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Things Don't Always Go Your Way: My 2023 Unbound Gravel Recap

Gravel racing is supposed to be fun... right? Well sometimes it's not. This year, Unbound Gravel kicked my butt and sent me home early. I tell the tragic story of how my gravel racing dreams got mercilessly crushed.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Features

Hmm. There's something missing in this photo...

Well, I didn’t finish Unbound Gravel this year. Embarrassingly, I only made it 25 miles. I like to think of myself as a gritty rider, and pride myself on being able to finish every race, no matter how badly I’m performing (I haven't DNF'd since 2016!). But this year, after damaging my bike beyond repair, it just wasn’t meant to be. 

I’m filled with frustration, anger, and sadness, but more than anything, a crushing feeling of emptiness. So what went wrong? And how can I bounce back from such a defeat? 

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How Unbound Gravel Started

I arrived at the start around 5:40 AM and Commercial Street was packed with racers and spectators. I walked up the sidewalk toward the 12-hour start sign and hopped into the bunch. Finishing under 12 hours was my goal this year. The previous year I made plenty of rookie mistakes, like pacing poorly and under-fueling. This year I felt dialed and confident that 12 hours was possible. 

2023 Unbound Gravel startI have no idea what's coming.

The pros were introduced over the PA system. We got a rendition of the National Anthem. Then… the start was delayed 5 minutes. The amateurs started at 6:05 AM. A minute in, before we even got out of town, the entire race got split by a train. Many racers ducked under the gates and rushed across the tracks. But most had to stop and wait for the train to pass. 

BTW: I heard from my wife that the exact same thing happened at the 100-mile start an hour later. I’m not here to complain about Unbound’s race organization, but this type of thing really shouldn’t happen at an event this big. 

This early split in the race didn’t matter much though because about 12 miles in, we faced the slowest, most heinous stretch of mud that I’ve ever experienced. It made last year's mud bogs seem easy in comparison. Riders were forced to dismount and hike nearly 4 miles.

Some tried to ride in short bursts, but the peanut buttery mud would clog their bikes up quickly. I didn’t bring a paint stirrer (dumb, so dumb), so I had to dig in the bushes for a stick to scrape my bike clean. 

2023 Unbound Gravel mudMud, mud everywhere.

The combination of mud, grass, and stones stuck like glue to my tires, snowballing until it stopped the wheels from turning. After some broken derailleurs last year, I tried my best to keep my rear wheel and drivetrain clear. I shouldered my bike as much as possible to keep it off the ground, but this got extremely tiring, and I eventually decided to just push my bike along while diligently scraping off all the mud accumulating on the tires. 

This dragged on forever. I’d look a few hundred feet ahead, and my heart would sink when I saw people still walking. Many riders were miserable. Many were cursing and angry. Some (and I love these people) cracked jokes, made light of the situation, and encouraged everyone onward. The thing that kept me, and I’m sure many riders going was the fact that we were all in it together. 

I did my best to keep eating and hydrating. Finally, over an hour-and-a-half after the race started, I was free of the mud. I had traveled a total of 18 miles. My 12-hour time goal was dead. It was soon clear that this year was just about finishing. 

It Went From Bad to Worse

Once I reached dry(ish) ground, I scraped as much mud as I could off my wheels and tires. I also had to scrape all the mud off my chainring to get my chain to stay on. Then I remounted and started pedaling. I gave my derailleur a quick run through the gears to make sure it was all working. The race started for real here.

Things went well for the next few miles. My legs felt good. I hopped on the back of a strong group and started moving fast. Everyone felt the need to make up time. My pacing plan flew out the window as I pushed up climbs at 350-450 watts to stay attached. 

2023 Unbound Gravel broken rear derailleurTrying to get the UDH hanger to rotate. 

After a section filled with rough, golf ball-sized gravel, I started noticing a repetitive “ting” coming from my rear wheel. I heard a rider behind me say, “You’ve got something loose." About 10 seconds later, something jammed up my rear derailleur and I couldn’t turn the pedals. I quickly hopped off to inspect the problem. 

I had broken spoke and it got sucked into my rear derailleur. My UDH hanger had swung back as if the derailleur had hit something (as it’s designed to do) so I had to loosen it with my multitool to rotate it back into position. 

I watched the fancy AXS overload clutch automatically reposition the derailleur. After testing the shifting, everything seemed fine. The broken spoke had been bent behind the cassette, so it was no longer dangling around dangerously. My rear wheel still spun straight. So I hopped back on, feeling like I had gotten lucky. 

2023 Unbound Gravel broken derailleurA broken pulley cage and missing upper pulley.

Unfortunately, my relief only lasted another mile or so. I heard a loud snap, and my derailleur went crashing into the cassette, instantly bringing me to a stop. The spoke had done more damage than I initially thought. My derailleur’s inner pulley cage was broken, and the upper pulley was nowhere to be seen. The chain was twisted up around it all. The whole thing was mangled beyond repair

My Last-Ditch Effort

While packing for the race, I thought a lot about what to do if I lost my derailleur. I chose to bring a multi-tool with a chain breaker and a spare quick link. If the worst happened, my plan was to cut the chain and set the bike up singlespeed. It would suck, but it’d allow me to crawl to the finish. 

2023 Unbound Gravel broken rear derailleur singlespeedFinishing is all that mattered now. 

When it actually happened, I was ready. I’m pretty proud of this moment. I didn’t panic. I immediately removed the derailleur and cut the chain to the right length. I snapped on the quick link and felt super excited to have a working setup. I knew wouldn’t come close to hitting my goal time now, but at least I’d have an epic story of resilience to tell later

Unfortunately, there was still a problem. When my pulley cage broke and the chain got twisted around it, several links in the chain got severely bent. I tried to cut off the most damaged section, but there was still a couple of links left with a slight kink in them. While pedaling, I could feel the chain skip when these links passed over the cassette. 

I managed to pedal on for another few miles, and it seemed like my janky singlespeed was going to work. Then, while spinning down the fast descent, the rear wheel momentarily locked up. I was going over 20 mph when this happened and nearly crashed.

The bent links caused the chain to jump to the next biggest cog, and the sudden increase in tension snapped the chain. After regaining control, I was already hundreds of feet down the hill. 

My chain was gone. I hiked back up the hill, fruitlessly searching for it in the gravel and grass. After about 20 minutes, it slowly dawned on me — my race was over

The Pain of Defeat

2023 Unbound Gravel DNFHide the pain...

I hiked with my broken bike to a spectator spot called the Bazaar Cattle Pens and called for a ride. Then I sat down on a rock, feeling a bit stunned. I think it’s safe to say that this was the worst day of my racing “career.” I had been training and prepping obsessively for over 7 months. I’d spent thousands of dollars on entry fees, a support crew, my bike, lodging, and travel. Now, I had nothing to show for it all

For a while, I remained in a state of disbelief. Then I cursed a bit and threw my bike into the grass (I’m not proud of this). I considered offering a spectator money to drive into town to buy me a new Eagle chain so I could retry the singlespeed setup (this isn’t “allowed,” but I just wanted to finish so badly). I even shed a couple of tears. 

In the end, I had no choice but to accept it, because there was nothing left for me to do. I had DNF’d

Moving On...

2023 Unbound Gravel DNF sad faceSeveral beers deep, contemplating my life.

Could I have prevented this? I’m not sure. I checked over my wheels a week before the race and they were solid. Maybe, if I had stopped immediately after I heard my spoke pinging around, I could have bent it around another spoke to keep it out of my derailleur. Maybe, I could have taken more care when cutting my chain, and my singlespeed setup would have survived. I keep running through all the possibilities in my head. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe it was bad luck. Maybe it was a bit of both

Of course, I’m disappointed. To console myself, I've tried to focus on a few positives:

1. I am not alone - I sat at the cattle pens waiting for pickup with 7 other riders. There were many broken derailleurs and many battered bodies that day. I saw trucks and Jeeps driving dozens of riders out of the mud pits while I waited for my own ride. When I got dropped off back in town, I spoke with countless others who had the same story as me. Sometimes, fate isn’t on your side. But the riders who have suffered with you are. Heath, Eric, Dave, and everyone else I met that day, it was great to talk to you!
2. I got to watch the finish - I got dropped off in town around noon, so I had the whole afternoon to sit around and drink beers. This is the first time I’ve been able to catch the finish line showdown between the pro men. Watching Keegan Swenson take the win was super exciting. Cheering for all the happy riders who made it to the end felt a bit cathartic. But best of all, I got to see my wife finish her first 100-mile race. It’s the biggest race she’s ever done, and she pushed through immense pain and doubt. I couldn’t be more proud!
3. The fire is stoked for the future - Since I only rode 25 miles, I’m still pretty fresh. I can start training for my next event sooner, and maybe get a bit of redemption. I also got to see my friend Luke Hall finish second in the Unbound XL after dropping out the year before. The smile on his face was massive when he crossed the line. He’s definitely inspired me to keep trying to reach my own goals.

In the description for my Strava upload, I wrote: “One to forget.”

Now, after some time, I think I’ve changed my mind. I don't want to forget this race. In fact, I’m incredibly grateful to the woman who insisted she take my picture in the cattle pens even though I wasn’t in the mood.

Things don’t always go your way. That’s part of life, and part of bike racing. Every low point only serves to make the high points sweeter, and Unbound Gravel wouldn’t be remotely worthwhile if failing spectacularly like this wasn’t a possibility.

To be able to attend a race like Unbound, to even be able to come to Kansas just to ride my bike, is a huge privilege. Not everyone gets the chance to do this. 

I still love this s*** and I'm sure I’ll be back. Someday, a sub-12-hour finish (and vengeance) will be mine. 

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