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Amanda Nauman is taking on an ‘XL’ challenge in Emporia this year

Here's why the two-time DK 200 winner has her sights set on the 350-mile Unbound XL.

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Amanda Nauman is one of only four people to have repeat wins at the race-formerly-known-as-DK. Her victories in 2015 and ’16 helped establish the cyclocross crossover as gravel royalty, and she went on to complete three more editions of the 200-mile race — including two more podium steps — in the subsequent years.

So why is the 31-year choosing the far less prestigious – and arguably way more difficult — 350-mile Unbound XL in 2021?

“Once I got the Gravel Grail from five finishes in the 200-mile event, I knew I needed to set my sights on the next challenge,” Nauman told VeloNews. “Preparing for the 350-mile event brought me back to the feeling I had in 2015 of setting out on this unknown journey where I didn’t even know if I could finish it. I’ve since found that’s the feeling I thrive off of and I’m so excited for this crazy ride next week.”

Nauman has been putting in the miles on her gravel bike and MTB in the California backcountry. Photo: Photoshelter

On Friday, Nauman will line up with bikepacking legend and current XL women’s champ Lael Wilcox, as well as other long-distance specialists Alexandera Houchin and Ashley Carelock. There are 25 women and 104 men registered for the epic Unbound XL challenge.

We caught up with Nauman before she left California for the tall grass prairies of middle America.

VeloNews: We’ll start with the obvious one — why XL? Why not go for a third 200-mile crown?

Amanda Nauman: I came to the race formerly known as Dirty Kanza in 2015 for an adventure. The year before, my partner, Dave Sheek, had finished tenth and we had three teammates in the top ten of the men’s race. When they came home, there were so many amazing stories and they sold me on the adventure in the Flint Hills. I remember him texting me pictures of the welcome signs across town and telling me how friendly and inviting everyone was. I very much wanted to see what it was all about the following year, but I had no idea if I could even finish 200 miles in one go. The fear of the unknown and the challenge really drove me for that first ride, and I felt less and less of that every subsequent year.

I’ve got two top steps and two runner-up steps from the most prestigious gravel event in the country. I’m quite proud of that, and maybe I’ll come back to it when I feel it’s time, but for now, I’ve enjoyed planning this new challenge.

VN: Do you still have “shorter” races on your calendar this year?

AN: Yes! Very short, 45-60min cyclocross races this fall. I’m looking forward to racing ‘cross again since 2020 was completely canceled domestically. It’s always been a passion project for me as my sponsors care more for the gravel discipline, but I just love ‘cross. I started going to gravel events in the spring and summer to support my cyclocross training, so it started as my first priority.

Besides that, I’ll still attend events like the Belgian Waffle Ride in San Diego and other gravel events here and there. The standard structure of my race schedule is cyclocross in the fall through December and then gravel and mountain bike races throughout the rest of the year.

VN: Did the pandemic year change your approach to racing? What did you gain from a year off racing, and what did you miss?

AN: With a lack of organized races on the calendar, the pandemic year changed my approach to racing in that I didn’t want to be at any sort of mass-gathering event. It sparked a new sense of adventure and I gained a better understanding of what drives me personally. When Dave and I first started going to races, whether they were cyclocross, mountain bike, or gravel events, we were going for a fun adventure. Every new race felt like this brand new, exciting experience that we shared together. One thing we came to realize this past year, is that we were starting to miss a lot of that feeling with how structured my schedule became with repeat events over and over.

Nauman and her partner also hope to launch their event, Mammoth Tuff, in September of this year. Photo: Photoshelter

This past year, we were able to go on these new trips that were so fulfilling in the sense that they were brand new experiences for us even if they were within driving distance. We found cool riding areas to explore in our backyard and around Mammoth Lakes and the Owens Valley that we wouldn’t have otherwise had the time to explore. I did miss the community and the people most of all. That’s what will keep me coming back to organized events. But I’d say going forward, the lessons I learned will influence how I pick events and experiences in the future.

VN: Talk a little about your training for XL. How has it been different from training for the 200?

AN: The training hasn’t been all too different than my training for the 200. With a regular desk job, it’s not like I have more time to train for a longer event. I have the same amount of time that I needed to get creative with. Where I would’ve done more group rides and focused on higher-intensity work for the beginning speeds of the 200, I’ve spent that time in other areas. I’ve shifted my training towards learning experiences balanced with intervals instead of a focus on pure fitness if that makes sense. For instance, a typical week would have me doing upper body gym work, riding at least once in the dark, getting hill repeats in, and spending time in the aero bars. That’s a combination I wouldn’t have necessarily prioritized for the 200-mile event.
It’s been new for me, and I’m sure I’ll come away from the experience with changes I could make for the next time.

VN: What are you most nervous about? Excited for?

AN: I’m nervous about the lack of sleep. I’m a cranky tired person.

I’m excited to see the fireflies for the first time. I’m very privileged to have never had to turn on my lights while riding around Emporia, but that also means I’ve never gotten to see the fireflies yet!

I’m excited to experience another one of these stupid rides with Dave, but I’m nervous about anyone seeing us riding together and throwing shade. We have a plan to stay away from each other, which sucks, but part of what we’ve always had to deal with.

I’m nervous-excited to hit some mud. I believe adverse conditions suit me best, so I’m looking forward to it being tough.

VN: Do you plan on sleeping?

AN: I don’t plan on it, but if I need a power nap on the side of the road or in the grass somewhere to get my brain back, I’m not going to fight it. I have no idea how the sleep deprivation will hit me, so I need to listen to my body. My bikepacking experiences thus far have allowed for plenty of time to sleep, so I have no idea how pedaling for over 24 hours will affect me.

Nauman is using a combination of waterproof PRO frame bags for snacks and electronics; she’ll carry most of her hydration on her back. Photo: Kevin Fickling

VN: What are some notables on your bike set-up for the event?

I am using aerobars for the first time! The PRO Missile Ski-Bend Clip-on bars.  I decided to use them because of the distance and length of time on the bike. I can get away with 200 miles with standard hand positioning, but in the past couple races, my wrists would be in a lot of pain by the end. Admittedly my roots are in swimming and collegiate triathlons, so getting in the aero position feels like coming home. My gigantic swimmer shoulders will need all the help they can get to escape the wind anyway, so it’s been a fun, fast experiment.

For tires, I currently have mounted the 700×42 Rene Herse Hurricane Ridge in the Endurance Plus casing but I’m bringing the 700×48 Oracle Ridge in the Endurance casing as well. As with a few other gear choices, I’ll make a decision based on the weather. The slightest chance of mud will lean me towards the 42mm.

I have extra bar tape wrapped in the drops and near the hoods for more comfort.

I’m bringing my tried-and-true repair kit that’s worked for most big gravel events. I’m paranoid about flats and am still debating if I should bring two or three tubes based on stories I’ve heard in the past. At the very least, my tire boots and patch kit will be solid.

Nauman will run her normal gravel gearing set-up — 46-34T up front and an 11-34 cassette — but is bringing a backup 11-40 XTR cassette for a wider range depending on the weather forecast. Photo: Kevin Fickling