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Unbound Gravel 2021

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Early miles of the 200-mile event saw the gravel roads packed with riders

Unbound Gravel 200 makes its return on June 5, 2021 in Emporia, Kansas (Image credit: Wil Matthews)

Unbound Gravel 200 date: June 5, 2021 

Distance: 206.8 miles 

Start: Emporia, Kansas - 6:00 a.m. (CDT) 

Finish: Emporia, Kansas - 4:00 p.m. (CDT)  

Geographically located in the middle of the United States, the Flint Hills of Kansas dictate the pulse of the world of gravel racing, home of the newly-rebranded Garmin Unbound Gravel presented by Craft Sportswear. After 15 years as Dirty Kanza and a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Unbound Gravel will return June 4-6, 2021 with six racing distances, including the signature Unbound Gravel 200.

There are five racing distances of Unbound Gravel (25, 50 100, 200, 350 and a 35-mile junior division) on on the sharp flint rocks that provide a rugged path though the vast Tallgrass Prairie of east-central Kansas. The event also provides group rides, watch parties, and an expo to attract thousands of participants and spectators to Emporia as “the world’s greatest gravel event”.

Colin Strickland (Meteor X Giordana) won the 2019 men’s 200, with Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) in second, and EF Education First duo of Alex Howes and Lachlan Morton trailing for third and fourth, respectively, separated by one second. Strickland will look for back-to-back wins at the 200-mile distance, with competition from 2019 Gravel Worlds champion John Borstelmann, 2007 US Marathon Mountain Bike champion Jeremiah Bishop, and a host of American road pros including 2016 US Pro Road champion Greg Daniel, Trek-Segafredo teammates Kiel Reijnen and Quinn Simmons as well as Ian Boswell, Peter Stetina, Ted King, and Travis McCabe.

Amity Rockwell (Easton Overland Gravel Team) won the women’s 200 race in 2019, holding off 2017 champion Alison Tetrick (Specialized), who finished in second.  Sarah Max followed in third. This year Rockwell will try to defend her title against top road pros such as Tetrick, Amy Charity, Shayna Powless, Jen Luebke and Lauren De Crescenzo.

Unbound Gravel history

The Unbound Gravel 200 is the signature race across the tire-shredding, sun-baked gravel of the Flint Hills, which Dan Hughes won in 2006 when he lined up for the inaugural test with 33 other participants.

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 and Rebecca Rusch for the women. The next year the 100 gravel race was officially launched, with inaugural titles going to Ashton Lambie for men and Lauren Stephens for women.

All the gravel races take place through the Flint Hills region of east-central Kansas. Unique aspects to these races include the remote roads used for routes through vast prairie lands, the checkpoints participants must locate to follow the correct course, and a “do not call us” policy for breakdowns and injuries.

There were 2,700 riders in various divisions in the last edition two years ago. A massive number of 4,000 registrations were confirmed for 2020, but the event would rescheduled to September, and then postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Life Time Fitness, the company that owns the event and also the Leadville Race Series, brought sweeping changes to the event last summer. In June, race founder Jim Cummins was fired for posting insensitive comments to his personal Facebook page regarding the fatal police shooting in Atlanta, Georgia of Rayshard Brooks, an African-American. The June 12 death of Brooks occurred when repeated killings of African Americans by police had led to anti-racism protests across America and the world. 

Then organisers rebranded the event several months later to eliminate racial insensitivity to the Kaw Nation, called Kanza, the indigenous people in the areas of Oklahoma and Kansas. Life Time included the Kaw Nation Tribal Council in the renaming process of the event to Unbound Gravel, and confirmed Garmin as the continuing title sponsor.

2021 Unbound Gravel races

Unbound Gravel Juniors (35 miles) - Friday, June, 4, 10:00 a.m. CDT start

Unbound Gravel 25 - Friday, June 4, 10:30 a.m. CDT start

Unbound Gravel 50 - Friday, June 4, 10:30 a.m. CDT start

Unbound Gravel XL (357.2 miles) - Friday, June 4, 3:00 p.m. CDT start

Unbound Gravel 200 - Saturday, June 5, 6:00 a.m. CDT start

Unbound Gravel 100 - Saturday, June 5, 7:00 a.m. CDT start

The bikes of Unbound Gravel 2021

Gravel racing, by its very nature, brings with it a whole new host of bikes and tech to get excited about, with road bikes typically being swapped out in favour of the more capable crop of gravel bikes, wheels getting sturdier and tyres getting chunkier to cope with the unrelenting terrain. 

However, Unbound Gravel, with its highly varying route distances that begin at 25 miles and grow to an enormous 350, there's even more opportunity for bikes to be modified as riders look to add comfort, compliance or out-right speed to their machines. 

Between ourselves at Cyclingnews, and our off-road-friendly sister-site, Bike Perfect, we've already taken a closer look at a host of bikes that'll take to the start line at Unbound 2021. Here are a few of the bikes we've spotted as Unbound approaches. 

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