On June 5 the biggest gravel race of the year takes place with a stellar field descending on Kansas for Unbound Gravel. The 200-mile race features some of the most demanding dirt roads in the US, with the top athletes set to race for around 10 hours.
After a one-year hiatus due to the global pandemic the race returns, and ahead of the event Cyclingnews has highlighted 10 of the biggest names on the start list for you to follow. There's a great mix of experience, with defending champions Amity Rockwell and Colin Strickland looking to repeat their 2019 successes.
There's a strong WorldTour contingent with Movistar and Trek-Segafredo both sending riders to compete in the men's race, while solid all-rounders like Alison Tetrick and Rebecca Fahringer will provide stiff opposition in the women's race.
Amity Rockwell lines up as the defending champion of Unbound Gravel in Emporia, Kansas this weekend. Her form is a bit of an unknown for the 200-mile distance this time around, but she will be there looking to win for a second consecutive outing.
Rockwell won Unbound Gravel in 2019, the last edition held before COVID-19 shut down racing and the event was cancelled last year. She had a series of strong performances that season: fourth at LandRun 100, first at Sweetwater Grasshopper, second at King Ridge Grasshopper, and first at Old Growth Classic, which bode well for her arrival at Unbound Gravel, an assurance that she may not have this year due to races only beginning to open up again in the US.
She comes into Unbound with a little less racing under her belt but she did finish sixth at Huffmaster Hopper recently, has put in the time during training, and has proven her stamina for a race as long and as grueling as Unbound Gravel.
“’Taking it easy,’ or something like that. Anyone who knows me knows how much I prefer training to actually racing my bike, but the cycle of it all is kinda fun, especially in the swing of a real season. I look forward to Unbound Gravel but mostly I look forward to a week after it, when I can do some big dumb soul ride and not have it hanging over my head anymore," Rockwell wrote in a post on Instagram.
Alison Tetrick ended her pro road racing career and then began a journey of competitive gravel racing, securing a major victory at Unbound Gravel in 2017.
A decade of world-class road racing and time trialling has given Tetrick a keen sense of high-intensity efforts, and combined with her love of long off-road rides, creates the perfect mix for success at a race like Unbound Gravel.
The event was cancelled last year but Tetrick finished second in the 2019 edition behind Rockwell, and she was third in the 2018 edition behind winner Kaitlin Keough and runner-up Amanda Nauman.
Tetrick has begun off-road racing this season at Gravel Locos, showcasing her new bright red Specialized Diverge, where she placed second to Emily Newsom. Watch for Tetrick to race among the front contenders at Unbound Gravel, too.
Rebecca Fahringer is better known for her expertise in cyclo-cross racing and for funny Youtube videos that detail her adventures in cycling, but she is about to attempt Unbound for the first time and has a great shot at the victory.
Don’t underestimate someone who can finish 14th overall in the UCI Cyclo-cross World Ranking, and who can also tie a pair skis and boots to her bike and gravel ride up a mountain alongside off-road Kona pro Barry Wicks for fun.
Fahringer secured six cyclo-cross victories across the US in 2019, along with second at the US National Championships and third at the Pan-American Championships that same year.
After the COVID-19-hit season opened for cyclo-cross events last year, Fahringer travelled to Europe to compete in a full calendar of races on the Telenet Superprestige Series, X20 Badkamers Trofee, and the World Cup, culminating at the World Championships where she finished 23rd.
Fahringer heads to Unbound Gravel a little unsure of how well she will perform, as noted in her recent Instagram post of two images; one of her smiling and one of her frowning, with a caption that reads, "It's a rest week!... Before 200 miles of gravel at Unbound Gravel. Not sure what order these two pictures should be in. I'm not sure about my feelings at all. This is gonna be GREAT!!!"
Andrea Dvorak is also a former pro road racer who formed part of the US national team that helped Mara Abbott to overall victory at the 2013 Giro d’Italia Donne.
After retiring in 2015, she found her way into the off-road racing scene, and this year finished second to pro mountain biker Erin Huck at Old Man Winter.
She’s spent a fair amount of time off-road racing, jumping into XTERRA triathlon, Breck Epic stage race and Park City Point 2 Point. It may be her first time racing Unbound Gravel, but she has what it takes to race with the best women in the field.
"Heading to Unbound Gravel like...sorta scared, no aero bars, clothes flailing, eyes wide open, dirt flying, sorta crying," she wrote in a post on Instagram.
Lauren De Crescenzo
Anyone who can hold (not matter how briefly) the world record for Everesting should be on everyone’s radar as a potential winner of Unbound Gravel.
Last year, Lauren De Crescenzo, a former pro that now works as a research assistant at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), broke the Everesting women's record climbing Hogpen Gap in Georgia a total of 24 times in 9 hours and 57 minutes, reaching an elevation of 8,848 metres in the space of 179km.
De Crescenzo was injured in 2016 in a crash at the San Dimas Stage Race and spent more than a week in intensive care before recovering at the Craig Hospital, a world-renowned center for spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation.
She has gone on for an Everesting record, win time trials, and while off-roading, she has won Crusher in the Tushar gravel race and placed second in a stage of Rebecca's Private Idaho & Queen's Stage Race.
Watch for De Crescenzo to make her mark on Unbound Gravel.
Strickland, 34, lines up as the men’s defending champion having seen off a host of WorldTour riders back in 2019 when the race last took place. That year, he attacked at around the 105-mile mark and quickly raced out of sight, and held off a chase all the way to the line.
There were still several hours of racing to go when Strickland attacked but as he told Cyclingnews last year: “I put in some big digs until I was out of sight but at no point did I think that the race was over. Not with so far still to race. I had three minutes but from there I still had 70 miles to go. I made a concerted effort not to get excited about winning that race until I got to the final climb. The moment you start letting your concentration slip, that’s when bad things can happen.”
This time around Strickland goes into Unbound as major favourite but a recent knee injury and defeat to Laurens ten Dam at Gravel Locos at the end of May certainly takes some of the pressure off the American’s shoulders.
The Unbound field is arguably deeper this year too, but the 2019 experience and the fact that Strickland has built his season around this weekend’s race should ensure that he arrives on the start-line with his A-game.
“I’ve done some good work of late,” Strickland told Cyclingnews just ahead of Gravel Locos. “I’ve had a bit of a knee issue that has set me back a bit but hopefully there’s time to get some crunch time cramming in – which I tend to respond to. Things aren’t idea but they aren’t fucked.”
Laurens ten Dam
Even the ever-popular Dutchman surprised even himself with a standout performance in Gravel Locos a few weeks ago. The veteran rider and former top-10 finisher in the Tour de France tore away from the group of favourites that included many of his Unbound rivals to take a convincing and morale boosting victory. That victory has certainly marked Ten Dam’s card ahead of this weekend and many riders will see him as the rider to beat – despite his relative lack of experience in gravel racing.
The 40-year-old hadn’t raced since Il Lombardia 2019 until showing up in Texas but he’s clearly not lost his competitive edge, while the distance shouldn’t be a major factor given his recent demonstration of strength. Assuming he has no major bad luck and doesn’t make any mistakes in fuelling or strategy Ten Dam will be involved in the pointy end of the race. His legs, as he showed in Texas, are certainly good enough.
Now firmly back to racing after his suspension for "divisive, incendiary, and detrimental" social media posts, the Trek-Segafredo rider is many people’s outside bet for the title. He will line up alongside trade teammate Kiel Reijnen but it’s the young Simmons who stands out on paper.
He has a mountain bike background and set the fastest time on Utah's White Rim trail and was second in the Leadville 100 in 2019, so the terrain shouldn’t be any issue, while at the same time he’s been posting 30-plus hour training weeks with specific efforts tailored towards the event.
Simmons, unlike most of the male riders on this list, comes into the race with a full spring campaign under his belt and that could make a significant difference when compared to some of the US-based riders who have barely raced in the last 18 months. It’s true that he hasn’t pushed a pedal in anger since a DNF in the Tour of Flanders, but 14 days of European competition is still a huge amount of racing compared to others on this list. Based purely on natural talent, Simmons cannot be ignored.
If Simmons' two weeks of Euro racing looks substantial it pales in comparison to Jorgenson’s 40 days of competition with the American jetting back to the US just a few days after finishing his maiden Grand Tour at the Giro d’Italia. That base of racing will either see Jorgenson fly across the Kansas gravel or come unstuck after three weeks of energy sapping and draining racing in Italy. It’s hard to tell how the 21-year-old’s body will react at this point.
Unbound certainly marks a change in direction for the highly talented American, who was eighth overall in Paris-Nice, competed in the Ardennes and then battled through the Giro despite a bout of illness. He made it into several breaks before finishing 98th overall in Milan, with a top 40 in the final time trial a possible indication that there’s still some fuel in the tank.
Ian Boswell, Ted King, and former US National road champion Greg Daniel are competing in Unbound Gravel and are all worth a follow, but the final male rider on our list in Peter Stetina. The 33-year-old was second behind Strickland a couple of years ago and was in the mix at Gravel Locos until an untimely mechanical took him out of the running. Unlike two years ago, however, when Stetina was merely dabbling with gravel as he combined those extra-curriculum activities with his road career, he’s now a fully-fledged gravel pro. As such he’s built his entire season around this block of racing and he touches down in Kansas as one of the main favourites for the title.
“Training and Unbound is my full focus right now. That’s where all my chips are. Then I’ve got the Oregon Trail stage race,” Stetina recently told Cyclingnews after Gravel Locos.
“I’m content. It was really good to see the other guys are at in terms of their fitness and I was surprised with how good Laurens was. At the same time, we were all there. It was very tactical in the mud and we were all attacking each other one after another."
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in bike racing from the grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all cycling disciplines, edits news and writes features. Currently the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten coordinates global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.
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