2023 will go down in Unbound history as the mud year with scenes of mayhem as an almost 10-mile section of 'peanut butter mud' claimed countless victims, with riders forced to run as even the best gravel bikes became clogged with gunge. The 2022 edition may have been wet and messy, but with new sections added for 2023, the degree of difficulty was on another level. Days of rain storms in the lead-up to Unbound would create sludge and spark chaos, breaking up the fields in both the men’s and women’s elite races.
The Unbound 200 is the premium distance at Unbound renowned as a test of endurance, self-sufficiency and equipment. At 200 miles long, with 2,700 meters of elevation and over 11 hours of self-supported racing, it attracts a stacked lineup of top riders. The Unbound 200 is also the second race in the Life Time Grand Prix series, where handpicked World Tour roadies, track world champions and MTB Olympians compete for a $250,000 prize purse across the race series. This is how the "Super Bowl of Gravel" racing unfolded...
Unbound 200 Mens Elite
Keegan Swenson accomplished one of his major goals for 2023 by winning the Unbound 200 in Emporia, Kansas. The Santa Cruz HTSQD rider outsprinted last year's winner Czech rider Petr Vakoč in a reverse of the 2022 result, with Lachlan Morton coming in two seconds later. Swenson had been determined to reverse his defeat from the previous year on the grueling 200-mile gravel course and spoke after the race saying, "Coming in a bit short last year stung, I lost sleep over it for a long time, so I’m super excited to put it all together."
Early on in the race, a group of the pre-race favorites came together, including the top three finishers, as well as Laurens Ten Dam, Ian Boswell, Russell Finsterwald, and Pete Stetina. They worked together for over three-quarters of the race and all successfully finished in just over 10 hours.
The elite men started their mammoth day in the saddle at 5:50am and for the first time in Unbound history, separately from the amateur riders. The drama came early with a section of unrideable mud just after 11 miles in, with riders opting to push, carry or attempt to ride on the grass on either side of the energy-sapping gloop. Reigning Mid South gravel champion Payson McElveen would be forced to withdraw, suffering from back issues, with Nathan Haas after early retirement describing the mud as "scenes of absolute madness"
The race winner Swenson added, "The mud blew it all apart, but the group was great today, there was no sitting on, no games. We were there to get it done and get it done fast. I always appreciate that kind of racing."
At the 80-mile checkpoint in Eureka, only Stetina stopped for a bike wash, while others in the lead group switched out hydration packs and bottles. It was Boswell and Morton that would push the pace with the group working together. However, they knew a sprint finish was coming and someone had to make a move with a sprint likely play into Swenson’s hands.
Finsterwald would try on Texaco Hill, as would Ten Dam and Morton with Swenson covering all the attempts at a breakaway. After 10 hours of thrilling racing, the Unbound 200 would come down to the sprint finish with Swenson forging clear to take the win and redemption from last year. Vakoč, would be unable to match Swenson's sprint blaming congestion at the finish due to riders from all other distances coming in at the same time.
“I knew if it comes to a sprint I can end up on the podium, it would be hard to beat Keegan, but it was just a shame it was not even possible for me to do the sprint because of the people from the other races", he said afterwards.
Lachlan Morton would round out the podium with Laurens Ten Dam and Ian Boswell making up the top five spots.
Unbound 200 Womens Elite
In the women's Unbound 200, it would be German rider Carolin Schiff who emerged as the champion for 2023, taking the win with a dominant performance. Despite enduring 200+ miles of mud and rain, she would ride solo into Emporia and finished the race in 11 hours and 46 minutes, 15 minutes faster than last year's winner, Sofia Gomez Villafañe, with Sarah Sturm securing third position, and British gravel champion Danni Shrosbree with an impressive fourth place, and Sarah Lange rounding out the top five.
The main pre-race storyline going into the Unbound 200 race was the separate start for the Elite women, rolling out two minutes after the Elite men, and it would leave many of the women's field frustrated as the carnage of the mud and men's race unfolding in front of them influenced the elite women's race. The women would have to contend with the mud being chewed up even more after the Elite men and it made the chances of cohesive groups working together difficult. It would also put an end to pre-race favorite Heather Jackson's chances, as the mud would see her ride 60 miles with just one gear.
Jenna Rinehart was the first to make it out of the mud with Gomez Villafañe and Ruth Winder chasing just two minutes back. Ellen Campbell and Sturm were the next chasers, and the top twenty women trickled past in small groups, each at a few minute intervals. While Rinehart would drop away due to a mechanical failure before the first checkpoint in Eureka, other riders were able to gain time, notably Alexis Skarda.
Looking for back-to-back wins it would be Gomez Villafañe, and then Schiff who would be first to make the moves that would last, but with a lack of riding cooperation, the pair wouldn't stay together for long.
Schiff said, “I caught Sofia, I was really in doubt if I could do it because I was so achy, but I felt good and then I went on. She was just on my wheel and tried to play games with me so I thought, I have to go alone. It makes no sense with her. So I went clear and was alone for a long time.”
Both after the race and at the media press conference, Gomez Villafañe expressed her frustration with the fact that men continue to play such a large role in the women’s race at the big events.
“In this race, the men, play such a big role, I wish we’d be able to have our own race day. The men decide our race. It’s fair game, there are no rules, so it is what it is. But we’re ready to have our separate race.”
The Texaco Hill ‘Redux’ climb at mile 143 saw Schiff move in front with her solo effort and she would put time into her former riding companion Villafañe. Heading to Judge’s Hill, Schiff continued to focus on her solo effort, passing several elite men and expanding her lead over Villafañe to almost 14 minutes, while Lange would drop further back now at 17 minutes.
Schiff continued to build her lead, but now adding seconds rather than minutes as she crossed the county line between Greenwood and Lyon County, and as the wind picked up, blowing rain clouds across the prairie she would ride into Emporia to take an emphatic victory.
"I just saw the line and thought maybe it’s a dream, I did not always believe that there was such a big gap. To finish is to finish and I just kept pushing because anything can happen. I love gravel racing, I found my spot, I think." said Schiff afterwards.
The 2023 Life Time Grand Prix series now heads to the Crusher in Tushar on July 8th before the Leadville 100 MTB in Leadville, Colorado on August 12th.