'Have fun or change it': Alison Tetrick shares her best gravel race advice

Alison Tetrick Unbound
(Image credit: Specialized / Steve Driscoll)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Bad days happen. But, I mean, it is still riding a bike, so how bad can it actually be? If the worst thing that happens on your bike ride is “having a bad day”, is it really all that bad? Bad days on a bike are inevitable and they can and will happen to anyone. Especially me. But don’t you love those good days?

Now that the dust has settled, literally, it is time to recap Unbound 200. I still have some dust in my ears and lungs though. Unbound - you probably have heard of it - has become the marquee gravel event of the universe. After winning it in 2017 and consistently showing up on the podium as gravel royalty, I have watched this race grow in popularity as it attracts a broad range of athletes from top-level WorldTour professionals to cycling enthusiasts searching for a bucket list endurance adventure. Gravel is all the rage these days. Emporia, Kansas welcomes thousands of cyclists into the community to host one of the best and hardest days you will ever have on a bicycle. Fun fact, Emporia also hosts the Disc Golf World Championships. They know how to pick the good sports.

Unbound Gravel is 206 grueling miles in varying weather conditions in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The Flint Hills are a cruel beast with their deceivingly sharp rocks that feed on rubber sidewalls for lunch. They pulverize your legs with undulating hot and humid hills that slice and dice you like a paper shredding meat tenderizer. As the heat turns up in the afternoon, and the humidity rises, the hills begin to glisten and ribbon, like waves of water. If only they were pools of clear, cool, water. But no. That is just a mirage. The heat must be really getting to you. 

As I lined up to begin my fourth Unbound attendance, I was excited for a long day on the bike (my first real event since that whole pandemic shutdown thing happened), and I felt that all too familiar pit of impending doom in my stomach. What version of myself would I meet out there? You can prepare all you are able to for an event like this, but there is a good portion of the luck of the draw, rolling the dice, see what the day brings, insert other catchphrases for admitting you don’t have control of everything on the day, and who knows what the flying monkeys will do. True fact. I have seen flying monkeys and stormtroopers in those Flint Hills. Don’t tell me I am wrong.

The race was on and who doesn’t love the taste of gravel for breakfast. I was having a good ride and survived a few crashes in the chaotic start. Everyone starts a gravel race like they are world champions. I mean, we have a long day to sort that out, don’t we? Why is everyone in such a hurry? Like a skateboard going down a rail, I skimmed off of a guy that landed perpendicular in the road through some double track mud. His derailleur flew into the air like a bat out of hell, and I impressed myself staying upright. Another time, someone’s handlebars ended up under mine and we had a really tight and awkward sweaty bike embrace falling over. I missed social distancing at this moment as we untangled, and I watched the group disappear. Six feet apart, please! As the road continued on forever, and the bike party was raging, I really began to suffer from the heat. I went from racing to riding to surviving to finishing. Each chapter of the day was being etched in the crunch of the gravel, but the last few chapters seemed to take an eternity. 

As I entered the ride phase of my day, I began to notice how green the hills were. I literally smelled wild roses as I rode past. I thought, well, this is lovely, isn’t it? I am noticing the flowers and the emerald-green magic-carpet hills for the first time. I talked to the cows and the horses. I re-centered. I laughed. I made friends, and not just the critter friends. I wanted to race again. So I did. That didn’t last long. 

Alison Tetrick Unbound

(Image credit: Alison Tetrick)

The heat. The humidity. No more racing, and no more riding. My world was spinning. It became survival mode as the oppressive temperature took my head into a vice grip and my body into shocks of chills in what I have termed “Russian Gut-lette”. That's where you eat something and wonder if it will stay down or involuntarily evacuate the dance floor. This isn’t the type of party I was craving, but it was a rave I had to ride. I began just staring at the two feet of road in front of me. I began counting to 10. Over and over. Crunch. Crunch. I had friends pass and cheer me on to join their train, and I barely knew my name. Who am I anyway? I am not always graceful on a bike, and this was taking the struggle bus to a whole new level. I was wondering if Uber was a thing in the middle of nowhere but knew I could finish, which meant I could not quit. I would not quit. I would honor this event by crawling to the finish line to cheers the day with my fellow queens and kings. And then I woke up the next morning with a sprained eyebrow. Well, we could call it a black eye, but that is another story. It was a day alright, from what I can recall. 

Have you ever had a day like this? From racing to riding to survival struggle bus city to eek your way to the finish line. Surely it can’t be just me. As I said, good days and bad days happen to all of us, so what can we learn from them?

Lessons to be learned from a professional cyclist with far more failures than successes.

  • No matter how good you feel and no matter how bad you feel, it won’t last. Really, even when you are riding like a world champion, that state of bliss is on a timer. The good news is even when you are in complete survival mode, that also won’t last. The best is yet to come.
  • Stay positive. We have plenty of self-doubt and demons to deal with, but how can you turn your negative self-talk into something more positive? You’ve got this. You are strong. You aren’t at work; you are just riding a bike. 
  • Make forward progress and take care of yourself. Are you moving forward? Pedaling the bike? Walking the bike? Fixing a flat? Are you taking care of yourself? Eating and drinking? Being nice to yourself? This advice works on and off the bike. 
  • Glorify your courage to get to the start line. Too many people fixate on results and the finish line. Give yourself credit for getting to the start and accepting a challenge for YOU.
  • Have fun or change it. I use this motto a lot. It is just pure and simple bike riding. Don’t take yourself (or your results) too seriously. Make it fun. Make friends. And if you aren’t having fun – change it. 
  • You signed up for this. No one is forcing me to sign up for an event and participate. I actually paid the registration dollars, trained, and prepared for this. And then I showed up. Boom. When I am suffering, I remind myself this was my genius idea, and I am going to do the best I can. I can make better decisions later.
  • Your results do not dictate your performance. There is a difference in performance and results. Target your best performance and don’t waste time comparing yourself to others. Have the best day on the bike that you possibly can.

As I have been letting my body heal and recover from a pretty physically traumatic day, I am already looking forward to the next summer adventure – as soon as my stomach and head return to this planet. The next event will be the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder, a point-to-point gravel stage race that circumnavigates the Cascades. I won’t be “racing” this event, but will enjoy the bike vacation, spectacular views, and find a seat on the party bus to rock out. The best thing about gravel is the community and the ability to choose your own story, even if that crunch of gravel wants to write it for you. We all have good and bad days in our future, and we will make the most of every privileged moment we have to ride bikes together. Can’t wait to share more of these stories with you!