Rally Cycling's Robin Carpenter is a late entry for Unbound Gravel 200 on Saturday and isn't taking his introductory foray into the "Super Bowl of gravel racing" lightly. The American roadster took an unexpected opening in his race calendar to schedule a visit to Kansas, which he sees as not only a challenge but a distraction from looming East Coast concerns - US Pro Road Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee and a move to Boston, Massachusetts.
"This is my first gravel event. I don't think anyone knows I am in the race," Carpenter told Cyclingnews. "I'm looking forward to seeing what it is like with a big mass start race, the madness and the never-ending dusty column of riders. There's a lot of really high-level athletes competing too. It's the Super Bowl of gravel racing.
"I know to respect the scene and its level of importance. Gravel has been taking up a lot more bandwidth of US bike racing interest, so I was curious. I've been thinking about doing Unbound for the last couple of years. Normally my schedule doesn't align with it."
He started his season in March in Europe with some one-day races, like Scheldeprijs, then went on to finish Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. He then exited from the team's European campaign when a key race was cancelled to return to his home in San Diego, but quickly changed gears when he got an entry in Unbound Gravel, and a bike, then bought a plane ticket to Kansas.
"Four Days of Dunkirk was a big race for us at Rally Cycling that was cancelled. I, unfortunately, did not get a residency visa for Europe this year and am stuck on the tourist visa, which you can only stay 90 out of 180 days. It didn't make sense to use up visa days for a month to do a one-day race. So I came back earlier than normal."
As a UCI Pro Continental team, Rally Cycling did get an invitation to race next week's Tour de Suisse, but rarely receives entries into bigger WorldTour races in Europe and stage racing has been sparse in North America with the ongoing event cancellations and schedule reshuffling due to COVID-19 coronavirus concerns.
"I travelled straight from Spain to Boston to close on a house. We [Carpenter, his wife and dog] are moving to Boston after US Nationals. I'm glad to go to Unbound, it keeps my mind off of Nationals, and packing to move."
Packing is a priority, but for his first gravel race now. Carpenter is not a stranger to long distances or even off-road riding. He noted he rides dirt all the time on his gravel bike in San Diego, mainly in winter, and has completed Paris-Tours, Schaal Sels, and Antwerp Port Epic, "which is a similar idea but honestly worse than Paris-Tours".
Carpenter gleaned as much information as he could about nutrition, the proper tools to pack and strategies for racing from podcasts, articles of people who have done it before, and former racer, Joe Schmalz, who was teammates with Carpenter at Hincapie Racing Team in 2013 to 2015, and lives in Kansas.
"I'll try to set myself up for success by being with the right people, but you could be out there for 14 hours if things really don't go your way. So it'll either feel like a race or a real adventure," Carpenter noted about the action on the course.
"I think I'm fit enough to win one of these if everything goes right. I'll pick out an experienced rider like Ted King who's won this event a couple of times and try to follow. A friend and former teammate who lives in Kansas, Joe Schmalz, rides those roads all the time, so he's a good wheel to follow, too. Another one of my former teammates, Travis McCabe, is on the same bike as I am, so if we are close, we'll stick together.
"When it shakes out, you are with the people who have the same luck as you. I hope to play it conservatively. I'm going to try to hold myself back in the first three hours, but you never know. I like trusting my instincts instead of plan."
To focus so much attention on the gear and nutrition for a mainly self-supported endurance event of 200-plus miles is new territory for a professional road cyclist on a major American team.
"Rally Cycling will have a team car to support me, and Tim Sparks, one of my favourite mechanics. He's pretty stoked to see the race himself," Carpenter said about the valuable assets provided by his trade team, even as a single competitor. The key checkpoint, he added, is the second one with a little more than 50 miles to go.
"My intention is to show up [in Kansas] to a gas station and buy what I would normally eat on a big ride. A lot of salty, savoury snacks, like a bag of salt and vinegar chips. I will probably have a jar of pickle juice in the cooler, and a sandwich and slice of pizza at the second stop – real food just in case. If I'm close to the front, I'm not going to eat a slice of pizza though," said the 28-year-old. He had a solid plan for three water bottles on his bike, First Endurance EFS in his CamelBak and taking homemade rice cakes.
"On rides like this there always comes a point where you're sick of eating the same sweet food, it's called palate fatigue. It's going to be a bit of an experiment for me. I've heard people describe the race as an eating contest as much as a pedalling contest."
The top tool he said to conquer the sharp rocks of the Flint Hills would his DynaPlug for his tubeless setup, which are "small and compact and fit in my pocket. Normally I use a solid pump, but in this case, CO2s are important, too. And for sure a patch kit. There are horror stories out there."
His main plan following Unbound Gravel is to win US Pro Nationals later in June. He finished second in 2018 and fourth in 2017 in Knoxville and really wants that stars-and-stripes jersey.
"At US Pro, I'm just focusing on the road race, not the crit or the time trial. The course suits me," Carpenter said. "Unbound is a nice distraction right now. It would be awesome to get a result [at Unbound] but in the end, the goal is to finish the event and finish it strong. I really just want to see what the gravel scene is all about."
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