Unbound 200 Race Report

Unbound had been a bucket list item for me for a while, so I was stoked to finally get selected in the lottery this year for the 200. Knowing that it’s basically a Pro Tour classic at this point, my only goal was to have a good race and beat the sun.

Gear setup

I rode my geared gravel bike, which uses a Chinese Carbon MTB hardtail frame and a Niner rigid carbon MTB fork. It’s currently set up with GRX 2×11 (46/30 and 11-36) with a cyclocross front derailleur (for top pull routing) and Magura Marta calipers (for post mount compatibility). Wheels are Light Bicycle 46mm deep carbon rims and Bitex hubs, and tires are Tufo Gravel Thunderos in 44mm. Also mounted are 46 cm wide non-flared Easton drop bars with clip-on aero bars, which were legal since I wasn’t in the Elite field. I wore a 50 oz Camelbak and took two 32 oz bottles, all initially filled with Skratch.

While I’ve always been a fan of wide tires on gravel, to the point of frequently surprising competitors at gravel races, popular opinion has moved more quickly than I can wear out tires lately and mine were more or less average size in Emporia, maybe even below average. Before the race I was also concerned that they wouldn’t hold up, having heard all the horror stories of people getting multiple flats, and having had 2 flats on these tires in the last year (one needed a plug, the other sealed and got me home at low pressure, and later needed a patch). I added some Stan’s Race sealant to the tires, and while I didn’t measure it there was much more sealant in the tires than I normally run. 

Miles 0-71

By the time I got to the start chute it was packed full and I had to start at around the 15 hour (predicted) mark. The first few miles were on fast, packed (even by Illinois standards) gravel, and speeds were fast even though I was trying to limit my effort. As the groups spread out though I couldn’t resist jumping on accelerations to move up to the next group, etc. I kept an eye on my average power and tried to tone it down whenever it got close to 200W.

Even though the gravel was smooth, I was still paranoid about getting a flat considering how sharp it is supposed to be, and I did pass several riders fixing flats. Thoughtful the whole race I tried to be very careful in choosing my lines, and to ride in the swept (ridden in) line as much as possible.

Around 30 miles in we hit the first gnarly section, which had dirt, larger rocks, and uneven ground. I was again very careful, but had no problems and even the rockiest sections were easily rideable. I can see how they would be a problem for the elite riders though, riding fast in a tightly packed group. At one point I had to lock up my wheels when the ride in front of me didn’t see the rocks until the last second, and a couple times I had to bunny hop over an unexpected mini “gap jump”. I found myself looking forward to these sections, as I could generally ride clear of the group I was riding with and take my time working up to the next one, since it’s much easier to ride through the rocks alone.

While most of the gravel was not this rocky stuff, almost all of the gravel outside of Lyon County (which contains Emporia) was rougher than that in Lyon County, with an occasional bedrock surface that was pretty interesting.

I rolled through the first water stop at mile 41 then stopped briefly in Alma at mile 71 having kept a good pace and ridden with groups most of the time. Average speed for this segment was 17.7 mph and average power was 189 W.

Miles 71-113

Leaving Alma I could feel the miles starting to get to me, and tried to tone it down a bit. This segment included the famous Little Egypt Road, which was fun but challenging. I’m not sure if it was mostly nutrition or the heat, as by this time the clouds had disappeared, but as I was getting closer to the Alta Vista water stop I began to feel very tired, and started getting passed by many people. My averages over this segment were 14.0 mph and 150 W.

I rolled in to Alta Vista feeling completely empty and laid down in the shade and closed my eyes. I had to tell a few people I was OK. After laying down for about 15 minutes I sat up, very slowly ate a bagel, then refilled my bottles and had another bottle poured on my head.

Miles 113-148

While it took a lot of mental effort to get back on the bike, once I was rolling I felt much better, and soon joined a good group and rode with them for about 20 miles. However I then began to feel even worse, and was totally unable to eat anything, and barely able to drink. I became very concerned that I would be unable to finish due to this, and slowed down considerably. I rolled in to Council Grove at mile 148 and stopped for a few minutes to rest and take some water. Averages over this segment were 15.2 mph and 142 W.

Miles 148-184

After Council Grove I continued to feel terrible and continued to be unable to eat or put out any power. Eventually I gave up on beating the sun and consigned myself to soft pedaling in under the cooler night sky. Averages were 12.8 mph and 112 W.

Miles 184-203

I’m not sure if it was due to finding some previously undiscovered motivation, or simply due to the sun not being as hot, but a few miles before Americus I decided to try and beat the sun anyways, and simply got in my aero bars and pedaled as steadily as I could, and saw my speed improve quite a bit. I stayed in my aero bars almost the entire time, and once it became clear I was going to beat the sun my new goal became to beat 14 hours. When I saw Highland Hill, a short steep climb in the city of Emporia, and saw the banner/arch at the top, I, in my half delirious state, assumed it was the finish line and sprinted up the hill at 585 W for 35 seconds then sat up. It took me about 10 seconds to realize my mistake, then I continued on to finish in 13:58:20. Averages over the last 19 miles were 16.5 mph and 169 W, and averages for the full race were 15.3 mph and 154 W (187 W weighted average power, 201 W normalized power).

Final Thoughts

All in all it was a fun, memorable, painful, and humbling day on the bike. I clearly need to ride more and ride longer if I want to be able to keep up a good pace on a ride like this, but I’m glad I did it.