I fulfilled my prediction, I've completed The Unbound Gravel. My last 3 completed events therefore are officially Paris Roubaix, Ironman World Championships, &, Unbound Gravel. Unbound in many ways was very much like my last Ironman. It was evident early on in the day that I was a little under prepared for the enormity of the event. Well that's only half true. I was more than prepared to show up & complete the event baring anything catastrophic. The other half was the ability, or in my case inability, to quickly fix mechanical mishaps. I was to learn throughout the day that for this particular gravel event, there's a lot more to it than simply riding the bike!
I had a couple of days prior to the race to scope out the town & the setup of the event. I was expecting something Ironman esk & that's basically what i found, perhaps a little more laid back. The prospect of having to run a marathon after swimming & riding that far, tends to make even the most relaxed individuals a little on edge. At unbound i got the feeling that come what may on June 4th, everyone was determined to face it head on & have a great time however the day transpired for them. That certainly calmed my nerves of worrying about the unknowns. I quickly came to the conclusion that worst case scenario there'll be a bunch of people going through the same thing as me.
The village & expo area was really impressive. Again very similar to Ironman yet a little more disorganised or should I say, less professional. In my opinion that's a great thing as it goes with the mood of the gravel scene, people are not there to take things too seriously so the laid back nature of the village was perfect. Without a doubt you could rock up to Emporia without anything & find absolutely everything you'd need for race day. This is basically what i did, everything that wasn't already waiting for me there i was easily able to find in the expo. For example, when i learnt of the rain & mud forecast for the event, i urgently needed to find myself some MTB shoes. I'd originally planned on just running my road shoes as that's what I've always used on my Gravel bike. Fortunately once my bike was built, & I'd taken a guess how to setup MTB shoes preying for my knees the following day, I had time for quick 1hr pedal to get the feel of them & run through the gears. At home i ride my mtb with flats as its easier to eject when I crash! MTB shoes certainly felt a tad bit foreign. I must be a natural at cleat position though as 320km later I don't have a single niggle in my knees. Guess it's my youthful adaptable joints looking after me there haha.
The food was also a little different to Ironman. There wasn't, dare i say it, as many "healthy" eating spots. Instead, additional beer gardens & what I'd call hearty wholesome, Pub type food, designed to keep your churning away for hours & hours in the gravel fields. Definitely the kind of food I personally enjoy very much. One distinct similarity however was the type of people. The gravel crew are very educated and respectful of your personal space & never like to encroach. They approach you in a way that makes you want to engage with them which is always refreshing. Sometimes in Europe the first thing someone says is can i have your jersey, or gloves, or sunglasses before they've even said hello. They almost approach you in a way that suggests they're entitled to ask for such because you've obviously got multiple of that item, its very of putting. I appreciate its a completely different culture & I'd never expect it to change. Its simply also the reason road cyclists are a little more detached from the masses at races. That, & in Europe particularly, many of the cyclists are megastars. I'm Merely just pointing out the stark differences of a mass participation event from perspective of someone who's been at events across all 3 disciplines. Please don't change that Gravel & Ironman people.
The day of the race rolled around pretty quickly, obviously that'll happen when you arrive 48hrs before the big day with a lot things to organise. In my case, everything. One of the perks of arriving from Europe is the jet lag. I was wide awake when my alarm went of at 4am for the 6am start. I'd had a solid day of eating on Friday so enjoyed a few bagels with Peanut Butter, Banana & Honey to top up the tank. I arrived a little late & was very greatful for a few of the guys on the front row to make space for me. I ensured them i was happy to take the wind in exchange for the spot at the front. My years of competing at this level, & the roll I have in the sport, seem to have paid of with a little respect in that regard. The atmosphere was absolutely electric. You wouldn't have thought it was 6am on a Saturday morning. Everyone, the crowds, the volunteers & the athletes where absolutely buzzing. Everyone couldn't wait to get stuck into it.
When the event finally kicked off i nestled into the front section of the bunch. My tactic was pretty simple, stay as close as possible to the front to avoid any crashes & be alert for when the group started splitting up. The first 10k or so i took that a little too far & literally sat on the front. Certainly made me feel like i was back in Europe doing my day job until i glanced around to see the 3000 people lined up behind me. Atleast i can say i led the Unbound Gravel race for a moment in time haha. I can now say I've "led" Paris Roubaix, Kona Ironman, & Unbound Gravel hahaha. Now that I've achieved that the most logical progression is to simply lead them all for a lot longer & win them! I'm definitely a dreamer which has gotten me this far, I don't think I'll change anytime soon!
The first 40-50km was pretty stop start. One great aspect of gravel is like Ironma, in theory, there's no teams, just individuals. That means when attacks happen assuming they are brought back, there's often a lull in the pace until someone else decides to have a go. In a normal bike race you'll have an attack followed by a counter & so on & so on until the front of the race is established. That dynamic lends itself to never really being a breakaway in Gravel events, more a wearing down of the field until the strongest guys find themselves together at the front. This is exactly what happened on Saturday, a few guys would get a small gap & always came back, this process continues as the group slowly but surely sorted itself out. At around 70km in the first testing climb was upon us. Ian Boswell, the previous years winner appeared on the front & instantly accelerated. Freddy ovett & Pete Stetina accelerated over him, Laurens Ten Dam over them, & you could feel in your legs that the group was starting to split up. Over the top the calls of "the groups split", "groups split", go go go reverberated around the front group & off we went. I looked around & realised it was still a decent sized group, perhaps 20 guys. We where on a rocky decent with a sharp corner at the bottom so i hit the front to ensure i took the corner first. Out of the corner we where faced with a solid rocky drag uphill so I accelerated again to keep the pressure on & split things up a bit more. This dragged about 10 guys away, a nice sized group of strong guys, all of which where the guys that went on to ultimately contest for the top places. I thought how good is this, my foray into gravel was going absolutely perfectly. Then, as quickly as everything was going well, as often happens in the classics, it wasn't.
The rocky drag that I'd accelerated on, having had the privileged position on the front to pick my line, had split the side wall of my tyre. I'd practiced plugging holes in tyres before travelling to Emporia & didn't panic, figured I'd quickly stop, plug it, & chase back. I couldn't plug it. It was cut on all sorts of funny angles & i simply couldn't get it to hold air no matter how many plugs i stuffed in it. I'd read as much as i could about the event, tips for first timers ect, & one thing that kept popping up was super glue to patch difficult holes. The night before I'd been at a petrol station looking for sunscreen & spotted superglue so i brought it & had thrown it into my pack. Fortunately at that moment i remembered I'd done so & carefully applied it across the split side wall. I tried to hold it all together with my finger but realised I'd glue myself to the tire so had to be a little delicate with that process. I whacked in another Co2, it was my last one so i was all or nothing on this superglue & to my delight it appeared to hold. I'd probably only lost 5 minutes by this stage so thought if things went my way i could slowly grind my way back up front.
I got going & morale was sky high as i grinned my way through the pack. The support of everyone encouraging me to chase down the front runners was absolutely awesome. It was still pretty rocky so i was perhaps taking a few to many risks on a fragile rear tire, however, at this point if i wanted to "compete" & not become a "participant" in the race kit was all or nothing. The euphoria of my new found mechanical skills proved to be very short lived as probably 5minutes down the road the rear tyre was dead flat again. My superglued side wall had been penetrated by another pesky rock.
The next option of course was a tube, the option I should've perhaps gone with initially. With the front runners now well & truly in another postal code, i took a little more time patching my sidewall to ensure none of the tube poked out & punctured that as well. More superglue & a rubber boot & I was confident it'd withstand the harshest of rocks the flint hills could through at it. Only issue i had now was I didn't have any co2! This is when the gravel community really steps up. It wasn't 5 seconds that'd go by that someone wouldn't slow to offer some assistance so it was relatively easy to get a co2 from someone. Then i had another issue. Removing the tubeless valve! The mechanic who set up the tyres had a lot stronger fingers than me & I couldn't get it undone. I patiently waited for someone to pass who might have pliers, something i now know to carry in the future. A few brave souls tried until they turned purple in the face to unscrew the valve but to no avail.
At one point i think there where about 5 people standing around my bike offering assistance. Some weren't interested in trying to help, more to simply stop & chat while i was parked up on the side of the road. It really is an incredible community. Eventually a man with the strongest hand shake I've ever experienced rolled up & offered his assistance. He effortlessly unscrewed the valve & asked if there was anything else i needed. He then told me that I'm obviously pretty useless without a team car following me, much to the amusement of those gathered to witness my rear tire repairs.
I banged in the tube & whacked it with a co2. Ping pang pock it sang away as it inflated & moulded into place, music to your ears! I threw the wheel in & off i went again. I'd spent quite a lot of time on the side of the road at this point so I knew I wouldn't be riding back to the front of the event, I was now simply participating. Peoples generosity was so selfless. Here all these people where offering up there spares to me where for all i know it could've been there last tube or Co2 canister. I guess that's another reflection on the gravel community, everyone knows someone will be there to help them should they be stranded on the side of the road, really wonderful. Suffice to say, when i finally did get rolling again, I'd slow to check on anyone looking a little helpless on the road side, obviously, what goes around comes around in this gravel community.
Just when you think you've had all the bad luck things got a little more challenging. My Di2 battery was dead so was stuck in a couple of low gears. I've no idea how this happened, I'd checked the battery the night before & it was all charged up. It was still 45km to the 1st checkpoint where there was mechanical support so i had to get there & see if I could get it charged. Fortunately i could ride most of the course, a little bit of bike pushing here & there but hey, this was just one big lesson in perseverance now. The next 45k where very social as i limped between groups as my gearing ratio allowed on the different terrain, sometimes forwards, more often backwards, it was rather comical for all involved at my expense obviously!
Eventually i made it to the first check point where Dan the mechanic was anxiously awaiting my arrival to go to work on the bike. I'd phoned ahead to let him know what needed fixing so being the professional he is, he was all prepared for my arrival. The Pinarello guys wanted to know if i wanted to continue which I obviously gave a definitive yes. It didn't matter how long Dan took to sort out the bike, battery & a few other things that popped up, i was finishing this event even if i had to push my bike. The thought of having run was a little daunting with still 200km of the course to cover! Dan worked his magic & got my bike back up & running like new, well, just like it was less than 24hrs prior when he gave it to me. I was back on the road with a fully functioning bike & it felt amazing. I decided to stretch the legs a little & push on at a decent clip to the next check point 100km down the road. Along the way it started raining pretty hard & while the gravel roads initially seemed to hold up very well, you knew it was inevitable before some proper mud sections would appear.
Sure enough as the rain increased the gravel turned to mud. When the rain starts you can't help but to feel a little grim about the situation, especially with 150km still to ride, no matter what surface you're on. When it turns to mud however, all of a sudden, it becomes quite comical & fun. The new Pinarello Gravel bike has been hailed for its tire clearance. Yes it means you can run wider tyres for a more comfortable ride but it also means your wheels don't get caked in mud & clog up the frame as easily. While most where walking, many laying in the mud having a wonderful time making Mud Angels, I was able to slip & slide past. It was perhaps the first time all day I actually looked like a Professional haha. To be clear my mud riding skills are zero, however, put me on the Pinarello Grevil & i felt like i could ride over anything! It really feels like a hero bike, makes you believe you can do things you don't have the skills for. It's truly a special piece of equipment. I realise that's a bit of a sponsorship plug, however, gotta give credit where credit is due!
I made it to the 2nd checkpoint to reload for the final 100km haul back to Emporia. I definitely realised at this point I'd gone a little overboard on the nutrition & size of the water bladder i was carrying. I'd say my pack weighed around 5kg, a few L's of water, food, spare tubes, extra co2's after running out earlier in the day, in fact was probably closer to 7-8kg! I'd noticed everyone else early in the race simply had a small camelback while I'd opted for a running vest with ample storage. Suffice to say I didn't need a fresh pack at the aid station as it was still half full of food & liquid so i simply switched out my cow/mud caked bottles for some clean fresh ones. While i'd spent around 1hr at the 1st rest stop, i most likely spent 1 minute at the 2nd, i was learning the ropes! No mechanicals to think of, no extra food required, i was back on the road in no time.
I caught up with a couple of the other Pro's as I exited the aid station, Ashton Lampie & Hunter Grove. I'd met Hunter when i was living in LA, lovely young lad who dreamed of being a pro cyclist. Since then he's made that dream a reality & is apart of the Legion of Los Angeles Team so was great to catchup with him. Ashton is a bit of an enigma in the sport of cycling, an enigma of the highest level mind you. Last year he became the first man to ride under 4 minutes for the 4000m Individual Pursuit on the track when he rode 3:59.9 or something mind boggling like that. Yep, that's a 60kmph average over 4km from a standing start! Think about that for a moment! It was really cool to meet Ashton as id obviously read a lot about him & of course watched him on TV. He was infamous for his professor type knowledge of going fast & you certainly felt like you where talking to a mad cycling scientist if that makes sense. Basically like you where talking to someone extremely intelligent who seems to know everything there is to know about going fast on a bike.
An interesting topic we discussed was the americas cup sailing regatta. He'd been asked to consider joining the US team as the grinding position has recently been changed to pedal powered. Seems simple doesn't it, just find the most powerful cyclists on the planet to fill the roll. However, being able to pedal whilst moving on a boat across the water at those speed requires a very unique stomach! Simply put, someone who can keep everything in there stomach under those conditions. Incidentally the UK boat is owned by Sir Jim Radcliffe whom also owns our cycling team. After Paris Roubaix our Team Performance Manager, Ben Williams, floated the idea past me of also looking at a pedal/grinding role in 2024. I'd actually been asked about it many years ago for a different campaign as historically Rowers have been recruited in the traditional Grinding role. After speaking with Ashton & discussing how unique the opportunity is, I must say, I'm very interested in pursuing the possibility of adding another sport to my CV. Why not. Suffice to say it was really cool getting to meet Ashton & have a chat with him. All of a sudden we hit another muddy section where once again the PInarello hero bike sailed across it & I didn't see him again for the remainder of the ride. You wait for no man in the mud pits hahaha.
After losing Ashton & Hunter in the mud, i spent the last hour or so of the ride all alone. It was a nice opportunity to reflect on the day that had began almost 11hrs earlier although thanks to the constant action it seemed to absolutely fly by. I honestly couldn't believe how fresh i felt both mentally & physically after an entire day in the flint hills of Kansas. I'd met a ridiculously large amount of wonderful generous people, all of which i owe a beer or 10 to. If any of you ever see me somewhere please remind me of this day & we'll sit down for a beverage & reminisce. It's difficult to remember every detail of a day you spend in such a way, it was action packed from start to finish. If you're in a group you're following the groups dynamic. To sum it all up. If you're alone your chasing something ahead or waiting for something behind. If you've got a mechanical you're busy on the side of the road figuring out how to fix it. If your having a hunger flat or suffering from dehydration your consuming everything possible to bring yourself back. At the aid stations you're catching up with your crew & recharging everything, in my case battery included, your fuel, fixing mechanicals ect ect. Basically all these emotions, every single participant in the field goes through the exact some thing. The only thing that differs between everyone is the time it takes. That's it. We are all out there doing it all together & that's beauty of mass participation events. Well done Gravel Community, I cannot wait for my next event with you all.
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