Photo credit: Life Time
For gravel cyclists, riding the Unbound Gravel 200 can be both a dream and a nightmare. As the world’s premier gravel event, it attracts the best racers and the most media attention. Plus, the pastoral landscape of Emporia, Kansas makes it one of the most beautiful places in the world to ride. But with high temps, strong winds, and tire-shredding gravel, it’s notorious for battering even the toughest racers. I’ve long dreamed about racing the full 200-mile course, but now that I’m actually doing it, I’m filled with anxiety and terror.
To calm my nerves, I’ve been making sure my gear is 100 percent dialed for race day. Fortunately, I raced the half-distance version back in 2017, so I have a good idea of what I need in the full 200-mile version. Even if you never make it out to Unbound, the must-have gear I’ve put on this list will be perfect for your local gravel races or any long-distance adventure.
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Tires for Unbound Gravel
Fast-rolling tire option: Challenge Getaway 700x40mm
Tires around 40mm wide are the de-facto choice for fast and furious gravel racing. My race bike will be rolling on Challenge Getaways, and unlike many gravel tires on the market, they are handmade. This means the casings are super supple, so they roll faster and feel plusher in rough terrain. The tread features tightly packed knobs in the center for speed, and wider-spaced knobs at the edges for ample cornering grip. They also have puncture protection to survive the sharp flint gravel found in Emporia, Kansas, with a double layer of Challenge’s bead-to-bead “Corazza Armor” and an additional “Ganzo” puncture protection strip under the tread.
Comfortable tire option: Panaracer GravelKing SK 700x50mm
Not every rider goes to Unbound to compete. If you’re in it for the experience, then ride the widest tire your bike can fit to maximize comfort. If your rig can clear these high-volume 50mm Panaracer GravelKing SKs like mine can, your hands and sit bones will thank you at mile 150. I actually plan to put these tires on a set of spare wheels. That way I have a backup if I experience a catastrophic puncture, or if I’m just having a bad day and need to switch to something cushier.
Hydration pack & bottles for Unbound Gravel
I expect to spend 13-14 hours baking in the sun, so good hydration will be key to survival. Hydration packs let you carry more water and make it easy to keep drinking when the road gets too rough to pull out bottles. I actually plan to bring two hydration packs so I can quickly swap for a full one at each checkpoint. For the opening and closing legs, I’ll wear a lightweight USWE Outlander that carries 1.5 liters. And for the long 100-mile stretch between the two checkpoints, I’ll wear a bigger Osprey Katari 7 that holds 2.5 liters.
I’ll also have bottles on my bike with a carbohydrate or hydration mix. I’ll swap both bottles at each checkpoint so I’ll need at least six. I want the biggest bottles possible so I’m going with the Radavist 26-ounce Purist bottles, which come in some cool designs.
Hydration & carbohydrate mix for Unbound Gravel
Scratch has always been my go-to hydration mix. There are tons of great-tasting flavors, and it’s been formulated to replace the electrolytes lost through sweat. The goal during Unbound will be to follow Skratch’s recommendation to drink a bottle of mix every hour. I’m getting a 20-pack of single-serving bags so I can carry some on me to mix bottles at the two neutral water stops on the course.
I’m also going to supplement my nutrition with a few bottles of Skratch Superfuel. Endurance events like Unbound are as much eating contests as they are bike races. The extra 400 calories Superfuel adds to my bottles will keep me topped up, even when my stomach revolts from eating too many Clif Bars and Rice Krispies.
Cargo bib shorts for Unbound Gravel
I fully expect my tender backside to take a beating, so I picked up a pair of POC’s Rove Cargo VPDS bib shorts. It uses POC's new Vital VPDS chamois with silicone inserts designed to provide extra vibration absorption and support for gravel riding. Plus, it’s constructed from recycled materials and has easy-to-access storage pockets on the thighs for me to stash extra ride nutrition.
Flat kit for Unbound Gravel
Even with my heavily-armored Challenge Getaway tires, punctures are an ever-present threat. I’ll be carrying Genuine Innovations’ Tubeless Tackle tire repair kit on my bike. It uses the classic “Bacon Strip” tire plugs, which I find incredibly effective, and I’ll make sure to have one pre-loaded so I can plug punctures the moment they happen.
Some punctures, however, are just too big for tire plugs to handle, so I will have at least two spare tubes on my bike as well.
Head unit for Unbound Gravel
Unless you’re insanely old-school and plan to ride with a cue sheet (mad respect to anyone who actually does this), you’ll need a GPS head unit to navigate Unbound since the course is completely unmarked. I plan to use the Hammerhead Karoo 2 that I’ve been using since last year. It has great navigation, an amazing high-resolution screen, long battery life, and a host of other cool features.
Lights for Unbound Gravel
My goal at Unbound this year is to beat the sun, but a lot of riders will be finishing in the dark. If something goes wrong, I might be too. For this reason, lights aren’t just must-haves, Unbound actually requires all participants to have lights on their bikes, just in case. You don’t need anything fancy, so I’m going to use an affordable and lightweight NiteRider Swift 300 and Sabre 110 head and tail light set.
CushCore tire inserts for Unbound Gravel
I’ve been riding CushCore tire inserts on my mountain bikes for years now, and I love the extra comfort, traction, and puncture protection they provide. For Unbound, I plan to add Cushcore’s latest Gravel.CX tire inserts so I can run lower tire pressures. They will help me charge faster through chunky sections and add extra tire damping so I don’t get as fatigued. The inserts do add 110 grams per wheel, so weight weenies might not be having it. But the performance gains will be worth a minor weight penalty. If you need proof, last year’s winner ran Cushcores on his bike too!
More gear thoughts
If I were to cover every single piece of gear I plan to bring with me to Kansas, it would probably turn into a short novel. But the above gear is what I can’t live (or race) without. Here are a few other items that are high on my list, but don’t quite cross the “must-have” threshold:
- Chamois Butt’r: I have an on-again-off-again relationship with chamois cream. It feels nice when I use it, but I often forget to apply it before big rides and I am usually okay. I’ll bring a bottle with me and make a game-day decision on whether I use it or not.
- Aero helmet: Unbound has a reputation for tough wind conditions. If I’m alone in no man’s land battling a headwind, then I’ll take every advantage possible to reduce my suffering.
- Gloves: I’m naughty and usually don’t wear gloves when riding gravel. But Unbound might be the one time this year I put on a pair, just so my hands have a little extra cushion.
Whether you’re focused on going fast or just finishing, remember to take it easy and enjoy the ride! Gravel events like Unbound are special because they have that fun, welcoming vibe. Let’s keep it that way.
Got questions or suggestions about my Unbound Gravel gear? Hit me up in the comments!
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