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Unbound Gravel rebounds with stellar fields and prairie pain – Preview

Early miles of the 200-mile event saw the gravel roads packed with riders
Unbound Gravel 200 has packed fields for 2021 (Image credit: Wil Matthews)

The Flint Hills of Kansas take center stage Saturday and Sunday for Garmin Unbound Gravel presented by Craft Sportswear. The rebranded DK race was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, and regrouped for its 15th edition in 2021 with six racing distances, including the signature Unbound Gravel 200.

A trendsetter in surge of gravel events in North American, Unbound Gravel caters to swashbucklers of off-road endurance, beginning with just 34 riders in 2006. Ready to rumble from Emporia are 2,626 registered participants this year, with the majority scoring entry through a lottery process and seeking to reach the finish for a custom lanyard and window sticker. They will also look for braggers' rights to membership in “Race the Sun Club” (to finish before sundown), or even the “Breakfast Club” (who finish between 12:01 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. Sunday, the official cutoff).

There are an abundance of retired pro cyclists, current WorldTour roadies, as well as specialists from cyclo-cross, cross-country mountain bike, track and other disciplines seeking thrills on the sharp flint rocks across the Tallgrass Prairie of east-central Kansas, but there is no prize money.

2019 women’s champion Amity Rockwell (Easton Overland Gravel Team) returns for a fourth time, as does 2019 men’s winner Colin Strickland (Meteor X Giordana). Noticeable absentees this year will be men’s competitors from the EF Education-Nippo WorldTeam, which has embraced gravel for several years.

It’s simply a test of bikes, bodies and brains for each individual rider, but it’s not that simple. The course is not marked (bring a cycling computer and know how to use its navigation tools), there are limited service locations (the 350-mile XL allows no support), and there is a “do not call us” policy for breakdowns and injuries.

The weather can be a major factor for equipment and nutrition choices, as well as mental components. This year dry and warm conditions are expected, avoiding the peanut-butter-like mud that was such a challenge in 2015 and the exceedingly hot, humid conditions from 2018. Wind, however, is always a threat on the prairie.

The course

Kirsten Walker double-checked her set bag full of snacks and gear before the DKXL.

A bag full of snacks and gear before the gravel race (Image credit: Wil Matthews)

All routes will begin in a northward direction from Emporia as they did in 2019. The majority of riders, about 42 per cent, will compete in the Unbound Gravel 200, which offers an estimated 9,600 feet of climbing over 200 miles.

“Kansas is not flat, I didn’t see any flying monkeys, but I did wake up the following morning feeling like a house landed on me,” 2017 winner Alison Tetrick said about the course on her website.

After a hectic, self-seeded start on Commercial Street, organisers expect splits for the 200 race to begin after mile 26.8 on E. Kaw Reserve, where “things will get real” on a four-mile section of rutted road punctuated with deep holes on the sides and many short climbs. There are two technical descents noted on the course map heading into Alma, a community hosting the first of two checkpoints.

Like two previous editions, 2019 and 2015, there are two checkpoints on the course instead of three - in Alma at mile 69 and Council Grove at mile 156, plus a neutral water “oasis” in Alta Vista at mile 126. There are cut-off times for each checkpoint to keep everyone moving.

Along the 85 miles between checkpoints, the only official opportunities to refuel, redress and reorganize with support crews, the course is littered with rutted roads, rocky descents, a ghost town (Volland, Kansas), water crossings and some scenic views of the prairie.

The Flint Hills are famous for tire-shredding, sun-baked gravel. Experienced competitors know what to bring along for the ride to keep them going, especially with the flint causing a high rate of sidewall cuts in tyres. Attention to tech can be as important as nutrition: a couple tubes, CO2 cartridges, hand pump, patch kit, tyre plugs, multi-tool, and an extra chain link.

"In 2019, I had really bad luck with flat tires, I split a sidewall, I ended up getting seven flats. I was repairing a tube every 20 miles,” Amy Charity, who finished seventh in 2019, had told Cyclingnews.

The contenders

Past winner Alison Tetrick rode alone for much of day, and almost all of it as second female on the gravel.

Alison Tetrick in Flint Hills of Kansas (Image credit: Wil Matthews)

The top two riders in each of the women’s and men’s divisions of the 200-mile race will return this year, with a total of five of the women’s top-10 finishers and six of the men’s top-10. Strickland broke the 10-hour mark for the race last time out, setting a new course record at 9:58:49.

The women’s field is filled with serious competition for defending champ Rockwell and runner-up Alison Tetrick, who has been on all three steps of the podium in the past three editions.

Kae Takeshita, a native of Japan, returns with a laser focus on the podium, having finished in fourth twice before (2018 and 2019). The 200 will suit her fine, as she was one of just 11 riders, and the only woman, to finish the 341-mile Iowa Wind and Rock race in April this year.

Olivia Dillon, a former Irish national road race champion turned gravel racer, has finished on the podium three times at Lost and Found in California, including the win in 2018. She looks to improve on her fifth-place finish from two years ago in Kansas, as a flat tire dropped her from the DK lead in that year.

Shayna Powless is part of three-rider contingency from the road team Twenty24 Pro Cycling, along with Jen Luebke and Natalia Franco. Powless finished third overall in the Cascade Gravel Grinder omnium. Lauren De Crescenzo, a former pro roadie, has proven stamina recently when she set an Everesting record in 2020, at just under 10 hours.

The three-day Oregon gravel omnium was won by cyclo-cross specialist Rebecca Fahringer, who was one of just a handful of American who raced a full schedule of ‘cross in Europe and competed at cyclo-cross Worlds. Fahringer also won Gorge Gravel Grinder, so is on top form headed to Kansas.

Speaking of Oregon, triathlete Heather Jackson may be off the gravel radar, but not for much longer. Jackson, who is the US Ironman record holder (Ironman Arizona 2018) and bronze medalist at the 2016 Ironman Worlds, makes her first appearance in Emporia. She finished fourth at last year’s Belgian Waffle Ride Cedar City (Utah).

For the men, Strickland is the man to beat after his dominant performance 2019. Just a few weeks ago he fell short of an expected victory at the inaugural Gravel Locos, however, with former road pro Laurens ten Dam taking the boot trophy. The Dutchman is sure to be in the mix in his inaugural Unbound contest.

Former WorldTour rider Peter Stetina is always a rider to watch, finishing second in 2019. This year he took the title at the Gorge Gravel Grinder.

EF Education-Nippo riders Alex Howes and Lachlan Morton, who in 2019 were third and fourth, respectively, are not on the start list. Morton is currently racing Critérium du Dauphiné, with Howes set to race the Tour de Suisse in the coming days.

Two-time DK winner Ted King, another former WorldTour rider, is back, looking to improve from a seventh position last time out, one spot behind former Jelly Belly rider Joshua Berry, who also returns. The duo went one-two in 2018, with the win taken by King.

More from the pro ranks of American racers will be 2016 US Pro Road champion Greg Daniel, Trek-Segafredo teammates Kiel Reijnen (eighth in Kansas in 2019) and Quinn Simmons as well as Ian Boswell, Jacob Rathe and Travis McCabe. Registered to make his endurance gravel debut is American Matteo Jorgenson, who just completed his first Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia, for Movistar.

Wild cards will be 2015 DK 200 winner Yuri Hauswald, current cyclo-cross racer Curtis White, 2019 Gravel Worlds champion John Borstelmann, 2007 US Marathon Mountain Bike champion Jeremiah Bishop, and Thomas Dekker, a two-time Dutch national time trial champion.

Notables in XL and 100

In what organisers describe as an event for adventure seekers with a “penchant for pain”, the XL category was introduced as a test event in 2018, won by Matt Acker for the men, with the women’s division going to Rebecca Rusch, who won the 200-mile race three times. In 2019, 64 men and 15 women took the start, with Jay Petervary winning the men’s title over Acker, and Lael Wilcox winning the women’s division.

This is sure to be a massive battle over the massive 356 miles between two women – Amanda Nauman, who won the 200-miler in 2015 and 2016, and Wilcox. Recently on the “Groadio” podcast, Nauman said she was eager to step up to the longer endurance race.

“It’s a straight-through effort and I don’t feel like I’m at a disadvantage. I’m stoked to see how it goes down,” she said. “I did 170 [miles] on Tuesday this past week. The training is not crazy different than I would do for 200 miles, but I do it at different times of the day. At that distance, it’s on the cusp of sleep deprivation.”

Petervary will go up against 2017 DK 200 winner Mat Stephens and 2010 DK 200 winner Cory Godfrey.

A few riders have switched gears from the 200 and downsized for 2021. Among the riders in the Unbound Gravel 100 to watch are Kansas native Ashton Lambie, known for his cowboy mustache and a gold medal on the track. He finished sixth in the DK 200 in 2016, winning his age group (Men 29 and under). In 2019 he won the DK 100, and following 22 minutes later for second overall was Lauren Stephens, who currently races on the road for TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank and will be back at this distance.

Some new big names registered for the Unbound Gravel 100 include Stephen Hyde, two-time US cyclo-cross champion, and cycling legend Tinker Juarez, who comes off a win Sunday for the second year in a row from the 120-mile Badlands Gravel Battle.

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Jackie Tyson

Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling for people of all abilities and ages. Tyson has been recognized for communications excellence with 10 Phoenix Awards, presented by the Georgia Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp - and was recognized by a national media outlet as the first female depicted in a pro baseball card set (Ft. Myers Royals). She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times. Her favorite road rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in  Provence (France). Her favorite mountain bike rides are in Park City, Utah (USA).

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