Last weekend thousands of gravel riders and cross-over roadies and mountain bikers descended on Emporia, Kansas for the Unbound 200. The Unbound 200 is a brutal 200-mile gravel race across Kansas back roads, its famous for eating bikes and their riders alike and spitting them out all broken. Back in 2018, Cory Wallace took on the race for the first time and, despite flatting early and then dealing with a slow leak for the rest of the race, clawed back hundreds of places to finish in the top 20, 2019 didn’t go much better. 2021 was going to be redemption, and for teammate Rebecca Fahringer, who was coming off a covid affected European cross season, well she had been coerced into attending by Team Manager Barry Wicks and Cory. It turns out 2021 was not going to be either of their years, it wasn’t so bad that they would have to lie about running in socks, but it wasn’t exactly the race that you’d write home about. Check out Becca and Cory’s race reports below and tell me if this race sounds attractive to you!
Unbound is an event I had planned to never do. 200 miles of gravel just isn’t something that aligns with a cyclocross racer’s physiological demand. But, after a lackluster 2020 season, I thought to myself “what do I have to lose?”.
After getting home from Belgium in late February, I got on the bike again in March, did a few gravel races in April, and was coerced into the biggest event of the year: Unbound 200 on June 5. Not the best physical prep timeline, but I felt ready and had my equipment dialed.
At 6 AM on June 5th I was on the start line in Emporia, KS on my Kona Libre DL with Shimano C40 carbon rims with Maxxis 60TPI Ramblers (CushCore inserted) at 28 PSI. My game plan was to hang in the lead group as long as possible – hopefully at least into the first checkpoint at mile 60-something (you would think I would know more specifically but PTSD has blocked some finer details already). It was going well from the start. I felt comfortable in the group and eventually was brave enough to start moving around – meaning work my way further up after being shuffled back time and time again. I knew there was a rocky double track section coming up, so I worked my way pretty far to the front, only to get shuffled back aggressively by others who had the same idea. Going into the double track section nearing mile 30, I was stuck behind slower riders and took a cue from a few others around me and was hoping from side to side to make passes. I think this is what did me in.
At first, I was in denial and tried to pedal through, but, even with cushcore there was no denying it. I had flatted. I pulled over and told myself to calm down, knowing this was a part of the race. Meanwhile, my top position was gone, and the entire field was blowing past. Initially, I hoped the slice would seal, but the sidewall of the tire suffered too much damage. I next went to insert a plug, but, the slice wasn’t open enough for me to get the plug in. I pumped up the tire again, in denial. Eventually, two gentlemen stopped to help, and we decided I needed a tube. Simple enough, I stripped the tire and tore out the cushcore. But then, I couldn’t get the tubeless valve out because it had a valve extender and would not allow the valve nut to pass over, and I could not for the life of me unscrew the valve extender. One of them had a small, flat wrench that was a bit too big to grab the extender, but we found a piece of rubber to wrap around as a shim and grip, and slowly, 1/16th of a turn at a time, we got the extender off, the valve out, and the tube in. All said and done the swap was about 35 minutes.
Here I was, 35 minutes back, alone, and everything inside of me said to charge ahead. I pedal hard, eventually catching on to another front-of-the-pack racer who also had flatted, and he pulls me along for quite a while. Eventually, I am 3 hours into the race and realize I have abandoned my nutrition plan, not having ingested enough calories for my 3-hour near-threshold effort, let alone enough to sustain me for another 9-12 hours. At some point, a rock had flown up and hit my front derailleur, twisting it to make it grind on the chain in most of my gears. At least the grinding was a source of companionship between getting dropped by my tow and until I made it into Aid 1, where the guys from Velo Plus out of Kansas City got a fresh rear wheel put on and reset my FD. I manage to get down a few calories, and I am back on the bike. I realize I am pretty far back at this point, and I am not really sure of my game plan. Unsure if I could ever catch the leaders, I pedaled too hard to be easy, but not hard enough to actually gain any ground. Combined with not eating enough, I was setting myself up for disaster later in the race.
I eventually run into an old friend at a hydration stop, and we rode together for quite a while. It was nice to have someone near me, even if I didn’t really feel like talking or being my usual jovial self. Out of the second water stop we pick up a few more riders to hang with. I found myself dropping back whenever I was on someone’s wheel, so I took to pulling the group along as often as I could. I could set my own pace and just focus on pedaling instead of maintaining a gap or closing one. Rolling into the second aid station at mile 154(ish), I found teammate Cory Wallace sitting there waiting for me. After a little bit of hanging out, snacking and chatting, we saddle up and hit the road together. The pace wasn’t very high, but it was al I could manage after the short break. Having over 50 miles left to go still, I was a little overwhelmed. I wonder how that last leg would have gone if it weren’t for Cory waiting on me. And as luck would have it, about 30 miles to the end, we pick up my friend Jen Luebke and the three of us were able to suffer together as we calculate our speed versus our remaining mileage (kilometrage for Cory) and deciding whether or not we would be able to make it in before sunset. There was a section of uphill and headwind that had me doubting if we were going to make it in before sunrise, but luckily, after a can of coke and a few other groups passing us, we gathered some gumption and rolled into town with an official time of just over 14 hours. I think I was closer to 13-13.5 moving time when it was all said and done.
Rolling down the finish, giving kids high-fives down the chute, and hearing the cheers really exemplify the aura of the event: comradery. It was cool the be helped by my fellow “competitors” and cheered on by them. The number of locals sitting out in their driveways to cheer on the group was incredible, especially considering how far back we were from the leaders. I will be back to Emporia, with looser valve extenders and a bit more confidence in myself to overcome a setback of any size. – Rebecca Fahringer
Unbound is a 330 km gravel race across the flint hills of Kansas State in America which has grown into one of, if not the most competitive gravel race in the World. It’s a race of attrition in which every rider faces adversity, whoever faces the least and does the best job dealing with it generally wins. It’s similar to 24-hour racing in which the last one standing wins. I’ve raced it twice before in 2018 and 2019, both years running into multiple flat tires. In 2018, after double flatting twice early on, the legs were on fire, going from around 800th place to 14th at the finish. In 2019 I made the selection and was in the lead group of 9 riders, over halfway into the race when two flat tires and a mechanical left me walking 4 miles to the closest farmhouse for a pair of pliers and bike pump to get rolling again. 3rd time is a charm, right? Here is the story from this year as my Kona teammate Rebecca Fahringer and I tackled this beast of a race in the Midwest.
4:30 am: Wake up Call. Rebecca was popping to get to the line and was like a swiss watch leaving the hotel @ 5:20 am to get there bright and early. I’m still stumbling around with a bowl of oatmeal at this point, eventually arriving at the line at 5:51 am. Rolling to the start the body and mind are in a good place, I’m thinking “finally this could be my year..”
6 am: Race start. This one is always sketchy with 900+ riders of all abilities fighting for position on loose gravel… gotta stay close to the front…
The next hour rolls by with gravel being thrown everywhere. Our sunglasses turn into safety glasses from the flying debris, a mouth guard would also be smart for these starts. Eventually, the pace picks up as we hit the first bad road of the day, a rutted-out tractor path with baby head rocks all over the ground. In 2019 I picked Geoff Kabush’s wheel to follow through here, it was great until he flatted. This year he wasn’t racing so it was a guessing game for who to follow, the first guy hit a rock and went down hard. I’ve learned to leave gaps on these sections to give a bit of visibility to avoid obstacles and crashes. Inexperienced riders would yell from behind “close the gap”, at one point one guy filled the hole only to hit a rut hard and go down, nearly taking me with him as I no longer had any space. Psstt, lots of flat tires, I notice 4-5 of the contenders pull over to fix flats, thank goodness it wasn’t me this year!
Finally, we reach some smooth roads on the other side of the mayhem, the lead pack is down to 50 or so riders but it swells back up to 200+ as the pace is relaxed. Cruising along near the front I notice white tire sealant on my leg and then see some on the rider ahead of me. Geeze everyone is flatting, soon realizing this time it’s me as the front tire is spraying sealant everywhere. My heart sinks knowing this might signal the beginning of the end and the start of a gong show. I pull a tire plug and co2 canister out while rolling along, preparing for a quick fix as I pull off to the side. It was my lucky day as the Squirt tire sealant with beadlock, seals the hole and I can jump right back into the action, chasing to the back of the 200+ rider lead pack. Back in the group, a sense of relief hits as I take a quick breather and some water. This was a mistake. Looking up I see the pack stretching out as someone is making a move. My heart sinks again, oh no, is this the selection already! In 2019 nothing major happened until after the 1st feed zone… New year, new race, and this edition was loaded with front-end talent from the World Pro Tour. Once these guys go, if you’re not on their wheel it’s basically game over.
I start the chase but it’s a bit late, the front of the race is gone in a dust cloud, and theirs around 200 riders between me and them. The next 20 minutes is like a hockey drill going around defensemen, weaving in and out of racers, over rocks, and through ruts. The first 150 racers are pretty easy to pass but the closer to the front the harder it gets. Crushing one descent I come around a corner to see five riders from the lead pack scattered across the landscape, two lying in the ditch, two half standing up looking stunned, and one Trek guy grabbing his shoulder as he walks out of the carnage. Having had major shoulder surgery four months earlier, I cringe my teeth looking at his likely dislocation. Eventually, I end up in the chase group, about 12th-20th in the race. A young rider from Movistar (Matteo Jorgenson) catches us from behind and takes over the chase efforts. He must have had an early mechanical as he is flying and we can barely hold his wheel. We have eight guys with us, he drops five of them, but then misses a corner, which costs another 30 seconds. At Unbound the course is unmarked so all the riders must follow their GPX tracks, when you’re going 60 km/hr down hills following a wheel, it’s easy to miss turns. Rolling into the first feed the only thought is to get in and out as quickly as possible. The leaders are a couple of minutes up but with a quick transition, this could be a chance to get a lot closer.. three new bottles, one USWE hydration bag, a handful of clif bars and back to the chase. 24hr racing has helped fast track these pit stops which is a big advantage. Thanks, Jason English for the schooling over the years!
Our chase group is different now, losing a few riders but gaining a few including MTB pro Jeremiah Bishop, in 2019 we rode in together after both having tough luck. We can see the leaders ahead, and figure theirs an outside chance of catching them as our Movistar friend continues to crush it. The risk is that we are going way over a sustainable 200-mile pace, it’s a gamble to stick with it but the other option is to drop back to a slower group and then be the one at the front doing the work. Leading into the race the legs were stronger than ever according to the Strava segments I test them on each year. After two poor races at Dirty Kanza (Unbound), I opted to put all the chips on the table and go big or go home this year, my goal coming in was to be in the lead group contending.
Suddenly I begin to lose contact with the chase group, I’m not breathing hard, heart rate seems fine, but my legs are heavy. Oh no, what is happening? Pretty soon I lose touch and start drifting backward. Sprinting briefly, hoping the legs will come around but the system is falling offline. Riders start to pass by and there is no response from the legs. For the next two hours groups cruise by, I try to hold on but keep getting popped, the system is overheating, the legs are spinning at recovery pace and all the warning lights are blinking on the dashboard. Now I start thinking, “ok it’s time for a flat tire, this will give me a breather.” No flat tires come, the last two years the legs are firing but flat tires galore, where are the flat tires now!?
The last time the body blew up like this was probably in juniors. Is it because I hadn’t been in an intense race environment for 18 months? Is it the heat? Is the body still rebounding from being at a high altitude for three weeks Guatemala? This is very possible. Training at 2400-3000 meters is great for the lungs, blood, and overall system, but the muscles can lose some power as you’re training with lower power numbers due to the lack of oxygen. At sea level there is about 20.9 % effective oxygen in the air, up at 2400-3000 meters it’s closer to 14-15%, which means your muscles have less O2 supply and your power output on the bike is around 10-15% less. This is can lead to a slight loss in muscle strength, which is quickly regained once at lower elevations, but sometimes theirs a small lag in the system once coming back from altitude camps. I knew this coming in, but the long-term benefits pay off and sometimes it pays off right away. Unbound was a wild card with the risk of flat tires and the fact it was my first race since 2019, so I figured why not add one more x-factor to the cards and then hope for the best… Whatever happened to my once strong legs, my day was done. At Unbound this can be a mind game as there were still 120 miles to go, much of it into a headwind! Everyone who comes to Unbound, except maybe the winners, will hit rock bottom at some point throughout the day, for me, it was a lot earlier than expected. With the race out of hand, I had to find some sort of new motivation. The first couple of girls come by me, one of them being paced by a male teammate.
Right then I found the motivation, my teammate Rebecca was a contender for sure, hoping she was having a good day, I could work for her to the finish line. I keep looking back waiting for her green Kona kit to show up, at one point I think I see it. My heart rate goes up as my body is still screwed but it will have to come back alive so I can help her, I’ll be going straight back into suffer mode. It wasn’t her, heart rate relax’s again. Rolling into the second feed station I sit down and wait as Marco and Mike from Velo + look after the Kona Libre, change bottles, and hand over some snacks. The stomach is growling after a pile of sweet stuff and is craving salt. Seeing Rebecca’s bag of salt and vinegar Lays potato chips is like gold. The next 45 minutes is spent eating chips, layering more sunscreen, and chatting with Carl Decker across the pit. He was working for his teammate Kaysee, but they had a rough day and were now out. He comes over to munch on some chips when I realize the bag is nearing half empty and we better save some for Becca or she will kill me.
Eventually, she comes in, having had a catastrophic flat tire early on, her race aspirations had also evaporated. There were offers to call the day and get a lift back to the finish but we like riding our bikes so took off for the last 80 km into mixed a cross/headwind. It was a great ride, we picked up her friend Jen Luebke along the way and then ran into my buddy Thomas Turner towards the finish line. Our joke was to get in before dark, which wasn’t too far off as we rolled in at 8:06 pm, 14 hours after starting, just over 30 minutes before sunset! What a day, racing doesn’t always go as planned, especially at Unbound, but nothing can change the fact that riding bikes is fun. Not sure if I will be back for round four next year, or if it’s time to try the 350 mile XL version, or something else. Still need a bit of time to digest this one as the disappointment is real, although any day you get to ride your bike is a good day!
Big shout out to Maxxis for the race entry and great tires for the race (Refuse 40C on the rear, 45C Rambler on the front). Shimano for the GRX drivetrain, USWE for the Outlander pro hydration pack, Squirt Cycling products for the dry lube and tire sealant (which saved the race), 7 Mesh for the Skyline jersey and RK1 bib shorts, Clif bar for all the nutrition and Velo + for the amazing support at the race and Marco and his family for hosting me in KC. And last but not least, Kona for all the support which allows me to keep chasing these races, and the great bike, the Kona Libre, which could win this race one day. Off on an easy few-day bike tour around Kansas City to find some BBQ and then Colorado for some training up in the mountains.
Over and out from the Midwest. – Cory Wallace