Mud, Mayhem and Resilience: Unbound 2023Jan Heine
Unbound, the race across the Flint Hills of Kansas, has effectively become the world championship of gravel cycling. Year after year, professional racers from all over the world line up next to amateurs to tackle the steep hills, the rough gravel—and the weather. When it’s dry, the challenge comes from the tire-slashing rocks that gave the Flint Hills their name. When it rains—and Kansas is famous for torrential thunderstorms and heavy rain—the silty roads that turn into veritable mudbaths.
‘Peanut butter mud’ sticks to everything, clogging up frames, derailing chains, exploding derailleurs… Together with their race number, each participant is handed a wooden paint stirrer, to scrape mud off their tires and bikes…
Last weekend, that was not enough. The list of favorites who were forced to abandon is long. Barbed wire buried in the deep mud shredded the tires of Lauren de Crescenzo (2021 winner and 2022 runner-up). Mud clogged the bike of Ted King in the 350-mile Unbound XL (above), and after walking for two hours in deep mud, he abandoned—fearing injury just days before he’s due to start in the Tour Divide. Kevin Benkenstein, on his first trip to the U.S. after bursting onto the international scene in South Africa’s Rhino Run, saw his derailleur explode. The list of dashed hopes is long, yet there were also beautiful shows of strength and resilience.
Leah Van der Linden (Mazda Lauf Factory Racing) rode to 8th place in the women’s pro field. She wrote after the race:
“ Unbound 200 was a biking battlefield. There were so many ups and quite a few downs—a rollercoaster of emotions during this race experience they call Unbound. I lined up at 5:50 a.m. with the intention of it being a long, hard day on the bike, but nonetheless smiling, because I’m doing what I love. My focus was to race my race, no matter what happened out there. Control what I could control. We went out fast and soon hit the infamous muddy ‘hike-a-bike’ at mile 11. Ha! That continued for 5 miles. We all had moments of pedal, run, push, fix, carry, stop, cry, laugh… and quickly realizing no one was going to have a perfect day.
“I eventually got into my groove and worked to make up some places in the first third of the race. Holly Mathews and I rode for a good chuck of that time, hammering when we could. I got to Aid Station 1 feeling haggard and a bit delusional after my questionable decision to postpone my nutrition for the past 40 miles…Not recommended!
“At mile 90, I forced down some gels and chugged a can of coke (Thank you fellow racer!), and I was back. With half the race down, I had 100 miles to go and needed to put in some real effort. I put my head down and pedaled on, passing many of the women ahead of me. I needed to be consistent in the last half of the race, and that was what I did. I caught up to Jade Treffeisen, and we worked together taking pulls through thick and thin. I remember her saying, ‘It’s so hot out, I hope it rains.’ And let me tell you, Kansas answered. If I could group together thunder, lightning, hail, hurricane, and a tornado together, that’s where we were at. On bikes. In the middle of Kansas. Even the cows were taking cover!
“We got to Aid Station 2. Now I had only 40 miles to the finish. I caught Kiel Reijnen, and he was truly the MVP in those late miles. I reached the finish line knowing I battled one of the hardest days I’ve ever had on the bike. But I do this because I love it; I do it for those who can’t. Those who made it to the finish line, I commend you. That race was brutal, but it’s the tough days that fuel the fire. No words will be enough for my support crew and team. Thank you, we made it!”
Leah rode on 700C x 44 Snoqualmie Pass Endurance tires.
Holly Mathews (Cinch Racing) is no stranger to racing in tough conditions, having won the Rift Iceland in 2021. Above she is leading Leah during their chase through the peloton. Holly wrote about her experience:
“Miles of peanut butter mud, hail, 90°F (32°C) temperatures, pelting sideways rain—we really got everything that was advertised in the brochure and more. I guess that is what makes Unbound such a unique event. No matter how prepared you think you are, how great your equipment is, there always seems to be something you have to navigate.
“Like most, I lost time in the early mud, restarted, got stuck in it again, and with about 180 miles to go and not a person in sight, this very quickly became as much a mental battle as it was a physical one, finding a way to embrace the moment I found myself in and crack on. The trackers say I was in 30th position at that point. I let go of expectations, welcomed the fear of the next obstacles, and committed to silently applying myself for the next 11 hours. I rode up and through a lot of the field the rest of the day. When I hit the finish line, I was 9th.
“Very happy to make it into the top 10 in Liftetime Grand Prix’s premier gravel event. Keep moving, keep going, stay dedicated to your passions, believe in yourself. In the end, the race is a mere attachment. The beauty is in the becoming, the process.”
What about her Rene Herse tires? Holly reported: “Not a single flat or issue with my tires, they withstood everything the Flint Hills threw at us!” Holly ran the 700C x 44 mm Snoqualmie Pass Endurance Plus.
Ted King and Kevin Benkenstein (above in the center with white and black helmets) rode the new 700C x 44 Manastash Ridges in the 350-mile Unbound XL. That race was won by Logan Kasper (right, No. 709), who benefited from the massive tire clearances of his mountain bike. Ted recalled: “He rode by our lead group as we were trudging through the mud. He quickly built a 45-minute lead that way…”
Kevin reported afterward: “The new Manastash Ridge tires were awesome—when we were able to ride.” Of all the pros on Rene Herse tires, only Lauren de Crescenzo had tire troubles: Even the Endurance Plus casing is not designed to withstand direct hits from barbed wire.
There were many other inspirational tales. Innokenty (Inno) Zavyalov rode an excellent race to finish 28th in the pro men’s race after an eventful day. Above he’s leading his Mazda Lauf Factory Racing teammate Chase Wark down one of the many hills on the course. (Obviously, there are just as many uphills as downs—Kansas is anything but flat!)
Laura King rode to 5th place in the 100-mile race. Above she is at Aid Station 2, helped by Ted during a lightning pit stop. Laura, Inno and Chase all rode 700C x 44 Snoqualmie Pass Endurance tires.
Unbound 2023 was a day of joy and despair, but the beauty of the gravel community is that those who despaired could still share in the joy of those who beat the odds.
Photo credits: Ted King (top photo), Marc Arjol Rodriguez (Photos 2, 3, 5, 6)