This weekend the eyes of the gravel world turn to Emporia, Kansas in the USA as the world's best gravel bike event kicks off in the Tallgrass Prairie and Flint Hills surrounding Emporia. From its humble beginnings of just 34 riders in 2006, Unbound Gravel, now in its 17th year, has attracted 4,000 registered riders across its five distances for the 2023 edition. With elite WorldTour riders to keen amateurs lining up for the world's premier mass-start event in the gravel racing calendar.
The scramble for much sought-after lottery places went live back in January, with a record amount of riders attempting to grab a spot. At the same time organizers Life Time Events and the Unbound team announced some important Unbound rule changes for 2023, including elite men's and women's fields starting separately from the amateurs, and a ban on the use of aero bars.
Unbound Gravel has five race distances to choose from, with the 350-mile Unbound XL rolling out of Emporia at 3pm on Friday, and the 200, 100, 50, and 25-mile races starting at various times on Saturday, we had a look at what each distance offers the lucky/mad few who grabbed a coveted spot.
Unbound’s 200-mile race is the premium distance at Unbound and “the Super Bowl of Gravel”, is a renowned test of endurance, self-sufficiency and equipment. With 2,700 meters of elevation and 11+ hours of self-supported racing, riders not only need to contend with the undulating terrain, exposed sun-baked roads, or if it's wet, tire-sucking mud, but with aid allowed only at the official checkpoints, fueling strategy is crucial to success in Unbound 200.
The Unbound 200 is also the second race in the LifeTime Grand Prix Series, where handpicked WorldTour roadies, track world champions and MTB Olympians compete for a $250,000 prize purse across seven gravel and mountain bike races. So to say the field is stacked with top pro riders is an understatement, and the defending male and female champions, Ivar Slik and Sofia Gomez Villafañe are back hoping to make it two for two. In the men's 200, 2022 second-place finisher and 2022 Life Time Grand Prix series winner Keegan Swenson starts along with adventure endurance rider Lachlan Morton, and former World Tour road pros like Peter Stetina, Ted King and Ian Boswell. In the women's race runner-up in 2022, Lauren De Crescenzo is back and top names including retired World Tour roadies like Ruth Winder and Emma Grant, as well as off-road experts Amity Rockwell and Kae Takeshita. From the UK Ribble Collective, riders Maddy Nutt and Amira Mellor will also line up for their Unbound debuts.
The Unbound XL was added in 2018 and this 350-mile epic is the ultimate challenge in Unbound gravel distance. It has been won in the past by riders like ultra-endurance rider Lael Wilcox and Rebecca 'the Queen of Pain' Rusch, and sees the field tackling over 4,100 meters in elevation and over 24 or more hours in the saddle. Supply stops come in the form of local gas stations and stores, and with one less store this year it means the resupply opportunities are roughly 75 miles apart. The XL riders also get a unique course for the first 225 miles, then they then join the 200-mile route in Eureka.
While the 200-mile course is the most famous route and the 350-mile, well perhaps just crazy, the 100-miler has grown increasingly competitive over the past few years, with some star appearances like former three-time UCI road world champion Peter Sagan and his teammate Daniel Oss, who lined up last year. This year, Canyon-SRAM rider Tiffany Cromwell who recently won the Scottish Unbound equivalent, the Gralloch will make her Unbound debut. The 100-mile will feature some fast racing with the same rules applying as in the 200 with support crews only allowed at the mid-race checkpoint, and 1,330+ meters of climbing.
Unbound 50 and 25
For those not quite fancying the challenge of the bigger distances the 50 and 25-mile routes are a taster of everything Unbound and the Flint Hills have to offer, and will have riders back in Emporia to enjoy the festivities all day with hundreds of vendors and the All Things Gravel Expo to enjoy before cheering home the winners.
This year's Garmin Unbound Gravel promises to be the best yet, and whatever the distance chosen, the notorious tire shredding sharp flint rocks are waiting...
Unfortunately, following access problems, the Life Time Grand Prix Series and FloSports are no longer broadcasting the event, so there is no TV coverage of Unbound. However, you can follow updates via social media on Instagram @unboundgravel and via the Unbound website at unboundgravel.com. We will have a post-race round-up and a chat with Ribble Collective rider Maddy Nutt next week.