rider to Emporia, and partially because gravel racing is getting more competitive. The southerly course has less vert and fewer opportunities for race-ending mechanicals than in past years, so we could be in for a fast one.
And while we all know that any amount of preparation can be derailed by mechanicals or weather, here are ten riders who should be at the front of the race on Saturday.
Keegan Swenson – Even if your money is on an ex-WorldTour pro, you’d be silly not to throw down some cash on Swenson. The 28-year-old seems to have found his niche in marathon off-road efforts, and his dominance at 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo in February showed that he can fuel properly to ride hard for a long period of time. He’s also got group tactics dialed, and his mental game is strong. He leads the Grand Prix after winning Sea Otter in April.
Russell Finsterwald – Finsterwald has been Swenson’s stalwart training partner in Tucson for the past six months, and the endurance plan is working for him, too. He was second at Sea Otter, and after finishing first at last week’s Rule of Three, Finsterwald told me, “I think this weekend was a good test of how the diesel energy is working. I felt like I could have kept going for a while which gives me confidence that the tank is full.”
Alexey Vermeulen – At BWR a month ago, Vermeulen celebrated what might be the biggest win of his career. In race where he was frequently pushing the pace, he dropped Alex Howes on the final climb. The 27-year-old is having a solid season overall — he tied for second at Barry Roubaix, was seventh at Sea Otter, and recently finished in the top ten at the marathon gravel/pavement/mountain bike race Rule of Three. At Unbound, there is a good chance Vermeulen will finish quite a few positions higher than his 17th place last year.
Jasper Ockeloen – According to Laurens ten Dam, “the Dutch are coming.” Unbound will be the third stop on Ockeloen’s US gravel tour, and if the previous two races are any indication, the Dutch are coming . . .to win races. Ockeloen won Gravel Locos earlier in May and followed that up with a third place finish at Rule of Three. At last year’s Unbound, he was tenth.
Ian Boswell – Although Boswell won Unbound last year, he isn’t hellbent on finishing first again. He races gravel for fun and in the hopes that his experiences might be of benefit to others. That said, Boswell is not a ‘party in the back’ type of guy. If he can be done in 10 hours, he wants to be done in 10 hours, and this attitude — coupled with a love of racing dynamics, tactics, and camaraderie — often lands him on the top of the podium.
Pete Stetina – Stetina told us earlier this year that a win at one of the season’s one-day events — read BWR or Unbound — meant more to him than the standings of the Life Time Grand Prix Series. Although a broken wrist at Sea Otter set him back a bit in both regards, Stetina has the green light to go full gas in Kansas. After standing on both the second (2019) and third (2021) step of the podium in Emporia, this year the consummate gravel privateer is looking for the top.
Payson McElveen – Like Stetina, McElveen saw his season hit a brake bump after he crashed and broke his wrist and collarbone at The Mid South. He had to sit out the first race of the Grand Prix at Sea Otter. Then, a bout with Covid further derailed things. However, at Rule of Three two weeks ago, McElveen rode an incredibly strong race and just missed the podium in fourth. Marathon distance is his specialty, and in 2019 he finished fifth in Emporia.
Brennan Wertz – Although he’s a relative newcomer to the elite gravel ranks, Wertz has been to Unbound before — and, he finished ninth last year. The 25-year-old has also had some solid results in 2022. He won Gravel Miami despite flatting early in the race, won the Huffmaster Hopper and Shasta Gravel Hugger in NorCal, and very narrowly missed the podium at The Mid South.
Alex Howes – Is La Ruta, the Costa Rican MTB stage race, good prep for Unbound? Howes (and Lachlan Morton) will serve as a case study. Otherwise, there’s plenty of history to suggest Howes will perform well in Emporia this year, from his win at the 144-mile SBT GRVL last August to his performance at the 137-mile BWR San Diego last month. In 2019, Howes and Morton finished Unbound together in third place.
Lachlan Morton – Morton will probably have more miles in his legs than anyone at the Unbound start line. From the 360km Traka ultra in Spain to his 1,100km ride from Germany to the Ukrainian border with Poland, the EF Education-EasyPost rider continues to inspire with his unconventional exploits on the bike. Historically, he has done well at Unbound, finishing third with Howes in 2019. And watch out — we saw on Instagram he’s using aerobars this year.
Adam Roberge – Roberge is still somewhat of a wild card in the gravel scene, not because he’s not capable of big results (see Big Sugar Gravel, BWR Kansas, and Barry Roubaix) but because he stands a bit to the side when it comes to the loose group consensus also known as the ‘spirit of gravel.’ Roberge is a strong and confident time trialer, but he’s made mistakes in the bunch that have both cost him results and trust. Nevertheless, if he doesn’t have any mechanicals and finds himself working with the lead group, Roberge is definitely a contender.
Other riders to watch include Laurens ten Dam, John Borstelmann, Cole Paton, Dennis van Winden, Dylan Johnson, Alex Wild, and Ashton Lambie.