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Unbound: The Gloopy Glamour of Gravel

When you’ve been living in a place for ages, it’s easy to overlook its charm. Growing up just a couple of hours outside Emporia and spending most of my life in Kansas, I couldn’t fathom why people would travel from far and wide to race on seemingly dull and unchanging roads. But then, amid a grueling nearly 25-hour journey, a realization hit me like a lightning bolt. As I pedaled along the ridge, the undulating emerald hills stretched for miles while ominous thunderclouds loomed above—a quintessential Kansas storm rolling in to welcome me back. There was nothing to do but smile and hope it wasn’t too harsh. Soon, a refreshing 30-minute drizzle came to my rescue, and I found myself grateful for the momentary respite from the heat and electrified by the surrounding beauty.

Lucky to survive this section. After a night of rain, this would be the infamous introduction to the 2023 Unbound for the 100 and 200 mile riders. Photo by Aaron Davis

Our first stop was Casey’s gas station in Cottonwood Falls, where chaos ensued as 15 grubby cyclists lined up, clutching an assortment of water jugs, Skittles, and ho hos. The poor cashier’s mood instantly soured as each item had to be meticulously accounted for. Time seemed to crawl at the slowest pace imaginable and tension permeated the whole store. Finally, I made my way outside, hastily preparing my setup. I had brought four vacuum sealed bags of Skratch Clear, one for every gas station stop which were all roughly four hours apart. Each highly suspect white powder vacuum sealed bag held roughly 1600 calories and 320g of carbs. Meanwhile, riders were already peeling away, disregarding our gentleman’s agreement. My riding companions, Ted King, Chris Mehlman, and I, were in hot pursuit of a group of four speedy Germans who had managed to gain a decent head start. I couldn’t help but worry that these gas stations would become the battlegrounds of the race. Eventually, we all regrouped (was it worth the effort just 75 miles in?) and moved along at a decent clip for a while.

The first encounter with mud came shortly after regrouping, still in the daylight. In its current virgin state, the four mile stretch of road seemed almost eager to swallow up unsuspecting cyclists foolish enough to venture onto its gooey terrain. Mud quickly accumulated, locking wheels and causing drivetrains to emit unsettling crunching sounds. We trudged forward, our shoes and bikes gaining weight with each step, reminiscent of a scene from the 1930s World War I film, “All Quiet Along the Western Front.” We were a motley crew of miserable individuals, dragging ourselves through the muck, yearning to be anywhere but there. Occasionally, we would hop over the ditch and navigate through the fence row, where the tall grass offered refuse from the adhesive mud. But once we were back on our bikes, it felt like transitioning from a snail’s pace to warp speed in a spaceship.

The mudsanity at the second pit stop. Photo by Jace Stout

After surviving that calamity, our group swelled slightly to twelve. The second gas station awaited us in El Dorado, another seventy-five miles from the previous Casey’s. When I arrived a couple of minutes behind the frontrunners, my spirits were momentarily dampened. But I refused to let it get to me, hastily grabbing water, apple juice, and an unappealing slice of gas station pizza. With the night descending upon us, I flicked on the dynamo light loaned to me by Rodeo’s Drew Van Kampen. Around 2 am, as we turned a corner onto a new road, a surreal scene unfolded before us. Headlights stretched as far as the eye could see, riders in various states of disarray, cleaning and venting their frustrations. The race had temporarily neutralized the front of the pack, and I found myself walking alongside fellow participants who had stopped to salvage their battered vehicles.

It’s peculiar to trudge along, walk your bike, and suddenly realize, “Wait a minute, I’m leading the Unbound XL.” However, just a few feet behind, was an entire battalion of exhausted riders lumbering forward like a slow motion horde of defeated infantry. The excitement was History Channel-worthy, riveting to the core. Pausing momentarily to clear the debris, five determined soldiers would pass by. At one point, I stopped for a tad too long and sprinted frantically to catch up with the group in the ditch. Aside from the towering prairie grass, which seemed to be armed with razor blades, there were also hidden gopher holes, concealed Limestone rocks, and the occasional rusty barbed wire. Thankfully, my vaccinations were up to date, and I managed to avoid ankle-twisting incidents on uneven ground.

As our group pushed forward, we could only speculate about the next leg—a mere five miles of uncertainty. Would we encounter more treacherous muck? How many additional muddy sections lay ahead? On his trusty mountain bike, Logan Kasper zoomed past us, and we all conceded that he had the ideal steed for this unforgiving course. What if there were another twelve miles of hiking? How would the last hundred miles treat us with the influx of riders from other races? What if more storms were on the horizon? I was stuck in an endless cycle of worry. Then someone called in a favor—a truck—to escape the ordeal at the next town.

I felt the weight of pressure to quit and, simultaneously, a hint of relief. “You don’t have to endure this. You can quit now and be free from this nightmare. You’re covered in cuts, your feet are wrecked from all the hiking, and your nutrition strategy is in shambles. Just give up.” However, I knew I had to make at least one phone call. I’ve made that call many times before, and my partner Heather knows how to read each one perfectly. Despite the early hour—4:30 in the morning—she answered because she had been anxiously tracking my progress all night. She reminded me of my sacrifices over the years and assured me I could overcome this challenge. In that two minute conversation, I felt my determination build–I still had the ability to win this thing.

Yawning and contemplating my options at 4:30am. Photo by Bob Koplos

I’ve always viewed the pointy end of big races as monolithic. That the fastest don’t have doubts. That they hold themselves in such high regard that not winning seems more impossible. My own doubts have plagued me since I was a runner in high school. While I was good for a small town Kansas kid, my rivals always seemed impressively faster. My assumption has been that most people have these doubts and the only way out is through. Outside of physical development, endurance sports could be largely summed up as an ability to tolerate that tiny, negative voice that tells you to quit. 

Heather’s focusing mantra for me. Image courtesy of Ben Delaney

I again swung my leg over my trusty Traildonkey, hitting play on my Spotify playlist. It was time to “eat the elephant” one mile at a time. Along the way, I encountered two Germans who had recently repaired their tires, and I gave them a short tow. When the effort couldn’t be reciprocated, I pressed forward to go alone. Back home, I primarily train alone, so the solitude of racking miles at my own pace sounded appealing. Now in second place, I playfully daydreamed about “tracking” Logan with all five of my senses, even stopping to taste a bit of fresh dirt. With the sunrise drawing nearer, I eagerly anticipated its boost. The sky adorned itself with beautiful, glowing orange clouds around 6 am, and I felt invigorated by the sun’s energy. My exhausted mind played tricks on me, conjuring images of Logan on top of every distant hill while farm dogs lurked by the roadside, ready to give chase. It took considerable effort to rein in my delirious imagination.

When I had spare water or I found a small creek I tried to clean my drivetrain at least a little. It helped keep me moving, but ultimately couldn’t stand against the concrete Kansas mud. My shifting capabilities had severely deteriorated. The thick mud and grime had taken a toll on my derailleur hanger, leaving me with only three or four reliable gears on the cassette. I reluctantly set aside my ego on the steepest climbs, opting to walk instead to ensure I could keep moving forward.

Fruitlessly trying to clean off my drivetrain at the second pit stop. Photo by Jace Stout

The final stretch of approximately 140 miles passed by with little fanfare other than a couple of quick Casey’s pit stops. Curious locals stared incredulously as I hastily devoured doughnuts and gulped down apple juice. I was a dirty heathen cycling refugee, hungry for anything with fast calories. I passed by quaint Amish farms, with simple white farm houses surrounded by a moat of golden wheat. The road varied from chunky to smooth gravel with everything in between. I consciously tried to ignore the mileage, allowing myself to be surprised and motivated by the unknown. Merging back onto the 100/200 route brought an immediate sense of joy, leapfrogging from one rider to another, briefly enjoying moments of respite. The last thirty miles felt interminable as if the finish line was receding with every pedal stroke. Memories of the grueling slog that was the final leg of the Cannonball 550 in 2019 flooded back. Eventually, I caught sight of Highland Hill, with its daunting 7.5% gradient, and I summoned every ounce of energy for one final big push—an awkward, painful effort after 24 hours on the bike. I just wanted it to be over.

After a grueling 350-mile battle against the elements, my 24-hour and 40-minute time sealed my fate as the second-place finish. With exhaustion and euphoria, I stood there, mud-caked and deliriously proud. It was a triumphant end and I felt shell shocked from the last 24 hours. As I caught my breath, I couldn’t help but grin like a mischievous kid who had just pulled off the greatest bike escapade ever. 

I couldn’t believe it was finally over. Photo by Kim Shepperd

At the finish line, I was greeted by numerous familiar faces, and waves of emotions washed over me. While I had tried to keep my mind focused during the ride, I had daydreamed about the celebration that awaited me. Little did I know, the reality far exceeded my wildest dreams. It felt like a vindication for all the sacrifices and moments of doubt that plagued me over the past 8 months. Miles and hours on the bike, weeks away from my home in the winter, 

I’ve got nothing but full respect for any competitor who lined up for last weekend, finishing or DNFing. Another epic story was made on the Traildonkey and I look forward to many, many more.

This donkey was ready for some rest. Photo by Heather Smith

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  1. What an incredible drive of perseverance and most of all heart! Luke, you’ve got me stoked about touring my TD4 as soon as it’s ready for pick up!

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