Touching the void at Unbound XL by Andy Critchlow
I finished 18th in Unbound XL, the 350-mile ultra-endurance gravel race across the Flint Hills region of Kansas. Here is my story.
The race started on June 3 at 3pm in Emporia, Kansas and for or a Brit, getting to the start line is half the battle.
I flew to Kansas City from Heathrow departing 7am on June 1. I arrived in O’Hare International Airport in Chicago at around 2pm the same day. I tried to sleep as much as possible on the flight knowing that I would be riding through the night in the race. In Chicago I had a few hours to get a connecting flight to Kansas City and I had to collect my bags, including bike box, to check in again for the domestic flight from another terminal. This was a stress as O’Hare is a sprawling labyrinthine airport.
However, the connecting flight was short, and I landed in Kansas City International Airport around 4:30pm. Thankfully, my bike box emerged unscathed, and I collected a hire car – gigantic Chevrolet Tahoe – from Avis. This was overkill and a massive unnecessary expense, but it did make the road trip more comfortable, and I had space to stretch.
From Kanas City I drove south on the I35 highway to a small town of Ottawa about halfway to Emporia, arriving at my hotel at around 7:30 pm. I had booked a cheap room in a Super 8 roadside motel and planned to eat, shower and sleep. I found a decent Mexican restaurant in town and ate well for $14. I slept intermittently through the night and was wide awake at 4am the next day, June 2.
Checking out of the hotel at 8am, I bumped into former pro rider Frankie Andreu in the lobby. He was incredibly friendly considering I was a stranger. He was heading to Emporia to MC the event and wanted to know why I was doing XL. I told him I wanted to “touch the void” and he laughed. We parted company and I headed to the local bike shop, Ottawa Bike & Trail, to see if they would refit the tubeless tires on my race wheels. They were very helpful and friendly; not only did they sort my wheels, the owner Jeff also offered to be my emergency backup for the race in case something went horribly wrong 200 miles from the finish, and I needed picking up.
Another hour-long drive down the I35 and I eventually reached base camp in Emporia. I had a few hours to kill before I could check into my Airbnb and collect my race number.
I parked up in the centre of town and decided to reassemble my bike on the sidewalk and check it had survived the long flight. Everything bolted together fine, and I decided to have a ride around the giant bike exhibition in town before race sign on at 3pm. Gravel has turned cycling in America into something closer to surfing. It’s everything cycle sport isn’t in the UK. Cool, laid back and super friendly.
Riding around Emporia I bumped into former GB junior squad team rider Matt Charity. Matt now lives in Colorado with his wife Amy – former pro-MtB rider. They are well known on the US gravel scene and own the Steamboat race. Our chat helped to settle my nerves.
At 3pm I collected my race number and a GPS tracking device from race HQ. It’s required for all competitors to carry the tracker in the XL and it means your progress can be tracked real-time on trackleaders.com. From there I headed to my Airbnb on the outskirts of town. I was lucky. Accommodation in Emporia is hard to come by in race week and I had booked this room in a family home in January. Once settled in I spent the rest of the day making final adjustments and checks to my bike, crossing off all the equipment I planned to carry during the race. Fully loaded, my Mason Bokeh with two lights, frame bags and race food weighed upwards of 17kg.
I tried to get to sleep around 11pm after a late evening meal but again I had a restless night. Next day I was awake early again and I was beginning to get nervous about how I would cope racing without sleep through the night if the jet lag finally caught up.
Riders were already gathering on the line an hour before the start at 3pm on June 3 in the centre of Emporia. XL is the first and longest of the distances raced at Unbound. As the minutes ticked down the atmosphere started to build as all 160 competitors gathered and the race MC started to hype the event for the hundreds of people who had turned up to watch the roll out.
Looking at the other competitors I started to get nervous. They looked fit and ready. I was literally riding into the unknown having never done anything like this distance before. I had a gameplan to try and get into the front group and conserve my energy, resisting the urge to pull at the front. At 3pm the starting flag was dropped and we were led out of Emporia by a neutralised police escort. About a mile out of town and we turned left onto a big gravel road and the race was on.
Immediately, I attacked and had the field in one long line. I knew this was stupid and not part of my gameplan, but I kept going and attacking until I broke clear with a strong American rider. We worked well together and got a decent gap. After about 10 miles a super strong German guy called Marius Karteusch bridged across and we were three. With almost 2 hours of racing completed we were still riding too hard and I was starting to feel the midday heat. However, we kept pushing on. Coming up to the first of 6 checkpoints on the course where riders can stop to buy water and food we were caught by a strong group of 10 riders after about 60 miles of hard racing. I couldn’t believe it as I had done almost 280 watts average power in the first 2 hours.
I filled up with water at an outdoors tap and set off quickly from the checkpoint. I hoped to settle into the lead group and go back to my initial plan to conserve energy. But it became pretty obvious I had blown the race apart and also blown my own doors off. The heat started to sap all power from my legs and I couldn’t even sit in the wheels. I dropped back. I was feeling terrible and still had 20 hours of riding ahead. I started to worry I wouldn’t be able to finish and decided to go into bike packing mode. The goal now was to finish and ignore the result.
Into the night
I was suffering on my own for what felt an eternity. I knew that I just needed to get to the next checkpoint at 120 miles and then I could maybe reset. As the sun started to drop around 8pm and the fireflies came out it started to cool down and I began to feel much better. The strength started to come back to my legs and the watts on my Garmin increased. I was caught by a few riders and I was comfortable working with them.
Then I was slow setting off from the checkpoint at Casey’s store and I was again riding on my own riding into the night. I kept going and started to feel much stronger. I then saw a flickering red light in the distance and started to reel in a rider ahead. We rode together to the next checkpoint at 180 miles and now I started to believe that I could still get a result if I kept going as the riders ahead of me would surely crack. At a town called Eureka we were joined by Tyler Pearce – known to most people as the Vegan Cyclist on TouTube. We started to work hard together through to the 236-mile checkpoint.
Riding through the night was hypnotic and surreal. My legs were feeling good again and I wasn’t blowing up. I had been disciplined with my feeding, taking onboard plenty of liquids and eating an energy gel every hour. However, my body was starting to suffer. I had started the race with a saddle sore I had lanced (I know it’s disgusting) the night before and covered with Compede. It was now starting to hurt. I also had bad chafing from my shorts which was starting to cause a bloody sore above my groin. Both problems I had to manage carefully with the small sachets of chamois cream I packed.
At about 4am we caught another couple of riders and we now had good numbers to work in our group. I kept encouraging the group to keep working as I was convinced the riders ahead would crack. We had now been racing for 15 hours solid and it felt like the race had never eased. As the sun came up my lights started to die but I had just enough power from my spare battery to get through the whole night. We now caught the first rider to crack from the front group and we all knew that we had to keep pushing.
The group was motoring. I could see we were on schedule to finish around 22 hours easily as we approached the final big climb of the race. This is where the XL course started to merge with the 200 and things started to get dangerous as we caught the tail end riders of the shorter distance event. Tyler dropped the hammer on the technical descent to get ahead of these riders and I followed. I was on the edge of my technical ability 20 hours deep into a 350-mile race. A top 10 finish was still possible. Then disaster struck.
I went for my gears and suddenly the lever locked in place. I tried to move it and hit it in a panic, but it wouldn’t move. The cable had snapped jamming the lever and locking my gears into the 12 sprocket. I could still change between the 36 and 48 chainrings but neither gear was good for the terrain. With about 50 miles left I just decided to go all in and churn the big gear to the finish.
Then it started to rain hard. Coming out of the last checkpoint at 311 miles the chain started to jump under pressure, and I was forced to walk on the climbs. I lost contact with my group. Then coming into a tough muddy section a rider from the 200 event coming from behind crashed into me hard, gashing my leg with their chainset and taking out my Garmin. I managed to get my Garmin back on but I was starting to think my race could be over with 30 miles left to ride.
Weirdly, the crash helped because it slowed me down. Instead of relying on brute force and anger to get me to the finish I started to think about how I could fix my gears. I cleared all the mud and managed to screw the mech over two cogs on the 14 sprockets. This fixed the problem and meant I could push on hard to the finish. I had lost about an hour but my legs still felt good so I started to empty whatever was left in the tank.
Coming into Emporia I was pulling back riders fast. The rain was heavy and deep churned up mud made the last 10 miles some of the toughest in the entire race. At this point I had no idea where I was in the race in relation to the other 160 riders who had set off the day before, so I just kept riding hard.
After the final sector of gravel, the road then kicked up a sharp climb entering the town and I could hear the crowd at the finish. I had done it. Crossing the finish line, I stopped my Garmin with an elapsed time of 23 hours 20 minutes and 47 second for a total distance of 352.75 miles.
After such an epic battle just to finish, crossing the line felt like an anti-climax compared with the odyssey to get there. The race helpers handed me a musette bag and an XL finisher’s beer stein, which is actually a really cool alternative to a medal.
I was then corralled into a long queue of riders waiting to get their muddy bikes power washed by Muc-Off. I was totally shattered and started to feel the weight of fatigue weigh on me.
I finished 18th overall and 2nd rider over 40 but the XL doesn’t have an age group category.
What I learned
I started too fast and shouldn’t have invested so much energy in the first 3 hours of racing. I recovered but I lost contact with the front group because of the 300 watts average I sustained for the first hour of racing to establish the break. I rode the first 60 miles like it was a short road race, not the world’s hardest 24-hour ultra-gravel marathon. My average normalised power for the entire race was 200 watts.
I spent too much time in the checkpoint stops. My moving time was 22:02:35, which means I spent over an hour drinking cans of Redbull, standing around waiting for others to fill their water bottles. All the riders in the Top 10 were much more efficient in these stops.
My bike was too heavy. I went for a kitchen sink set up which easily weighed close to 20kg fully loaded. With over 11,000ft of climbing Unbound XL isn’t flat and a lighter bike would have certainly helped at the back end of the race. Carrying a spare tire and two spare batteries, with extra tools was probably overkill. I didn’t use half the stuff I packed.
I should have stopped to fix my gears instead of thinking I could nurse the 12 sprocket to the finish. If I had stopped sooner to fix it then I would have saved a lot more time and probably caught the group I lost contact with when the gear cable snapped.
The standard is much higher than I thought. Riders on the start line looked very pro and many are full-time. A guy from EF was even racing in the XL this year. The popularity of gravel in the US has pushed up the overall standard across all distances.
Will I do it again? Yes.
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