Adventures in the Flint Hills: 2022 Unbound Gravel
Go for it. That’s been one of the mottos this year I’ve tried to live by. Entering the Unbound Gravel lottery, getting selected and committing to training for it was the big early season goal of 2022. It was worth it.
The plan was to get up early and drive to Emporia on the Friday before the race without any real reconnaissance ride. Given that I was just riding the 50 mile route, I wasn’t too worried about check points, nutrition or hydration as I had already figured that out with The Bear. Equipment was easy. I’d ride my Crux with the Vittoria Terreno Dry tires as they are a little grippier than the Pathfinder Pros that I used at the Cheesehead Roubaix and The Bear. However, what I didn’t plan for the impending weather that could have rolled in race day. There was a chance of rain and/or thunderstorms and I didn’t bring any rain gear. So we’re going to fly by the seat of my pants for the race. After picking up my race number, I headed back to my hotel that was an hour away (Ottawa) and grabbed dinner at a local Mexican restaurant.
Race day came. My start time was 9 a.m., so I didn’t have to get up too early, but early enough to make the drive to Emporia, get situated with parking, bike setup and calm the nerves. While parked, I ran into a nice couple of Missouri that were doing the 50-miler on a tandem. (They eventually passed me out on the course at one point!) I did quick warm up on the side streets and headed to the start line.
The start line was electric. It is really hard to describe. You can feel the energy, both the excitement and the nervousness to come. I had a lot of nervous energy, but at the same time, there was nothing more I could do to be more prepared. 9 a.m. hit and we were off. There was a neutral roll out that lead us to the gravel. Once we hit the gravel, the group kind of sorted itself out. The group I was riding with was hammering on the flats, but once it went uphill, I was riding to the front. Fat guy like me riding past a bunch of skinnier riders just baffled me, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
On one of the flatter sections I decided that it would be time to snap a photo of the gravel and environment. I successfully took a couple, but then dropped my phone and went flying. I thought for sure it was broken. I had stop and run back to get the phone, and it was unscathed except for a scratch and scuff. After that, I had fallen out of that group and kind of rode on my own for the next 10-15 miles. Being on my own meant that I couldn’t save any watts in the wind and save them for the climbs. Speaking of climbs…
The highest point of the race was at mile 20. There was a steady 2 mile rise up a hill that had a cell phone tower on it. It just kept going and going. I knew that this was going to be toughest part of the ride. I wasn’t sure if I had enough gearing as it was kind of steep, but I did know that from there, the terrain was going to be rolling and maybe I’d be able to find group to ride in.
Once I got over the KOM point, it started drizzling. Nothing too bad, but enough to make it a little gritty. Somewhere around half way I ran into one of the ladies in that first group I was riding with. After chit chatting for a bit, we decided to try and ride together to the finish and share the work. What was funny is that Melissa thought that I wouldn’t get much of a draft off of her. I told her any draft is better that no draft. For a while, we took turns, but then. the rain started to come down and there were lightning strikes in the distance. It got to the point where we couldn’t take pulls as riding in each other’s spray was making life difficult for each of us. At one point I took of my glasses for a bit which I regretted immediately as I got mud in my eye right away. (I’m not the brightest when I’m at my limit.)
The weather was largely variable and so was the gravel. The roads kind of evolved over the afternoon with the rain. When the heavy rain came, the gravel turned into a light mud which caused a lot of issues with my drivetrain. At one point, I couldn’t shift out of my little chainring which was find on the flats and hills, but downhills I struggled to keep up with Melissa. Nothing like some high cadence spinning over loose ground. Over time, the rain washed away the looser gravel and there were two distinct lines on most of the roads that were almost like pavement. There was definitely a lot of washboarding, potholes and all sorts of obstacles to avoid, but the miles ticked down as we got closer to the return Emporia.
One thing that I’ve learned though all of the gravel events this year is that there is always some one to ride with to help push you to the finish line. It doesn’t matter how old we are, our experience or where we came from, we all have something in common. We’re all doing this crazy race. We all have stories and experiences to share to help keep us pedaling. As someone who has always preferred the solitude of riding, the last few races this year may have opened up the idea that maybe I should start riding more with others instead of hammering with my lonesome self.
A few miles out of Emporia, we hit last of gravel. It was pavement to the finish. At that point, we decided to empty the tanks and get to the finish line as fast a possible. We kept passing people left and right on the pavement. With the rain and the pavement, my front derailleur cleaned up enough to get me back into the big chainring. We’re in business now. After a couple of quick left turns in Emporia, we were down the finish line chute, sprinting to the finish line. We had did it and finished this wild edition of Emporia Gravel. There was a certain euphoria that I was feeling that put a semi-permanent smile on my face. I had finished the first big goal of 2022. Completing the race was my first goal. The second goal was to finish under 4 hours. Did that as well. The final goal was to finish above 12 m.p.h. My pace was 13.4. I did everything I set out to do.
After getting cleaned up (as best as I could without a shower), I ate an awesome pulled pork and brisket sandwich, wandered though Gravel City Adventure and Supply to check out all of the historic DK/Unbound bikes for a bit and head back to the hotel for a shower, a nap and to chill out for the rest of the day. Dinner was at a local pizza place in Ottawa before I called it a night before traveling to Colorado for the next part of the trip. (Next blog post.)
So what’s next?
I don’t really have any riding plans this summer. In fact, I started pulling out some of my cyclocross stuff such as my new-to-me wheels, new Challenge Team Edition Baby Limus tubular tires and got them stretched on the rims. I still need to give the bike a proper instead of the CX pit style wash by the Muc Off guys. CX season starts a week early this year, Labor Day weekend. Looking forward to seeing all of the cyclocross buddies again on a regular basis.