Scouting the Flint Hills of KansasJan Heine
It’s hard to describe the buzz of excitement here in Emporia on the eve of the Unbound, arguably the biggest gravel race in the world. BQ test rider Mark and I are riding the Unbound XL, the 350-mile race through the Flint Hills of Kansas.
At least this week, Emporia is definitely ‘Gravel City.’
Wherever you go and look, there are bikes. Not just any bikes, but race bikes ready to tackle 50, 100, 200 or 350 miles of sharp, rough and muddy gravel.
The town celebrates the event, with banners showing past winners.
Thursday morning, we headed out of town with one of the official photographers, Linda Guerette, to check out the course. By pure coincidence, we ran into defending champion Lauren de Crescenzo, who was doing the same. Immediately, we started discussing tires. We all want to ride the widest tires we can, but Kansas mud is sticky. And if it rains, narrower tires mean more clearance. And it has rained a lot here in the last week, plus there is more rain in the forecast. There has already been a course change, because some roads are under water. And the organizers gave each rider a paint mixing stick to scrape mud off their bikes.
Linda, the photographer, who has raced and photographed this event many times, added some helpful hints and valuable perspective. Which tires will we run? Not sure yet – we’ll check the forecast in the morning before the start and decide.
Back in town, we kept running into friends. Ted King isn’t here this weekend (except as a cardboard cutout) – his second little one is due any day now – but his winning bike from 2016 is, now ridden by his friend, neighbor and business partner Roger of Untapped. Fun to see this famous bike again. Roger is riding it in the 200-miler on Saturday.
Emporia has a really nice vibe, combining old American charm with more current influences. Dinner at this Vietnamese restaurant was perfect pre-race food.
Now we’re back at our hotel, another charming piece of Americana. Our bikes are (almost) ready – except for changes we’ll make at the last moment based on the weather forecast.
The race starts Friday at 3 p.m. Central Time, and you can follow along at
It’ll be an adventure – wish us luck!
Photo credits: Linda Guerette (Photo 5); Mark Vande Kamp (Photo 6)