Kiel Reijnen: Unbound Gravel is like racing three back-to-back Grand Tour stages

Kiel Reijnen on the gravel in 2019
Kiel Reijnen on the gravel in 2019 (Image credit: Wil Matthews)

Kiel Reijnen and Quinn Simmons will represent Trek-Segafredo in next week’s Unbound Gravel race in Kansas. A stacked field is expected for the 200-mile gravel adventure with 2019 winner Colin Strickland looking to defend his title against a host of WorldTour riders and other gravel experts.

Reijnen has been preparing for the event for the last few months and posted a top-10 in the race the last time it took place in 2019. That experience will help the 34-year-old with his hopes of lasting well into the race when the main selections are expected. Two years ago the American was struck by bad luck and saw his chances evaporate in the early stages due to a mechanical. He spent most of the race chasing and riding alone. 

“Similar to road cycling, experience counts for a lot in gravel racing so I’m coming into this edition with more preparedness but it was hard the first time when it just came to knowing what to expect,” he tells Cyclingnews from his home in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

“From knowing how much food to bring and how many water bottles to pack, all those things were unknown for us going into that edition. I don’t think I’ve got it mastered, by any means, but at least I have a baseline on what I should bring.”

Since returning to the United States from Europe after the Classics campaign, Reijnen has been taking time out from the WorldTour to spent quality time with his family, but as Unbound has come into view he has trained off-road and dialed in his position and equipment.

The landscape has shifted since the last Unbound Gravel. The race name has changed for starters, but COVID-19 robbed the gravel community of a year of competition and that means that although some events have taken place in the last few weeks many riders are uncertain of their exact level. The WorldTour riders set to descend on the race have enjoyed full spring of racing – with some coming straight from the Giro d’Italia – and Reijnen expects the form book to go out the window once racing commences on June 5.

“I expect it to be different from last time as the gravel folk hasn’t had that much racing in the last year. There just haven’t been that many events, so that makes things unpredictable. It’s hard to know where everyone will be at but I think also the hype around it will mean that everyone puts a lot of energy into it.

“I was sixth but fourth in my age category. Remember I’m an old man now so I get my own category. So I think that I was unlucky with my slashed tire last time, but I didn’t really experience how the race played out because I raced most of it alone. I was chasing alone for a long time. That was fun in its own way and I just enjoyed the experience so regardless of what happens I just intend on having fun.”

One immediate question that the WorldTour riders, like Reijnen, face when they sign up for gravel races is how seriously they take the event. There’s a perception – and it’s usually wrong – that their overall fitness and talent will trump experience and gravel guile, but as Strickland showed two years ago, experience is massively important. Reijnen is well aware, having gone through the process in 2019, just how hard Unbound will be – both mentally and physically if he’s to truly compete for the podium.

Not only that, but he has a strong desire to respect the race, the organisers, and the discipline as a whole. From the detail he shared relating to his training and preparation, he’s taking this as seriously as any WorldTour objective. 

“I think it’s easy to look at the gravel stuff and think ‘it’s just for fun’ but readers must keep in mind how different of an event this is compared to a road race. It doesn’t have the depth of the Giro, and I’m not going to tell you 100 guys in the race are WorldTour level and just happen to be racing gravel, but that said, there are other stresses. So when I race in Europe I don’t worry about where my water bottles are coming from. Whereas just getting to the race in gravel throws up a load of questions. I mean how many riders in the WorldTour even know how to change a tubular tire? It’s a different set of skills so you have to take it seriously in terms of your time commitment,” he says.

“The things that we’re not used to doing as WorldTour riders are more difficult. I’m more concerned with what I’m packing, rather than how many intervals I did last week, even though I know that it’s a huge physical effort in front of me. It’s the biggest day of racing in terms of my career in terms of what I’ve done. It was like three Grand Tours stages back to back.

“I’m taking this increasingly more seriously. It’s becoming more competitive and you owe it to the organizer to take it seriously. And you want to respect what they’re trying to create – which is something different from a WorldTour race."

One of the hot topics from 2019 surrounded the debate over aero bars, or comfort bars as they’re sometimes called in the gravel community. Reijnen isn’t sure what his final setup will include but he remains open to using aero bars in Unbound, just like he did two years ago.

“That remains undecided. I know that there’s a lot of debate about whether we should be using them and I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another. I know that I used them a fair bit in 2019 but I was never thinking ‘wow look at this aero advantage I’m going so much faster.’ I was using them because I needed more positions. 

"When you ride alone for 11 hours straight you just need to mix it up. But if someone said we’re not using them then I wouldn’t be heartbroken. I don’t think it makes a huge difference and a lot depends on course conditions. It’s not the difference between riding a TT or a road bike in a mass start event,” he says.

“Everyone is always looking for something to debate and get excited about. When I finished the race I didn’t have strong opinions one way or another. I don’t think it’s as big a deal as some people make out because of the aspects that I appreciate about gravel: the camaraderie, the inclusiveness, the shared experience, and the lack of elitism that comes with road racing is something that I hold dear. There’s individualism in gravel racing that road racing doesn’t have and we should embrace that."

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