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Unbound Relived: 206 Miles of Grueling Flint Hills Gravel

Brennan Wertz |

If you’ve been following our journal or Instagram recently, then you might be aware of the trip I made to Kansas at the beginning of June to race the Unbound Gravel 200. For those who haven’t, the Unbound Gravel 200 is a 206 mile gravel race through the rolling Flint Hills of Kansas. The race starts and finishes in Emporia, Kansas and has become the premier gravel event on the US calendar. After a pandemic-induced hiatus in 2020, this year's race took place on June 5th, 2021.

So how did it go? For that and almost everything else Unbound, read on!




Table of Contents




Equipment

Leading up to Unbound, I wrote about the many very deliberate choices I made when configuring my race bike for the flint-fest ahead. The gravel roads that run through the Flint Hills region surrounding Emporia, Kansas are no joke! The terrain is extremely rough, the race is long, and the support on course is minimal at best. Being well prepared for the mechanicals that will inevitably come is absolutely paramount. 

A durable yet fast rolling set of tires is crucial, gear ratios can make or break a rider, and a trustworthy bike built for the abuse of 206 miles of bone jarring gravel is a necessity. Showing up on a bike unfit for the course would be a complete waste of time. Throughout my day out on the course, I witnessed even the most dialed of bike setups being brought to their knees by the terrain on course. 

Fortunately for me, I had an incredible setup; one that had been configured specifically for Unbound. Looking back now, I would also admit I had considerable luck on my side throughout the long day on the bike. While my ride wasn’t always smooth sailing, I was able to keep the pedals turning for the most part without any major mechanical hold-ups. Upon completing the race, I had the chance to chat with a number of my competitors and it was clear many folks had suffered numerous mechanical issues while out on the course.

brennans unbound mosaic gt1 post race

Even though I can look back now and consider myself lucky, it didn’t always feel that way during the race. After a fairly tense but civil 20 mile rollout from Emporia, we entered the first proper technical section of the race. Since the pace had been fairly relaxed for the first hour, the front of the race was still composed of a massive bunch of riders. We came into this section with considerable speed and momentum. All of a sudden, the road narrowed to two single strips of dirt through a sharp flint minefield. Stones flew through the air and the sounds they made when colliding with bikes and bodies were deafening. I was sitting somewhere in the middle of the front group of riders at this point, closely following the wheel in front of me. The pace was quick, the bunch was still closely packed, and choosing our own lines became almost impossible. In these technical sections I could only follow the wheel in front of me, hoping the rider I was following was a capable descender. 

Around 25 miles in, I had my first moment of bad luck. I had been closely following the rider in front of me as we navigated one of these early gnarly sections. I must have nicked my sidewall on a sharp rock because I suddenly felt liquid spraying onto my legs. I looked down thinking it might have been water spilling from my hydration pack or bottles, but to my despair I saw my legs were covered in white droplets of sealant. I saw my teammate Neil Shirley from Enve a few riders ahead of me and pulled up alongside him. I asked him if I was still spraying sealant, to which he answered, "no, I think you’re okay. Looks like it’s holding air."

enve vittoria dynaplug

This was a relief to hear, but as I continued to ride through more rocky sections I could feel the rear tire squirming and bottoming out. I knew I had lost enough pressure to require additional inflation if I didn’t want to risk pinch flatting or bottoming out the tire on a rock and damaging the rim. I decided I would stop to put more air in when I had a safe and convenient spot to pull off the course. A minute or two later, I found a section of the course that was lined with grass where I could safely pull off. I quickly jumped off the bike feeling like a cyclocross racer dismounting before an unrideable obstacle. I had my DynaPlug and a co2 all ready to go in my jersey pocket.

Getting Knocked Down

Unfortunately, the early puncture wasn’t the only setback I faced in the first portion of the race. I had chased back towards the front of the race after flatting and found myself in a pretty strong and motivated chase group. We rode hard through the windy rollers on our way towards Alma, the town hosting the first checkpoint of the race. After a quick stop to refuel at the checkpoint, I was back on the chase. I took to the front of the group as we came into another technical descent. I was feeling quite confident in this section and was able to open up a small gap on the descent. After spending the morning riding technical rocky sections while glued to other riders’ wheels, being able to choose my own line gave me additional confidence.

As we exited the technical section we had been on, the road transitioned back into a more classic gravel road. I looked down at my Garmin, seeing what looked like a fork in the road approaching and a very sharp hairpin turn. Since I still had a few bike lengths of a gap back to the other members of the group I was in, I slowed my pace and called out that there was a left hairpin. Just as I finished hollering "sharp left!", I unclipped my left foot and got on the brakes to slow my momentum as I approached the entrance to the corner. Thinking I was likely taking the turn too slowly and would be passed by the rest of the group as we exited, I felt totally confident in my line choice and approach speed. Unfortunately as I got part way through the corner, the ground sloped away from the apex and I suddenly felt my front wheel lose traction. Next thing I knew, I was sprawled on the ground, sliding towards the side of the road as the rest of the group safely navigated the corner and continued riding.

I got up and quickly dusted myself off, knowing I would have to assess the damage from the bike. I grabbed one of my bottles that had ejected and resumed pedaling. I knew I still had around 130 miles left, so I was pretty worried I was injured and would struggle to finish. I dangled about 10 seconds off the back of the chase group for a few miles as I tried to comprehend where and how severely I might have been injured. I had blood running down my arm from my elbow and was experiencing a burning, stinging sensation along my entire forearm from the fresh road rash. I could also tell I had done damage to my palm. My left glove was ripped and I could feel it slowly saturating with blood. I couldn’t see what was hiding under the glove material, but I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. As I looked down at my legs, I could see specks of blood starting to appear under the dust layer on my left hip and knee. 

The corner I had crashed on was really dry, dusty, and loose and had left me covered in a thick layer of dusty dirt that was clinging to the blood. Needless to say, I was a mess. 

Once the initial shock of the spill had worn off and I had assessed the damage, I decided I had to keep riding. I had come so far to get to Unbound and had done so much training in the months leading up to the event, that I knew there was no way I would abandon the race after something as seemingly minor as what I had just experienced. I felt stiff, sore, and scraped, but was still able to keep my cranks turning, moving me closer to the finish in Emporia with each rotation. This decision to continue riding was a pivotal moment in my race, because it marked the transition from racing to surviving, a transition I imagine most riders go through at some point in the race.

Staying Fueled and Hydrated

Throughout the day of the event, I had quite a bit of difficulty eating and taking in the calories I knew I would need to make it to the finish line. The morning of the race I was nervously anticipating the big day and struggled to eat a solid breakfast since I was up so early. The race started at 6 am and my alarm was ringing promptly at 4:00 am to give myself time to get a decent breakfast in. I had some muesli and fruit, but didn’t have the appetite for the amount I would have liked to eat. It was exciting to be once again experiencing pre race butterflies, but not having much of an appetite worried me. As I was rolling over to the start line, I was able to get a couple extra bars and gels down, adding to the calorie reserves I would soon be relying on quite heavily. 

Over the course of the race, I had no trouble drinking fluids (in fact I could have probably drunk quite a bit more), but I did continue to struggle to consume solid food. This was due to a number of reasons, but I think the main two were the heat and the technical nature of the course. It was so hot and my mouth was so dry that getting any proper solid food down was quite a challenge. I managed to eat one and a half small burritos I had brought, but that was extremely difficult and also very messy as I bounced along the rough roads. The roads were technical enough in many spots where trying to eat was also not really possible. I was still getting a few hundred calories down per hour, but nowhere near the amount I had been shooting for.

hydration

In the final 30 miles of the course, I was actually finally able to really start putting down some serious calories and it was amazing to see how my body responded. I also had received additional water from some friendly locals on the side of the road, which enabled me to eat more without my mouth feeling as dry and uncomfortable.

Weather Conditions on Course

As I mentioned earlier, it was HOT! And very windy too! It was already quite warm when I was riding over to the start at 5:30, and it only got warmer from there. On a number of the exposed rollers that were in the sun but sheltered from the wind, it must have been over 100 degrees. The majority of the day was around 80 to 100 degrees and as the afternoon went on, the wind really began to pick up. The second hundred miles of the race featured an intense wind that was predominantly a headwind on the return to Emporia.

Heat

There was a period in the race around 6-7 hours in where I was in the second chase group on the road and was really beginning to suffer. I was low on water and was having to do repeated surges of 450-550 watts over the steep and loose rollers to stay with the others in the group. I had been riding with these guys for a few hours, but it was getting to a point where I knew if I kept trying to maintain the pace, I would pay the price later on. The sun was really baking down on us and I could feel the heat sapping valuable energy from my tired body. After maybe thirty minutes of yoyo-ing off the back of the group on the rollers, I finally decided it was time to let the group ride away from me. This was one of the lowest points during the race because I knew once I dropped from that group I would be fighting against the strong headwind by myself. 

Ultimately, I was dropped from that group and had to spend around 2 hours riding solo in the wind. This is when I learned to respect the flint hills and their famed hot afternoon winds.

Mental Strain

Sure, the Unbound Gravel 200 is an extremely physical race. But it is also a lot more than that. One of the reasons that makes this race so challenging is all the mental fatigue one must overcome to complete the race. During my race, there were so many points where all I wanted to do was pull the plug and collapse on the side of the course. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the course is so remote that even if one wanted to abandon the race, it would be quite hard to do so. 

As I imagine it did for just about everyone, the thought of prematurely ending my ride through the Flint Hills crossed my mind a number of times. Every time these thoughts resurfaced, all I had to do was look around at the absolute emptiness surrounding me and I would quickly realize I had absolutely no idea where I was and how I would manage to get back to Emporia if I deviated from the course.

Dumb Luck

One element of this race that was challenging for me to come to terms with was how luck plays into the experience. Looking back now, I feel I was very lucky in many situations. It wasn’t all smooth sailing and I did have my share of mishaps, but there were also a few key lucky moments that drastically changed how my race unfolded. One of these moments occurred when I was being dropped from the main chase group I spent a large portion of the day riding with. We were on a series of steep rollers before what looked like a long, fairly straight, and not too hilly portion of the course that was pointing directly into the headwind. Thanks to my Garmin 1030 Plus computer, I knew this flatter headwind section was approaching. Unfortunately I was dropped on one of the last steep climbs before the road flattened out. The group got away from me and I watched them open up a small gap over the top of the climb. As I crested the climb, I felt the strong headwind whistling over my bike and through the vents on my helmet. I saw the five guys in front of me resume their rotation and begin powering into the wind. I knew I would be unable to catch them, since it was clear they were working well together to battle the strong winds. Just as I came to terms with the fact I had been dropped from the group for good and would be riding solo into the wind for the foreseeable future, one of the stronger guys in the group flatted. When he dropped from the group to fix the flat, their pace slowed. I rode past him as he was plugging his tire, fully aware he would be back on his bike in no time, certainly motivated to chase back to the group he had just been riding in.

After he plugged and reinflated his tire, he was quickly back on the bike in pursuit of the chase group. I saw him coming up from behind me and accelerated to jump on his wheel. He then got into his aero bars and pulled hard to close the ten second gap back to the chase group. This ‘free ride’ back to the group was one of these moments I had in the race where luck was really on my side. This straight headwind section went on for a number of miles, thus further extending the time I was able to spend sitting in the group’s draft. This moment of pure luck could have very likely shaped the outcome of the race for me. Moment’s like this are what make Unbound so unpredictable, interesting, exciting, and special. I had another moment like this later in the race that I will describe in a subsequent section. 

Organized Support Team

Having an organized group of people waiting for me at each checkpoint enabled me to put all my energy and focus into pedaling towards the finish line. When I came into each of the two checkpoints on the course, everything went smoothly and efficiently. Our checkpoint stops were run like they were a Nascar pitstop. As soon as I rolled into the Enve tent, I jumped off the bike and removed my empty hydration pack. One of the people in the tent would then have one of my spare, fully loaded packs ready to go. They would also remove the two empty bottles from the bike and replace them with two full ones. I had a bag of ride food that I would also use to replenish my calorie reserves in my jersey pockets.  I’ll get into a bit greater detail on my experience at the second checkpoint in a few paragraphs.

Always Looking Forward, Never Back

While on the course, I was occasionally able to get a time check update from a fan along the side of the road. They would usually have some vague information about how far behind the leaders we were. This was helpful, but that was the extent of the time check or placing information we were receiving while on course. I had no idea how the race was unfolding behind me, but at least I had a rough idea of my position, who was in front of me, and what the time gap was. Because of how the race unfolded and the information we were being given, the race was all about looking forward and keeping moving towards the finish line. There were points when I was riding solo in the wind when I would look behind me from the tops of the rollers to see if there was a group approaching that could potentially offer some relief from the brutal winds. Unfortunately, all I ever saw when I looked back was the rolling Flint Hills, sans riders.

 unbound mental

The People Along the Way

After a number of hours riding solo into the hot, dry headwind, I came into the second and final checkpoint. I came in with quite a bit of speed and had to quickly get on the brakes to avoid crashing into the tent. As I was rapidly coming to a halt, I felt my left quad completely lock up and cramp. The pain was excruciating and I suddenly found my left leg immobilized as I pulled into the checkpoint. Thankfully my awesome support team from Enve were there to catch me and hold me upright as I waited for my leg to unlock. I had to stand still for about a minute before I felt the cramp dissipate enough where I could swing my other leg over the bike to dismount. The support team quickly got to work dripping some extra lube on the chain and swapping out the bottles. I swapped out my hydration pack for my third and final fresh pack and stuffed a few additional gels in my pockets.

As all this was occurring one of the support team members asked if I wanted a pickle. After cramping so badly and knowing I hadn’t been eating much other than sugary sport nutrition, something salty sounded ideal. I took a pickle from the large pickle jar and wolfed it down. It tasted so good and was exactly what I needed. I reached back into the jar and removed an additional three pickles. They then asked if I wanted some pickle juice to which I eagerly obliged. Thinking they would have bottles of the juice somewhere I looked around for a moment. As they all stared at me holding the jar, I realized there weren’t bottles of pickle juice and I would be drinking from the massive glass jar. I tilted my head back and tipped the salty juice into my mouth through my sun scorched chapped lips. As I chugged the pickle juice, the support team around me was cheering. This moment of excitement and encouragement was just what I needed as I knew I still had my work cut out for me with over 50 miles still remaining in the race.

pickles

While I was dismounting from my bike, I noticed two guys I had been in a chase group with earlier come into the checkpoint. I was relieved to have some company finally and knew I had to leave the town with them, otherwise I would be back grinding into the headwind by myself. As I left the checkpoint, I got a bit turned around and had to ride through someone’s backyard to make my way back to the course. This slight deviation from the course and my longer than planned stop in the checkpoint had left me a handful of seconds behind the two guys I had seen come into the checkpoint. When I got onto the main road heading back out into the Flint Hills from the checkpoint town, I saw the two guys riding up a climb in the distance. My heart sank as I knew it would be close to impossible to catch these two guys in the strong headwind.

However just as we re-entered the gravel, one of the guys flatted and stopped on the side of the road. Now I could see it was just one solo rider ahead of me in the distance. I knew I had to catch him and was even calling out to him trying to catch his attention and have him ease up so we could work together to make it to the finish line.

When I finally caught him, I recognized who he was. His name was Jasper and he came to Unbound from Holland. I have a number of friends who are Dutch cyclists and it turned out we have some mutual friends. We exchanged some friendly words and chuckled about these crazy small world connections. I told him I was pretty smoked and had just ridden at least two hours by myself into the headwind. We discussed how we just wanted to make it back to the finish line. I told him I wasn’t too concerned about my placing, since we were in contention for 11th and 12th place, the difference seemingly not important. 

We traded pulls into the wind and he seemed to be riding better up the rollers than I was. I tried to give him what was left of my spent legs as we made our way back towards emporia. After about an hour of this, we came upon one of Jasper’s Dutch buddies Ivar. Ivar was a very strong looking rider who I knew was the reigning European Beach Race Champion. He told us how he had been in the first chase group all day but then suffered stomach cramps and had vomited multiple times. He looked spent but seemed energized by the presence of Jasper and another rider to provide some shelter from the relentless winds. 

After exchanging a few friendly words, we continued riding towards Emporia in the wind. For the next 45 minutes, Jasper and I continued to rotate on the front, while Ivar rested on the back. After this went on for a while, I tried to coax Ivar into helping share the load and taking some pulls in the wind. He was unwilling to do this, which was starting to make me a bit nervous. Especially now that we were riding for the top ten. While I had initially told Jasper I wasn’t concerned with the difference between 11th and 12th, now that the top ten was on the line and there were two of them and one of me, the dynamic had changed considerably. 

After trying to get Ivar to come through and share the work for a while, I told him I would work when he started working. Jasper rode the front for a decent stretch, allowing me to take on some food and water. As we approached the finish there were a number of friendly locals on the side of the course with coolers full of water. After passing a few of these people, I told Jasper and Ivar that we should stop, as I was getting low on water. A couple minutes later we saw a small group of people standing around two large coolers. We pulled over to them and they handed up water. We thanked them for their gracious support and set off into the final 15 miles. After taking on the additional two cold water bottles, I knew I now had what I needed to make it to the finish line. Feeling refreshed and energized from the cold water and gels I had recently consumed, I went to the front and resumed rotating with Jasper. Ivar came through to take a few short pulls, but was still mostly sitting on the back. 

As we came into the final 10 miles, the course had many 90 degree corners where the wind would change from crosswind to headwind or vice versa. Coming through one of these corners I was on the front and took a smooth line that allowed me to keep pedaling all the way through the loose gravel corner. My legs were pretty shot, so I wasn’t accelerating or attacking, just keeping steady pressure on the pedals. I could tell Jasper and Ivar had been unable to take the same line through the corner and were going to have to surge a bit to catch back up. While this hadn’t been my intention, I was eager to see how they would respond. I didn’t look back and just kept pedaling. Jasper quickly pulled up to me and said Ivar had been dropped. I then told Jasper we should ride hard to the finish. I asked him if he wanted to sprint since we had initially formed this ‘gentlemen’s agreement’. He didn’t give me a straight answer, but I knew there was a steep paved climb coming into the finish. I knew if we were going to race to the line, that would be Jasper’s chance to attack me. If he attacked me there, then I knew it was on and we would race to the line. Sure enough, as we arrived at the base of the climb, he punched it and tried to drop me. I had to give it everything I had to not get dropped, but I managed to cling to his wheel all the way to the top. As we crested the climb, I knew it would come to a sprint. Being able to hold Jasper’s wheel up the final climb gave me confidence that I could win in the sprint. We came onto the main street in Emporia and into the finishing corral. Jasper was on the front and began his sprint a bit early. I sat on his wheel and was able to come around him a few seconds before crossing the line. 

unbound finish

As we were nearing the end of the race and in the final 20-30 miles, we began seeing lots of other riders who were wrapping up their rides on the 100 mile course. It was so fun seeing all these smiling, friendly faces who were constantly offering words of encouragement as we rolled by. These folks were a good reminder of what these races are all about.

Upon reaching the finish line, there were so many friendly fans cheering us on and celebrating the efforts of all the finishers. The community is strong there in Emporia and I felt honored to be a part of such an incredible event.

The Result

In the end, I came across the line for tenth place. I was very pleased with the result, especially given the caliber of riders in such a deep field. I was happy to be in the top ten, but I was even more happy to have just finished the race. The Unbound Gravel 200 is a serious undertaking and anyone who makes it across that finish line in Emporia should be incredibly proud of their accomplishment. There were a number of moments throughout the day when I thought I wouldn't make it to the finish line, thus making completing the race feel that much more fulfilling.

the result

After crossing the line in downtown Emporia on Commercial Street, I downed a few cold water bottles and sat on the ground trying to avoid cramping. I had some nice chats with a number of my other competitors and the friendly fans who were eagerly celebrating the hundreds of riders coming through the finish. Once I had rehydrated, I went over to the medical tent to have my wounds looked at and cleaned out. Since they were mostly located in areas I hadn’t been able to see very well while riding, this was the first chance I had to properly assess the damage. My left knee was scraped and swollen and had become quite stiff and immobile after sitting for a few minutes at the finish line. The cuts in my elbow were deeper than I had anticipated and full of a nasty mix of dried blood, Flint Hills dirt, and muddy river water from the many river crossings we had gone through. I was pretty worried about getting an infection since the wounds had been open for at least seven hours and we went through some pretty funky looking streams. I removed the torn glove from my left hand and saw the deep gash in my palm for the first time. I can’t imagine what would have happened had I not been wearing gloves… The final injured area was my left hip. I could see my kit was a bit torn and there was dry blood that had soaked through the material. I also noticed my hip was quite swollen and enlarged looking. Everything was stiff, battered, and tired, but I was relieved to see nothing seemed too damaged. Thank you very much to the kind folks at the medical tent who so graciously cleaned my wounds and got them bandaged up post race. After witnessing the day’s carnage out on course, I am sure they must have unfortunately been busy all day.

medic

Would I do it Again?

Yes, absolutely! The course was challenging, the winds testing, and the racing intense, but I loved it! There were a number of low points scattered throughout the 206 miles of Flint Hills gravel, but I know the memories of those low points will fade, while the lessons learned, friends made, and feelings of accomplishment will remain strong for years to come.

unbound conclusion

I hope you have enjoyed following along on this incredible journey as I prepared for Unbound, configured the ultimate race bike, and raced the event itself. I had an unforgettable experience in Kansas and am immensely thankful for all the support I have received, both from our many sponsors and all of you who have been following the Unbound campaign and offering many kind words of encouragement.