Lauren DeCrescenzo wins the 2021 UNBOUND Gravel
2021 UNBOUND Gravel winner Lauren DeCrescenzo; (photo/400 North Creative)

UNBOUND Gravel Race: Cycling’s Gnarly Proving Grounds

In past years, there’s been a school of thought among the cycling community that gravel riding is little more than old-school mountain biking.

With rigid frames, larger tires, chunky terrain, and a decidedly more casual attitude compared to the professional road circuit, it’s not hard to see why. A few years ago, gravel cycling seemed like a niche discipline or something on the periphery of a sport dominated by the road, track, and mountain bike worlds.

But, as bike manufacturers began fixing wider tires to rigid frames with drop bars, complete with gearing that seemed more at home on singletrack, many people became disciples of the versatility of the gravel-bike platform.

two cyclists riding into a sunset along a gravel road
(Photo/Life Time Inc.)

We are beginning to see gravel cycling enter an era of increased professionalization and specialization that is admired and respected as much as the other traditional disciplines. It has the backing of major brands who fork out a ton of cash to see athletes battle over unique, picturesque landscapes that hit differently than traditional road contests. They are grueling and dirty, and they often come with complicating factors that can make things interesting in a hurry.

There’s also the matter of insane mileage in some races that leave even pro riders scratching their heads, wondering whether they are up to the challenge.

Gravel races pepper every corner of the country, but a few have emerged as the top-tier contests, and UNBOUND Gravel is right at the top of that list.

What Is UNBOUND Gravel?

Racing fans acclaim UNBOUND Gravel as the premier gravel race in the world. The main event is a 200-mile teeth-chattering dash through the Flint Hills starting in Emporia, Kansas, pushing riders to their absolute limit.

Since the race’s inception (formerly known as the Dirty Kanza), it has added additional race categories to make the event more accessible or more difficult for those who feel up to a genuinely heinous challenge.

There are ride distances including 25-, 50-, and 100-mile options — and then there’s the notorious UNBOUND XL, which covers 350 miles and begins the day before the main event. There’s also a race for juniors.

Lael Wilcox wins UNBOUND Gravel 350-mile bike race
(Photo/400 North Creative)

UNBOUND is nearly entirely self-supported, so it requires considerable planning to ensure that fuel, water, and spare parts are on hand if needed. There are a couple of rest stations where riders can accept help from supporters, but they can’t at any other points in the race, making it much more difficult for those who encounter mechanical issues or some food or water snafus.

Mechanical issues are expected as the terrain covers unending jagged rocks that can tear out a sidewall like a knife through butter. Mud is also sure to accumulate if the weather turns, leading riders to sink into the muck and slog out the effort as best they can. Many competitors don’t even finish the race.

Who Are the UNBOUND Gravel Riders?

Among the immensely accomplished cyclists heading for Emporia this weekend include three-time world champion Peter Sagan, whose storied career has taken him to wins in some of the most challenging and famous cycling events on the planet. Though he is attending the event, he isn’t going for the glory of the 200-mile race. He will instead compete in the 100-mile option.

However, Ian Boswell and Laurens Ten Dam are returning this year after finishing in a neck-and-neck sprint in 2021 that Boswell barely edged out to take the title.

Ian Boswell as he crosses the finish line at Garmin Unbound gravel race
2021 UNBOUND Gravel 200 winner Ian Boswell; (photo/Andy Chastain)

On the ladies’ side, Lauren De Crescenzo will return to defend her 2021 win, while Amity Rockwell, who won in 2019, will try to reclaim the title she lost when the race returned after its hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also entering the fray are the riders participating in the inaugural Life Time National Grand Prix of Cycling, which kicked off with the Sea Otter Classic in April. They include the likes of Lachlan Morton, Peter Stetina, Alex Howes, Sofia Gomez Villafane, Alexis Skarda, and Lea Davison.

These racers add extra intrigue as they vie for $250,000 across the six events in the series.

Other races in the series include:

  • July 9: Crusher in Tushar 70-mile race
  • Aug. 13: Leadville Trail 100 MTB
  • Sept. 17: Chequamegon MTB 40-mile race
  • Oct. 22: Big Sugar Gravel 100-mile race

Despite the deep list of heavy hitters clipping in this weekend, this year’s event is as much about who will not be in attendance as who will.

Anna Moriah “Mo” Wilson, who was the current leader of the Grand Prix and set to hit the trail with the Number 1 plate mounted to her bike, was killed in Austin just weeks before the event. Wilson’s death was a punch in the gut to the entire cycling community, and race organizers have promised to honor her memory at UNBOUND Gravel and throughout the rest of the series. Life Time will host a tribute ride at sunrise on Friday morning.

One of the fun and unique draws to events like UNBOUND Gravel, and the growing list of alternative races like it, is that they are not just about the pros. Most participants in UNBOUND will have never zipped into a pro kit or sparred in a grand tour peloton. These rides are accessible to anyone who can get in.

This year, the youngest rider participating in the event is 10 years old, while the oldest is 89. All 50 U.S. states are represented, as are 44 countries.

Where and Why to Watch

If you want to see the UNBOUND Gravel action, you could hop on a plane and get to Emporia to enjoy expos and events like you wouldn’t believe. If that’s not in the cards, FloSports will broadcast the event to those with a subscription to FloBikes. Watch parties also are planned in Emporia.

Gravel cycling has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. Events like UNBOUND Gravel are an opportunity to showcase the growing discipline and the great riders finding a new home away from the roads, tracks, and trails that made them legends of the sport.

Right now, many racers are sticking to their road, track, or mountain bike guns, viewing those venues as the main places to build their brands and careers. But more and more are turning to the gravel racing circuit to carve out their niche in history and the record books.

As more people, money, and production moves into this space, gravel could be a catalyst for a brand-new generation of cyclists to find their passion.

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Mark Wilson

Mark has been writing about cycling, climbing, outdoor events and gear for more than a year. Before that, he spent more than a decade as a journalist at major daily newspapers in Texas covering crime, public safety and local government. Mark spent every free moment during that time carving up singletrack and gravel, or climbing with friends and family in Texas, Colorado and Mexico. Based in Texas, Mark is always looking for new trails, crags and gear to help navigate the outdoors. As a new dad, he is particularly interested in learning how to share his love of the outdoors with his son.