Unbound Gravel showcased one of the most epic events on the calendar this year due to unruly spring weather that created one of the muddiest, yet fastest, editions in its history.
Held in Emporia, Kansas, on June 3, Ivar Slik stormed to victory in 9:22:04 ahead of a photo finish sprint for second place awarded to runner-up Keegan Swenson and third-placed Ian Boswell.
Sofia Gomez Villafane rode solo for over 80 miles to claim the women's title in 10:27:40, as Lauren De Crescenzo finished second and Emily Newsom third.
Further back riders crossed the line one-by-one or in small groups with mud caked to their bikes after remarkable feats of endurance.
Cyclingnews looks at the bikes of Unbound Gravel - before and after.
Wooden paint sticks
With rain in the forecast, wooden paint sticks were visible in many jersey pockets on race day at Unbound Gravel. Those mysterious sticks are used to clear out glopping, heavy clay that can make a well running bike unusable in a matter of moments.
If the distance, endless hills, and sharp flint rocks weren’t enough natural elements to contend with, mud that turns to the consistency of peanut butter and clings to absolutely everything added a further level of spice to the epic race.
Sloppy, rutted mud paths
Riders set off under cool, moody, but dry skies that lasted much of the morning. With temperatures in the low 60’s and a faster southern course, the race was on pace to be by far the fastest Unbound to date.
Around midday, the sky finally opened up. Fast-rolling dirt roads transformed into slippery, sloppy, rutted mud paths within minutes. Even a brief touch of the brakes could spell disaster.
Both Keegan Swenson and Ian Boswell crashed at the front of the race in a particularly slick section of Jeep-track but were able to remount their machines and ride to second and third place respectively.
From ice to glue
The rain fell steadily for several hours before finally letting up. This can make conditions go from bad to worse. Once the rain stopped, the mud set and within minutes the conditions went from ice to glue.
The drying mud quickly changed viscosity and cruelly grabbed at tires, chains, brake rotors and anywhere else it could latch on to.
Many riders including first and second place females, Sofia Gomez Villafane and Lauren De Crescenzo were forced to dismount and run with their bikes. There are no team cars with spare bikes in gravel, beyond the two official check-points, riders have to manage the conditions and their equipment themselves.
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Marshall Opel started out as a young road bike racer in Montana, and found success as a junior racer for both the junior and U23 US National team. He has swapped racing for writing, and has covered gravel rides across the US extensively in the past three years.