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I'm Going Back to Unbound Gravel This Year (for Vengeance!)

Unbound Gravel is one of biggest and most difficult gravel races in the world. Last year, I made it 24 miles before dropping out. This year, the plan is to make it to the finish, and to do it faster than ever before. Here's why I'm going back to Unbound in 2024.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Features

Waiting for a ride. Smiling through the pain...

2023 was the worst race season I’ve ever had. There’s not much to say about it other than that I pretty much failed to accomplish every goal I set for myself. The lowest point of my year was definitely the day I DNF’d at Unbound Gravel due to a mechanical. 

Unbound was my biggest target. I’d spent months training and thousands of dollars preparing my gear and travel plans. In the end, I only made it about 24 miles (out of 200). After wallowing in a pit of grief and self-pity for a few months, I decided that this year would be my redemption year. That means I’m going back to Unbound again in search of a bit of vengeance.

I’ll be documenting my journey there on our YouTube channel and here on the TPC Blog. I’m also going to put my (perhaps overly ambitious) goals for this year out in the open too, which is kind of scary. I like to think that I thrive under pressure, but who knows, I might choke. Hopefully, you follow along!

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A History of Highs and Lows at Unbound Gravel

Unbound Gravel

Over the years, Unbound has become my favorite gravel race. The amazing vibe. The brutal terrain. The distance. The notoriety. The infamy. All of it plays into my love for this event.   

I’ve been to Unbound a few times now. My first trip to Emporia was back in 2017 (the race was known by a different name back then). I entered the 100-mile “half-pint” version because I didn’t know if I was even physically capable of riding 200 miles in a single day. 


2017 Unbound gravel finish

I managed to nab a pretty decent result. Granted, it wasn’t the full-distance version and Unbound also wasn’t as big back then, so the field wasn’t super stacked, but I finished 7th overall in the 100 miler. This is still one of the results I’m the most proud of in my mediocre amateur racing career. I stuck with a pretty fast group for the first half. After the mid-race checkpoint, I rode mostly solo until the finish. 

2017 Unbound Gravel finishSo young. So proud.

I learned a lot at that first Unbound. The main things were how poorly acclimated I was to the heat and how bad my fueling was. I ate mostly gels, Doritos, and Slim Jims, and I got incredibly dehydrated. After I crossed the line, my calves, hamstrings, and glutes cramped immediately. I had to be helped off my bike by some volunteers at the finish who then carried me to the med tent where I could lay down until the cramping subsided. 

After that experience, I was hooked. I wanted to come back to do the full 200-mile version, but I didn’t get in the lottery in 2018 or 2019. I didn’t get into Unbound again until 2022. 

2022 Unbound gravel

Serious face. Really I was on the verge of having a panic attack before the start. 

After 5 years away, a lot had happened in my life. I got married, had a kid, bought a house, and simply hadn’t been able to prioritize cycling like I used to. I also gained 20-25 pounds and was a lot slower. But I still went for it. 

2022 Unbound Gravel finish

My only goal in 2022, other than just finishing, was to beat the sun. That means finishing before sunset — before 8:45 PM, or in 14 hours and 45 minutes. Ultimately, I managed to beat the sun by a pretty decent margin, finishing in 12 hours and 56 minutes. 

I was ecstatic with that result. It was the first time I had ever ridden 200 miles, and I was extremely happy with how I performed. In the closing 40 miles, I was able to stand up out of the saddle and power over many of the steep kickers. I was also really happy with how well I handled the horrendous mud that started around mile 120. 

Dead at Unbound Gravel 2022

Pain and satisfaction.

I did make some big mistakes that year. First, I went out too hard trying to stick with some fast riders. After the first checkpoint around mile 80, I was completely blown up. I got dropped by the group I was with and I had to soft-pedal alone in the wind for almost an hour to try and recover. 

Then around mile 140, I ran out of water (22oz bottles are too small!). I got so thirsty and desperate, that I was seriously considering drinking from a puddle in the road. Fortunately, I came across a rider waiting for a ride by the side of the road because he was dropping out. He graciously gave me a full bottle with electrolyte mix that saved my race. (I never got his name and would love to thank him if I ever get the chance!)

While I was happy with my result, these mistakes were weighing on me. I began to wonder how much time I could have gained if I had been more prepared and played things a bit smarter.  

Unbound gravel 2023

This fool has no idea what's about to happen.

I decided to go back in 2023 to do everything right. I figured if I paced and fueled properly all day, I could finish in under 12 hours, so that was my goal. I was also in better shape, I had a new bike, and I had the power of experience, so I felt pretty confident.    

A lot of you probably know what happened last year though. A notorious mud section brought everything to a halt about 15 miles into the race. It was sticky, peanut butter mud that clogged up your bike and forced everyone to get off and walk. It took me almost an hour and a half to go 6 miles, so it was pretty clear that achieving my time goal was no longer possible. 

When I got out of the mud I was able to start riding again. But things went wrong for me around mile 24. At some point, I broke a spoke in my wheel. I did get tangled up with some people while slipping and sliding in the mud, so someone may have stepped on my wheel and broke it. Or I stepped on it myself. Or there was just too much mud and debris stuck in my wheel and that broke the spoke.  

Yeah, it shouldn't look like that.

Generally, a broken spoke isn’t a big deal on a stiff carbon wheel, but before I realized what was happening, the spoke went into my rear derailleur and annihilated it. It broke the pulley cage and caused the derailleur to get twisted up in the chain. 

I spent another 30 minutes removing the derailleur and cutting the chain to set my bike up as a single speed. At that point, I just wanted to finish. Even if it took until the 20-hour time cutoff, I was finishing no matter what. 

Unfortunately, my bodged single-speed setup only worked for a few miles. While spinning downhill, the chain jumped down the cassette onto a bigger cog. This locked up my wheel, almost causing me to crash, and then the chain snapped (likely because I reused a pin) and it bounced off into the grass. I rolled to a stop at the bottom of the hill and hiked back up in search of my chain. When I couldn’t find it, the realization set in. There was no way I was going to finish.  

Unbound Gravel 2023 DNF

I called for a ride, and that was it. I had DNF’d.

This was probably the most painful failure I’ve ever experienced in a race. I like to think that I have a high tolerance for pain and heinous conditions, but unfortunately, you can’t grit your way through a race-ending mechanical. I felt helpless, embarrassed, and cheated. Most of all, I was just sad. I had just flushed all that time, energy, and money leading up to the race down the drain. 

Drunk after Unbound gravel failure

I was crazy drunk by the time my wife finished.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking about Unbound a lot through the fall and winter. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to go back. But when the lottery opened in January, I found myself entering once again. I figured I could let fate decide. 

Well, I got in. So I guess it’s time to plan my vengeance. 

My 2024 Unbound Gravel Goals

Since I’ve been given a shot at redemption, I’m going to lay out what my goals are for 2024. I want them written out for people to see. I like to do this because it keeps me accountable, so I stay on top of my training. 

I generally like to set A, B, and C goals. “A” goals are stretch goals. It’s the shoot-for-the-moon goal. To accomplish it, the stars need to align and I need to have an amazing day. The “B” goal is attainable, but still a challenge. If I do things right, I should be able to get it. “C” goals are kind of the fallback goal. It’s something where I can still leave satisfied, knowing I gave it my best. It gives me some leeway if something catastrophic (like a crazy mud pit) happens. 

So here they are:

  • A goal: Finish in 12 hours or less
  • B goal: Finish in 13 hours or less
  • C goal: Just finish…

My “A” goal is the same as last year — going under 12 hours. But it’s probably going to be A LOT harder to hit than last year because Unbound is switching to the North course this year, which is known to be a lot rougher. 

My “B” goal is essentially matching my finish time from 2022. Again, it’s probably going to be hard because of how much rougher the North course is. Also, if the heat, wind, or mud are terrible, that will make it much harder too.  

Then my “C” goal is just to make it to the finish. Hopefully, I don’t, but I could suffer another mechanical. Or my body could completely betray me. Or I could crash or wander off course. Who knows. A lot can happen in 200 miles. I just need to finish because DNFing two years in a row would probably kill me! 

What’s Coming Up

Unbound Gravel bike Lauf Seigla

Testing a revised race setup.

I’m probably going to spend WAY too much time thinking about and obsessing over my gear. Fortunately, pretty much everything I want to use is here at TPC. For the next couple of months, I’m going to make posts (and videos) focusing on all the gear I’ll be using and the bike setup decisions I’ll be making to try and stack the odds in my favor this year.

These are going to be way more detailed and thought out that the "Essential Gear" posts I've done in the past (hopefully, that's a good thing!). I also want to touch on some of my training and race plans, plus I hope to document the race experience. We'll see how it all goes!

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