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On Saturday, I completed the longest bike ride, time and mileage-wise, of my life.
Read also: How in the hell do you race Unbound XL?
The Unbound XL is a 350-mile beast of a ride that the folks at Unbound Gravel added to the menu of distance options back in 2018. It’s not quite a bikepacking race but it certainly nudges the limits of sleep deprivation. This year, people rode very fast, with William Harrison finishing in just over 2o hours, and Cynthia Frazier completing the epic in 22 and a half.
My own ride took 26 and half hours, which included about 2.5 hours of stopping at gas stations to load up on snacks and water, numerous pee breaks on the side of the road, and one very slow slog through tenacious peanut butter mud.
Not bad for someone who committed to doing this thing two months ago at Sea Otter.
A last minute casual approach to rides of epic proportions has been my modus operandi for as long as I’ve been riding bikes, and it’s rarely failed me. The XL had me slightly more concerned than anything I’d ever done, and I am so thankful for the gear — some old and some new — that kept me comfy and more importantly, able to shift and brake for the duration of the ride. Here are some highlights.
Moots Routt YBB – Two months ago at Sea Otter, I confessed a secret to Moots’ John Cariveau and Nate Bradley at the expo — ‘Guys I think I’m doing the Unbound XL.’ There was a favor couched in the confession — did they think they could get me a bike in time for the race? We debated the Routt ESC but eventually decided I didn’t need that much bike. The Routt YBB sounded like a happy medium, with a little squish in the back and plenty of clearance for big juicy gravel tires. It almost got dicey when the bike wasn’t available for delivery until six days before I left for Emporia, but what could possible go wrong — it’s a Moots?
Shifting with the SRAM Red eTap AXS group was flawless, even after a literal mud bath at mile 315. The 44t chainring paired to a 10-44 XPLR cassette was ideal for pedaling through the endless Flint Hill rollers. Red brakes kept me safe on rocky rutted descents in the middle of the night. Three bottle cages kept my fears of dehydration at bay. And of course, the handbuilt ti frame glided through the miles like a schooner out at sea.
Revelate Designs Tangle frame bag and Shrew seat bag – As long as I’ve been bikepacking, I’ve had at least one Revelate Designs bag strapped to my bike. The Alaska-born bag makers have set the industry standard when it comes to durable, practical frame bags. I was thrilled when the size small Tangle half frame bag fit on my 52cm Moots. Smaller riders have a tough time finding ways to effectively use center triangle space, but the Tangle fit snugly under my top tube while still allowing access to both water bottles. The huge zippers and chunky teeth make opening and closing the Tangle a cinch — a super important feature when you are constantly dipping into the bag for snacks while moving.
The Shrew is an oversized saddle bag that I love for credit card touring. During the XL, it’s where I kept all of my repair kit (and a prayer that I would never have to access it). I also stuffed a decent-sized rain jacket in there (those prayers went unanswered).
Schwalbe G-One RS tires – I arrived in Emporia with one set of tires on my bike and raced with another. After a fun Schwalbe shakeout ride with two future Unbound champs (Ivar Slik would win the 200 and Cynthia Frazier absolutely crushed the XL), the guys back at the expo said, ‘you want new tires?’ and before I could stammer a reply, they had stripped my wheels of the rubber I came with. I’m really glad I “agreed” to ride the new G-One RS tires. The speed-oriented gravel tire has a semi-slick center tread and bold claims to have 20 percent less rolling resistance than the G-One R. I was less concerned with speed and more with puncture resistance, and the RS is built with three layers on the sidewall to shield against cuts and snakebites. I. Did. Not. Flat!
Machines for Freedom Essential shorts – At the last minute I decided to wear these shorts versus my favorite Velocio bibs. I tend to pee a lot, and even though the Luxe bibs are really easy to pull up and down, I thought it might be easier to not deal with bib straps for 350 miles. I am actually quite pleased with my intuition. Not only did I have to pee an inordinate amount over 26 hours, I rode through countless water crossings, and it rained very heavily for about an hour. I was quite often very wet, and in those situations, I think the less fabric to deal with the better. I reviewed these shorts exactly two years ago, and I am happy to say that I still love them today, even moreso because I wore them on my longest ride ever through rain and mud and so many hours, and three days later I can comfortably sit on a bike saddle.
Julbo Fury sunglasses with photochromic lenses – I have long loved these sunnies for early morning nordic ski sessions. Starting with clear lenses that transition to dark as the sun rises never ceases to amaze me. For some reason, my preoccupied pre-race brain almost did not think about using them for the opposition situation — for the transition from day to night. These were perfect for the XL. Only during deep dusk, around 9p.m., did they get a little stuck in the transition from light to dark and I had to take them off for a bit. Otherwise, they offered perfect protection when it was bright and at night.
Castelli Roubaix Gel 2 gloves – I am not a glove-wearing gravel cyclist, but in packing for Unbound I looked for the comfiest padded glove in my glove drawer knowing that hand discomfort would be highly likely during 350 miles. I think I put them on about 150 miles or so into the race, and I am happy to report that my palms are in pristine condition, with no pain, swelling, or soreness to speak of.
Specialized S-Works Recon MTB shoe – I’ve been testing the laced version of the Recon, my favorite gravel shoe ever, but I decided to go with my old pair — the ones with a BOA dial system — for this big ride. Taking off my shoes at the gas stations every sixty miles was such a game changer for my wet feet, and the BOA’s on these shoes made it so easy to get in and out of them. Lacing up would have been a pain. Touchpoints can get . . . touchy on such a long ride, and my feet stayed mostly comfortable even though they were soaked and scrunched up in my shoes for 26 hours.
Electronics used include a Wahoo Elemnt Bolt (charged twice during the ride), an Outbound Detour light mounted on my bars, Night Rider Lumina light on my helmet, and a Anker PowerCore Essential power bank for charging. I carried two extra SRAM batteries and an extra helmet light.
Honorable mentions: Ergon SR Pro Carbon Women Saddle, CamelBak Chase hydration pack, POC Essential Road jersey, white Velocio socks (although they had to go in the trash 😭), new friends that made the night less scary and miles more manageable, Welch’s gummy fruit snacks and peanut M&M’s, Cheezits and cold coffee in a can, and due to the aforementioned — coming home to my electric toothbrush.