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Sometimes Luck Is On Your Side: My 2024 Unbound Gravel Recap

I made it to the finish of Unbound Gravel this year! Endurance races are always filled with highs and lows. I break my race down from start to finish and explain what it took for a regular guy like me to ride 200 miles as fast as I could.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Features

At the start / At the finish.

Last weekend I went to Emporia, Kansas to race the 2024 Unbound Gravel 200 for the third time. How did it go? Here are my quick race highlights:

  • I finished (yay!)
  • I succeeded (just barely!) in beating my 12-hour time goal
  • I had no major incidents or mechanicals
  • I stayed on top of my fueling
  • I paced it decently
  • I went deeper into the pain cave than I ever have before
  • I got SUPER lucky

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My Lead-Up to Unbound 2024

2023 Unbound Gravel DNFMy DNF photo from 2023.

I DNF’d at Unbound last year when I broke my rear derailleur, so when I got into Unbound again, I put a lot of thought and energy into preparing. I was hoping for some sort of redemption. 

I set an ambitious “A-goal” of finishing under 12 hours. This was based on my 2022 finish time of 12:56:31. I am a bit fitter than I was in 2022, but was I fit enough to shave off 1 hour? I thought it might be possible if I got everything right on race day, but I didn’t really know. 

Two things were working against me: 

  • 2022 had nice, cool conditions, which resulted in much faster times than usual. Before Lachlan Morton’s spectacular performance this year, it was the fastest finish on record. This year, the forecast was hotter. 
  • In 2024, Unbound switched from the South Course to the North Course (it switches every 2 years) which is considered harder, with rougher terrain and more difficult climbs.

Also, the week before the race, I caught a stomach bug from my son. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I didn’t ride my bike at all in the week leading up to Unbound because I felt so sick. Instead, I tried to focus on recovering and getting healthy again. Thankfully, I felt better by Thursday morning when I left for Emporia. 

Unbound Gravel shakeout ride

The Chamois Butt'r shakeout ride.

I joined a couple of short shake-out rides on Friday and felt a lot better, but I was still super nervous. I always suffer from a bit of race anxiety, but the night before the race was some of the worst I’ve ever experienced.

I tried to go to bed at 10:00 PM, but my mind was racing and I struggled to sleep. I woke up nearly every hour and I even had an anxiety dream where my bib shorts fell apart while riding (weird, right?). My Garmin watch said I got just over 4 hours of sleep. At breakfast, I felt tired. I loaded up on caffeine and forced down a plate of hash browns.


The Unbound Race Start

Unbound Gravel 2024 startDo you get nervous at race starts? I’m pretty much s***ing myself every time I line up.

I arrived at the start line on Commercial Street around 6:10 AM and squeezed in just ahead of the 12-hour finisher sign. I immediately started box breathing (4 seconds in - 4 second pause - 4 seconds out - 4 second pause - repeat) to calm down. It works for Navy SEALs, and it works before bike races too. 

The gun went off at 6:30 AM and we started rolling. A police escort keeps the start “neutral” until you hit gravel, but if you’re up front (I tried to stay in among the top 100-200 riders) people start sprinting and jostling for position immediately. After the first two turns, things started moving really fast. 

Unbound Gravel front group

My plan was to stay near the front for around 20-30 miles. Based on some intel from other riders, I knew the terrain didn’t get steep or chunky until mile 30. This would allow me to take advantage of the draft and the lower morning temps to gain some ground early.

2024 Unbound Gravel Mud

Thankfully, this was about as bad as the mud got this year. 

Things were chaotic and the peloton accordioned whenever we hit a slightly muddy section. This caused a few crashes ahead of me. There were a couple of times where I had to sprint to stay with the group when a rider in front of me lost the wheel, but I mostly focused on staying safe and trying to conserve as much energy as possible. 

Time to Start Pacing

Around mile 40, I was still sitting within the first 100 riders. We started to hit some rocky doubletrack with a lot of punchy climbs. Riders were charging all around me, so I decided it was the right time to back off and start pacing things for the long haul. No more chasing. 

I tried to keep my power around 250 W on the climbs and didn’t follow any of the small groups that started blasting past me.

Unbound gravel pacing

To give you an idea of how much I let off the gas, over the next 80 miles, I dropped back nearly 40 positions. 

This was REALLY scary, but I knew I had to stick to my plan. In 2022, I got nervous and decided to hang onto a fast group until mile 80, which caused me to blow up and cramp after the first checkpoint. This year, I wanted to keep more energy in reserve for the second half of the race. 

Checkpoint 1

The first checkpoint came at mile 70 and I’d been riding with a few groups but was mostly solo for the last 30 miles. This year, my wife and father-in-law were my support crew.

My father-in-law had the brilliant idea to bring a folding wagon. This allowed them to haul all my nutrition and spares from the car right to the edge of the course so I didn’t have to dive down a side street to resupply. 

Unbound Gravel checkpoint supportThe stop was quick. I emptied trash from my pockets and took on more gels and energy chews. My bottles were in a cooler and pre-filled with Tailwind so my wife swapped them out for me while my father-in-law refilled my hydration pack with water and Tailwind. My wife also smeared sunscreen on my face. Then I was off again. 

Once I was outside of town on an isolated stretch of road with no one around, I made a quick stop by a bush to relieve myself (just number 1! I had no stomach issues on race day). This would be my only nature break of the race. 

Heat & Punctures

I managed to tag onto a few more small groups as they came past, but if the pace got a bit too fast (usually on climbs) I would stay conservative and let them slip away. A few guys who recognized me encouraged me to stay attached, but I shook my head, and pointed to my head unit. I had a plan, and I was sticking to it. 

During this stretch from mile 80-100, I saw a couple things I thought were amazing... 

I rode with a woman had crashed and broken her handlebars. Her right handlebar drop was dangling uselessly (think Mathieu van der Poel after his crash in La Samyn) and her right leg was covered in blood. She’d gone down hard, but rode on like a warrior (she ended up finishing over 20 minutes ahead of me!).

In another group, a beast of a man took a heroic turn on the front. I couldn’t believe it. He was SO strong, and he towed a group of several riders along without flicking anyone through for nearly 20 minutes. Eventually he just dropped all of us (unfortunately, he popped near the end and finished a couple minutes behind me). 

Unbound Gravel Little Egypt

At mile 105, I entered Little Egypt, the roughest section of the course. This section was pretty gnarly, but training on my rough local trails prepared me well because I actually found it rather easy.

I blasted down some of the fast descents with a bit too much confidence though, and I managed to puncture both my front and rear tire (I only noticed the front at the time) trying to jump over a cluster of large embedded rocks. Thankfully, I chose to run inserts, which prevented my tires from getting cut at the bead when I bottomed them out. 

I had a brief moment of panic, but my Silca Sealant did its job, and sealed the punctures within a few revolutions. I barely lost any tire pressure and didn’t need to slow down.

Silca Sealant Unbound Gravel

The orange is all Silca sealant. It was very satisfying to peel off after the race. Note: spraying sealant will stain your kit. It looks like my race bibs will always be race bibs now because they're so stained. 

After Little Egypt, the heat got really intense. It felt like I was in an oven and my power started to dip. Fortunately, at mile 113 there was a neutral water stop in the town of Alta Vista. I doused myself in cold water to cool off. I also decided to refill one of my bottles so I could spray more water on myself (I made a mistake here, but more on that in a moment). 

It’s amazing how pouring cold water on yourself can revitalize you. I suddenly felt like I could produce power and I started moving at a good pace again. I caught and passed a few riders who were clearly suffering in the heat. Every 20 minutes, I took my bottle of fresh water and sprayed some on the back of my neck to stay cool. 

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

Unbound Gravel heat

Riders dropping me in the distance. Unbound was full of solitude and heat.

During almost every endurance event I do, I enter a dark place. It’s part of the reason why I love racing. This is when you find out what you’re really made of.

At some point after mile 130 (my memory got really hazy here), I completely ran out of water and carb mix. This was the BIGGEST MISTAKE I made all day. At the neutral water stop, I only refilled one bottle and I sprayed it all on my neck instead of drinking it. I should have taken an extra minute to fill my second bottle, but I was in too much of a rush. 

From here to the next checkpoint there was an endless series of steep hills. My perceived effort skyrocketed and I started to have some really negative thoughts. I regretted not refilling my other bottle and started muttering some abusive things to myself. 

I knew I had to refocus or I’d spiral into oblivion, so I turned on some happy music (I wear bone-conduction headphones that allow you to still hear your surroundings) and tried to turn things around. On every hill, I went straight into my granny gear and focused everything on keeping my power above 200 W. 

This is when I started playing little masochistic games with myself. “I’ll hold this effort for 10 more seconds.” Then, when those 10 seconds passed, I'd say, “10 more seconds.” I'd do this again and again until I crested a hill. On the back side, I'd soft-pedal and focus on breathing out (this helps clear lactate). Then I'd repeat.

Time disappears in these moments. You enter the void and become an automaton. Everything else in your life — your stress, self-hatred, and trauma— it all evaporates into nothingness. Your mind hones in on performing a single physical act: getting one more pedal stroke. 

I conquered hill after hill like this. Eventually, I started to feel loopy around mile 145. I was losing it. A couple of riders with aerobars caught up to me and their pace felt blissfully perfect. A miracle. I latched on and they were able to tow me the last few miles into the second checkpoint. 

Checkpoint 2

Unbound checkpoint support Red bull and ice water

My father-in-law pouring water on me.

At the second checkpoint (mile 148) I immediately poured ice water from my cooler all over myself. I also chugged a cold Red Bull. This probably won’t work for everyone, but Red Bull is my secret weapon for long endurance races. I always save it for an emergency pick-me-up.  

I couldn't eat any more energy chews. My appetite was gone, so I just grabbed extra gels. I also took plain water instead of carb mix in my hydration pack because my palate was fatiguing. BTW, this is why I really like the texture and flavor of Carbs Fuel gels. They’re watery and almost tasteless, so they're easy to get down when you have no desire to eat. I switched to eating 2 50g Carbs Fuel gels per hour. I also stuffed a small can of Coca-Cola in my pocket. 

Before I left, I told my wife that I’d blown it — I didn’t think I’d make it to the finish in under 12 hours. She didn’t say anything about that and just got me set up to go. Overall, this stop didn’t take any longer than my first. 

When I started riding, I came alive again. The cold water and Red Bull did the trick. Suddenly, I was cruising up the hills. My pace was good and my perceived effort was low (enough). There was still a small glimmer of hope, but I shoved it down. No way, I thought. This can't last. No way.  

Going Deep Into the Pain Cave

Shortly after the second checkpoint, one of the aerobar riders from mile 145 caught me again. His name was John, and he was from Kansas City. Of all the people I met over the course of the race, he was the one who made the biggest difference. 

Unbound gravel aerobars

There goes my hero...

John rode a Lauf Seigla just like me, and he was STRONG. We quickly decided to work together to gain time. When he got into the aerobars on flat sections, we were able to move along at 21-25 miles per hour. I paced it up the climbs. We were flying. 

Around mile 160 we started passing more riders. A couple were able to stay attached and we soon had a strong group of 4 chugging along at a blistering pace. I looked at my watch, my mileage, and my speed. I did some quick math in my head. 12 hours might still be possible. It would be really close, but if we kept this up, we might JUST make it. 

Unbound gravel racing finish

Around mile 175, gray jersey here was able to tag on and trade pulls. He was also STRONG.

Around mile 180, my wife started texting me: 

“You can beat 12.” 
“You’re on pace.” 
“Keep going. Hold this pace. You can do it.”

She and my father-in-law were watching my progress through my Garmin LiveTrack. They’d done the math too and realized at my current pace, a 12 hour finish was still within reach. 

Our group worked well with each of us ripping fast turns. Eventually, one of the riders we had picked up bowed out and peeled off. “Have fun,” he said. “Good luck.” 

We were down to three, and after 30 miles of hammering, John and I were starting to come unglued. I was panting and drooling, barely able to breathe. John started cramping and was pushing his right leg down with his hand. The other rider with us (gray jersey) was constantly standing out of the saddle and grinding a massive gear to keep the pace high.

We didn't slow down. 

Around mile 190, we caught a big group of riders. When we came past, it broke apart as the riders all tried to jump onto our little paceline. 

Only a few of the riders in our new, larger group seemed willing to work. Many immediately started skipping turns. Every time I did a pull and came off the front, a gap would open up in the paceline and I’d end up third or fourth wheel again.

My wife’s texts were getting frantic now:

“Still within reach!”
“Don’t give up!”
“Stay hard!” (We like to quote David Goggins ironically.)

At this point, I went deeper into the pain cave than I ever have before. I was going all-out on the front, and then doing another all-out effort just to get back onto the paceline and hold the wheel. I wanted to quit so badly. I started playing the game in my head again. Hold the wheel for 10 seconds. Then 10 seconds more. 10 more... Unbound Gravel finish highland

Before the final turn onto pavement our group started spliting apart. Black and orange kit is the insanely strong rider I mentioned earlier who took a monster 20 minute pull. 

At mile 200, it was 6:23 PM. We had 2 miles left and it was going to be CLOSE. Riders started sprinting as we approached the tunnel leading into the iconic Highland Hill before the finish. When I set up for the left turn into the tunnel, my left hamstring cramped…

No, not now, I thought. 

I started punching my hamstring as we rode through the tunnel to try and stop the cramping. When we hit Highland Hill, our group exploded. I was immediately off the back.

Unbound Gravel 200 finish

I pedaled through the cramp all the way to the top of the hill. When the finish came into view, I gave it everything I had left until I crossed the line. I had planned to do a pose for my finish photo (the freeze frame ending from The Breakfast Club), but I was simply too exhausted. 

Unbound finisher

With a final finish time of 11:58:20, I beat my time goal by less than 2 minutes. I also finished 90th among the non-elite racers. Over the last 40 miles I pulled back all the places I had lost after easing off at mile 40! 

Final Thoughts

Unbound Gravel finish pain

I’ve said before that I don’t like to think of myself as an “athlete.” I didn’t grow up playing sports. I’ve never felt like I had natural talent. I often feel inferior to more physically gifted riders. When you aren't as strong as others, you have to know when to hold back, and you have to be able to suffer. That's what I can do. Sometimes that leads to success.  

I went into Unbound Gravel this year filled with anxiety and doubt, and I achieved a result that I barely believed was possible. In the final 20 miles, I pushed through the most intense pain and suffering I have ever experienced on the bike. I’m insanely proud, and I had A LOT of fun too. 

Unbound gravel support crew

This would have been impossible for me to do alone. My wife and father-in-law were the perfect support crew. They came all the way out to Kansas and sat in the sun for hours while they waited for me. They were dialed. I got everything I needed with minimal fuss, and they provided me with the exact encouragement I needed to persevere when I thought my 12 hour goal was dead and gone. 

There were also MANY riders who pulled me throughout the day too. I rode to the finish on the backs of people much faster and stronger than me. A special thanks has to go out to John A. — you made the race for me. I’ll never forget our final 40 miles together.

Then there’s all the amazing people who came up to me and said hi throughout the weekend. It seriously blew me away how many riders said a blog post or video helped them. Everyone who wished me luck and encouraged me, you were on my mind when I felt like giving up in the final 20 miles. 

Welcome to Emporia Unbound GravelSo what now? Will I go back to Unbound Gravel again someday?

I want to! It’s the highlight of my year. There aren’t many events that celebrate cycling like Unbound does. The entire town of Emporia gets taken over by thousands of riders and it feels like you’ve entered a 2-wheeled fantasy world. 

I’ll likely need some new goals though, because I’m not sure I can go any faster without sacrificing the happiness of my family and my sanity. Do I try to join the 1,000 mile club (5 finishes)? Race on a singlespeed (ugh...)? Finish Unbound XL (no, please, noooo)? I'm not sure yet, but in one way or another, I’ll be back for more! 

Fun Tidbits:

  • My total moving time was 11:51:23, which means I only stopped for about 7 minutes all day. Both of my checkpoint stops were around 2-3 minutes, and I spent about a minute at the neutral water stop. Peeing likely took less than a minute. If I had lollygagged just a bit more, I would have missed my goal!
  • 150 pro/elite men and women finished faster than me. Add that to my 90th place and I'd be 240th. When pros and amateurs were still ranked together in 2022, I placed 283rd. A nice improvement! 
  • When Unbound last went north in 2021, a finishing time of 12 hours would have put you in 21st overall! It really shows how much faster Unbound has gotten and how stacked the field is now. 
  • The last classified rider (902 finished the 200 mile distance this year) crossed the line at 20:30:50. This BLOWS my mind. I thought I went hard but holy crap, that is a long day on the bike. I feel like death just watching TV on the couch for 20 hours! These are seriously amazing people. 

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