Unbound XL was epicJan Heine
What a week it’s been! Seven days ago, I imagined Kansas as flat and covered with corn fields. And I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to return to racing after more than a decade away from the peloton.
Since then, I’ve cycled 350 miles (530 km) through a beautiful, wild country that reminded me of Africa in the best way. There were many hours where I didn’t see any houses. The only services were spread 60 miles (100 km) apart. For the entire 25 hours of the ride, I encountered maybe a dozen cars. Many beautiful views are indelibly etched into my memory.
But the best part of Unbound XL were the other riders. There was a sense of being in this adventure together. People helped each other where they could; and friendly banter enlivened the long miles. It reminded me of all that makes Paris-Brest-Paris so special. We weren’t racing against each other, but working together to achieve a common goal. I rode with Houston for almost 200 miles (above in the only photo I took while bouncing around on the gravel), while other riders joined our group for shorter periods of time. Houston’s friendliness, perspective and insights made the ride even more memorable.
The course was so varied – and challenging – that there wasn’t a moment of boredom, and I never felt sleepy. The roads ranged from smooth gravel to so rutted that even a Jeep would have trouble traversing them. All of them were fun and had a nice flow. The same can’t be said about the mud. There wasn’t as much as we had feared, but when we hit the “mud bath,” it was so slippery that it was almost impossible to walk. Conditions were made worse by a thunderstorm with lightning and torrential rain that raged for two hours. (It seems that of all the competitors, we got the most of the rain and mud.) Unbound XL wasn’t easy, but memorable achievements rarely are.
Even though Mark and I came to Unbound XL as a team, we didn’t plan to ride together the entire way. As it turned out, we got separated at the start and never met again. Mark was ahead of me for the first half, then I somehow leap-frogged him at a resupply spot without noticing. And yet we finished within 30 minutes of each other. As one reader commented on Instagram, it shows that we’re well-matched as riders…
Unbound is probably the closest thing to world championships of gravel racing – this year even World Tour winner Peter Sagan showed up for the 100-mile event. We placed in the top 30 in the world-class field, but more importantly, we completed the relentlessly hilly course in 25:24 (me) and 25:50 (Mark), at average speeds of almost 14 mph (22.5 km/h) including all stops. That’s about the pace we’d expect for a paved 600 km brevet, yet Unbound XL was 95% gravel. If there was an ‘Over-40 Masters’ category, we’d have placed 7th and 9th…
Much of the credit goes to the bikes. I passed many riders on the steep, rutted downhills that required slowing down if you were on narrower tires and stiffer forks. Our bikes worked flawlessly throughout the challenging ride. Mark’s green bike was brand-new – it had covered just 15 miles (24 km) before launching into the Flint Hills of Kansas. (In fact, it wasn’t quite done – the taillight wasn’t hooked up yet, so he ran a battery-powered light, and it’s still missing the lettering.) As you’d expect from a well-built bike, he had no bike troubles at all during the ride; no need to tighten any bolts or adjust anything. He really appreciated the instant shifts of SRAM’s new XPLR gravel derailleur.
The bikes were comfortable and encouraged us to pedal well throughout the ride. What’s perhaps most remarkable is how little our speeds dropped as we got tired toward the end of the 25-hour ride. (Mark’s tracker was sending locations at 5-minute intervals, mine every 10 minutes, hence the more ‘spiky’ graph for Mark.) You can also see the time we lost due to the “mud bath” 23 hours into the ride.
At first, we were surprised that my tracker says I didn’t stop at all. Of course, I did stop, but all five stops were shorter than 10 minutes. (The tracker never got to send the same location twice.) Keeping my stops short was no hardship: My bike was simply so comfortable and enjoyable that it felt natural to get going again quickly.
On my bike, the lever-operated front and Rene Herse Nivex rear derailleurs worked great – and with so many hills, I got to use them a lot. I don’t think Houston even noticed that I reached down to the seat tube to shift the front derailleur. I appreciated that there’s no cable housing that can get clogged with mud – the derailleurs worked as well at the end of the ride as they did at the beginning. (We removed Mark’s fenders and my front fender to improve mud clearance.)
Mark and I both ran 26″ x 2.3″ Rat Trap Pass Endurance tires, and we were happy with that choice. We saw many riders with flat tires – one reported no fewer than 4 before dropping out after using their last spare tube – but we had zero tire troubles.
If you’re worried about our bikes getting caked in mud, rest assured that they cleaned up without trouble. Mark was concerned about all the rocks he heard hitting the down tube – when one hit his foot, it actually hurt – but there aren’t any dents or paint chips. Steel tubing (and Peter Weigle’s paint) are tough. Great bikes are intended to be ridden, and if they eventually acquire some patina, that’s a good thing.
Now we’re remembering the beauty of the Kansas landscape and the wonderful people we rode with. While we’re happy about our accomplishment, we also somehow wish the ride wasn’t over yet, to continue the wonderful experience. I guess that means we’ll be back!
- Jan’s Unbound XL ride on Strava.
- The full stories of our rides will be in the Summer 2022 Bicycle Quarterly.
Photo credits: Linda Guerrette (first and last photos)