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Unbound 2022

Saskia Hoppe | Published on 8/13/2022

Unbound 2022 start
The gravel nerds will know what Unbound is, but for everyone else, I’ll have explain it for me. “UNBOUND Gravel, known as the “World’s Premier Gravel Grinder” is the top gravel endurance cycling race in the world and is owned and produced by Life Time Fitness. The race is held annually, the first weekend after Memorial Day. The signature event is 200 miles of hilly and rocky roads through the Flint Hills, and if you think Kansas is flat and barren you are sorely mistaken. This route is beautiful, remote, and incredibly difficult.”

Although the 200 mile is the signature event, they also have 25, 50, 100, and even a 350 mile option! As a good friend eloquently says, “I’m crazy, not stupid” and thus I was talked into the 100 mile option. Those that know me, or have read my other article (I said no to cyclocross) will know that I’m an easy target. The instigator is also a known entity (Kathryn Taylor, you may remember the name if you read about Karen Richardson’s Steamboat adventure). So there I was, about a year ago, after the 2021 Unbound race, at a gravel ride with friends (and instigator Kathryn) talking about this Unbound thing. Being a gravel newb I didn’t really know what it was but did my best to pretend and shake/nod my head at all the right parts, oh and ah appropriately and so forth. And then all of a sudden, I appeared to have committed to doing this event in 2022. Thankfully there were others there that were also sucked in, so I knew I’d have friends on my training journey!

Unbound start Saskia + Hannah
A little cycling background for those that don’t know me. At this point, I had my gravel bike for about a year, been racing predominantly on the road for about 2 years and track for the last 4 years (with COVID closing the track for a year) but was only just starting to dip my toe into this gravel racing thing. Long distances were definitely something that terrified me. Bonking is awful and how does one even stay focused for an 8 hour race?! I had done a single 100 mile ride (on the road) a few years prior, but metric centuries (100km) was where I generally tapped out so 100 miles on GRAVEL was daunting.

On the one hand I hoped Kathryn would simply forget (fat chance, she just kept telling me to do the 200 miles instead. Ha. Funny lady.) but on the other hand thought this was a pretty badass thing to try and do. And did I mention I’m a sucker?

How does one even start to train for an event like this? Well, I got started with the Women’s Unbound camp in September - Sorellas Libby Brown and Karen Richardson also decided this was a great way to get guaranteed entry and kickstart the training/planning for the event. It was great to meet other women taking on this challenge, some who were doing their first attempt and others who were coming back for me! The community, skills and experience from that camp helped get me more excited and less terrified. Next up: actual training!

At this point I’d been doing a heap of racing and ready for a break so I decided to take a month or so off from any kind of structured training and just enjoy riding bikes (and getting suckered in cyclocross…). Early November, however, the training started! I’ve been using TrainerRoad for a while now and it’s worked well for me. I plugged in the Unbound race date, any planned vacations we had and tada! Training plan made. I went with the ‘low volume plan’ which has 3 training sessions a week, between 60 to 90 minutes each. This was important, I wanted to get stronger, but I also didn’t want to burn out and miss just riding bikes with friends.

I supplemented my training with some weightlifting - having weights at home made it really easy to incorporate a 20-30 minute session 2-3 times a week. This, along with a couple of races (including Southern Cross that really kicked my ass!) and the other Unbound training camp made me feel as prepared as I was going to be.

We got to Emporia a few days before the race and the vibe was electrifying. The expo had heaps of vendors, big and small, gravel celebrities were all over the place and all the shakeout rides were tons of fun. We caught up with many of the ladies we met at Unbound camp and coordinated at least starting together (those that were doing the 100 miles anyway).

Now for race day! It was an early start, but with a 7am roll time, it wasn’t completely ridiculous (200 miler started at 6am and as much as I wanted to wave Karen off, I also wanted that little bit of extra sleep for my ride). We were able to find all the ladies (and gentlemen Mike!) we’d spoken to start the race with so we had a nice group as we waited for the go, including Sorellas Hannah Stacey and Libby Brown. We all rolled out together and it was a nice comfortable pace for the first couple of miles. After the neutral start the pace started to ramp up and I could only focus on the wheels in front of me. I was barely able to stick with Amy (one of the super strong ladies from camp) as she blasted along the course. At some point I glanced back and saw that we’d lost everyone we’d started with. I offered to take a pull but I would just slow her down so she was happy to give me a draft as long as I helped her on the descents.

We cruised into the first rest stop with a lot more water than anticipated as contrary to most years, it was a little chilly! We topped up bottles, slammed some calories and kept moving. Some longer climbs, a few steep kickers, a handful of fun descents and a couple of water crossings later and we made it to the second rest stop where the drop bags were. I paid for crew so someone grabbed my bike, someone else grabbed my bag for me and I was able to swap out bottles, hydration pack and lube my chain in a matter of minutes. Absolutely worth it! I got back on the bike and found Amy who needed a few extra minutes. I took the time to slam some more calories and clean my face before making our way out.

Unbound 2022 finish sprint
A couple of miles later we got to the ‘peanut butter’ mud section that you may have heard about. However, this was before the rain. It was slick and sticky, but with low speed and gentle pedaling it was rideable (unlike later in the day!). I was grateful for a decent amount of tire clearance, as even with that the tires picked up mud, rocks and other debris making the sound it made as the wheels spun painful (paintwork was lost). This was the section where I lost Amy, she was having some issues and wasn’t comfortable riding so was walking. I got to the end of the section, cleaned up my tires and cleats and cracked on. I fully expected Amy to catch up not realizing how severe her mechanical was (lost the ability to shift the front chain ring) but after a few miles came to the realization that I’d lost my buddy so I’d have to find a new one! It was round about this point when the heavens had opened and it felt like there was hail as well. It wasn’t warm to begin with but this definitely cooled everything down even more. I had to keep moving and was able to find another small group riding at a similar pace that I was able to ride with. It was a double edged sword, we’re more than 75 miles in, legs are tired so you really want to be as economical with power as possible and draft, but drafting also meant having mud flung in your face. It was actually a little better when it was still raining as it washed the mud off your face a bit, but once the rain stopped it was just eating mud. And everything else was covered in mud so you couldn’t wipe anything off either. But we were close. Oh so close. At some point the girl in our group of 3 decided it was time and she went off at some insane pace. I waved her off as I kept my head down and on the other guy’s wheel in the group. We traded a few pulls here and there, but at some point I couldn’t keep up anymore and I just had to slow down and finish off at my own pace.

Unbound 2022 muddy finish
The last couple of miles I could see people ahead of me, a few caught up with me, and there was some leapfrogging. I made some friends, quickly dropped some and was quickly dropped by others. When I heard the train I knew I was close - I didn’t want to get caught waiting for the train (if I stopped I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get going again!) so I picked up the pace to make sure I didn’t get stuck. I could almost smell the finish line! The course designers are definitely cruel as they put a kicker of a (road) climb right at the end, so if your legs weren’t already trashed.. There wasn’t much left after that. BUT. On the plus side, after that it was less than a mile to the finish. I saw the finish shoot. I saw someone up ahead. And sprint brain took over. Yup. I sprinted to the line of a 100 (and 4) mile race just because I saw someone ahead of me.

So there you have it. I finished Unbound. It was hard, wet, muddy and amazing. I plan to return next year!