The best bit of advice we got before the start of Unbound Gravel 200 was simple: “If you see mud, get off and walk. Don’t try to be a hero.”
If you dare ride tandem at this hugely popular race, follow that one rule. It doesn’t take much to lose traction on the ever-present soft sections and go down. I’ll talk about that more in a minute.
Only two tandem teams, Friday Coffee Club (me and Mary from Washington, D.C.) and Chick ‘n Dick (Michelle and Brent of Fort Collins, Colo.), took on this year’s muddy 200 mile edition in Emporia, Kansas and I can see why.
Gravel racing in the Flint Hills truly is enticing. You get long stretches of sublime and scenic unpaved road riding across unpopulated range lands and everybody is stoked to be there. But the captain’s attention can never wane as the course traverses flowing creek crossings and diabolical mud-slicked sections.
As a first-timer at Unbound, I learned many lessons being part of a tandem team that had to work together start to finish. We posted a time of 17:04 overall — longer than I hoped — but we were still smiling at the end. The rewards were huge, but we had to earn all of them, one pedal stroke at a time.
We also benefited from a lot of luck before and during the ride — and the love and support of our Kansas friends and the awesome vibe of the gravel community, who all gave us newbies so much encouragement.
Here’s a quick summary before I get into the details:
- We were in over our heads at the front end of the race, but we found our legs and nerve and got around in a respectable time.
- Of just two tandems riding the 200 mile, we came in first by nine minutes — a margin of circumstance over 17 hours. Any tandem team finishing this event deserves a special medal for sheer bravery.
- Our randonneuring experience gave us confidence in our endurance, which paid off in the end.
- Mary rode like a champion. She kept up our speed and our spirits.
- The Green Apple steel tandem by Co-Motion rode solidly. It was heavy in the muddy sections but got us home without fuss.
- Our old-school SRAM 3×10 mechanical drivetrain worked. I didn’t throw the chain. We didn’t walk any of the hills.
- WTB Venture 650b x 47mm tires were just the right width and rolled well.
- Life Time and Emporia ran a classy event and we got a lot of rock star treatment from our fellow riders.
Finally, we arrive at Unbound
We were selected in the lottery in 2020 and deferred last year. That meant two years of anticipation had built up as the big day approached.
Mary and I flew with our coupled steel Co-Motion 650B Java drop bar tandem, the Green Apple, in its airline cases to Kansas City and drove a rental car to Emporia on Thursday.
Our first bit of good fortune came at the hotel. I booked us at the Holiday Inn Express but in Emporia, Virginia by mistake. We were up a creek with literally no room at the inn. Being within walking distance of other hotels we split up to ask about cancellations. My first choice, the Hampton Inn, had a room and I grabbed it.
After building up the bike we rode downtown to get our number plates (which turned out to be incorrect, though we’d only find out after the race) and check out the massive expo. Ashton Lambie was in the packet pickup with us and looked totally relaxed.
What a scene at the expo! It was huge with all the industry tents and full of life, and we got lots of supportive attention pushing the tandem around.
“Oh, that is so cool. You guys riding that?” Yes! “Which race?” The 200! “Whoa, respect! Have fun!”
There was an eye-popping amount of incredible gravel bikes and luxe gear. We had cool conversations, especially at the Bikeflights stand and at WTB, where we got some complimentary sealant for our WTB tires. The team at the Shimano booth pumped up our front tire, which was a little soft. This was to be a recurring issue during the race.
We spoke with pro racer Sarah Sturm, who we met years ago in Durango on one of our Colorado tours. She was way cool to chat with.
I spoke with a fellow who said he and his stoker were riding a titanium tandem for the event. Turns out they were ultrarunner Michelle Schwartz and Dean bicycles employee Brent Davis of Fort Collins, Colorado. We’d see them again on Saturday.
On Friday we grabbed coffee at Gravel City Roasters and we saw Ashton Lambie again, in his rainbow world champion jersey. Pro gravel racer Peter Stetina stood in line behind me, sorting through his interview requests. There were camera crews working around them on Commercial Street and we gawked at the scene as we drank our coffees.
At 10 a.m. we rode a 15-mile checkout group ride under brilliant blue skies, where we met Christopher, who lives relatively close to us in Maryland. My adrenaline spiked just tooling along with a relatively small group. This was actually happening! Mary and I bought new wind vests at the expo, just in case.
We met up for lunch with Jennifer and Lance Tobey of Leavenworth, Kansas, who we have gotten to know over the past few years. They are great folks who support riders through the bike shop where he works. It was so nice to see familiar faces. Meanwhile the town was alight with folks riding around on their gravel bikes and looking sleek.
We waited to cheer the 350-mile XL riders at their start and then went back to the hotel, where I nervously checked the forecast. Showers were still expected, with possible downpours. I hoped those would miss us.
I also loaded the revised route onto our Garmins. The change, to avoid an impassible water crossing, took four miles out of the route, dropping it to about 200 exactly. This was welcome news, but we were still facing more than 9,000 feet of estimated climbing.
Up at 4 a.m., I looked out the window and saw no rain, but there were lots of clouds and wind as we saddled up in the low 60s. We got downtown just after 5 a.m. and I looked in Gravel City Cycling for energy chews. They were sold out but as we were talking to former D.C. resident Keith Muller, who was guest wrenching at the store, a person from Scratch Labs walked up with freebies to hand out. How lucky is that!
We joined the 14-16 hour group and chatted with a fellow randonneur who had on her reflective vest. The other tandem was nearby and there wasn’t any way to know how many others there might be.
The start was a real treat with all the cheering on the way out of town. Really it was unlike the start at any other event we’ve done, including Paris-Brest-Paris. It was incredible.
All went well, if slightly fast, in the close quarters of the first hour until I steered us into a soft dirt rut at mile 17 and we plopped over. That landing wasn’t anything but the poor rider behind fell on top of us.
Very luckily we were all fine and the bikes were undamaged. Mary rightly noted it as a warning to choose caution over speed, and I’d spend the rest of the race with the front wheel locked on the hardpack line.
The climbing up into the pasture lands to the first water stop at mile 40 slowed down the pace and strung out the field. Just before the stop the 100-mile riders, who started an hour after us, started ripping through — led by one Peter Sagan.
He and his Direct Energies teammate Daniel Oss blew past with a herd of stampeding riders behind them. Peter and Daniel stopped at the water oasis and let the 100-miler racers go on. It was kinda neat to see yet another actual world champion hanging out.
Brent and Michelle were there and pulled out ahead, and we started passing each other back and forth on the way to the first full rest stop in Eureka at mile 77. A rider came along and said he didn’t realize anyone made gravel tandems!
We settled into a manageable pace as we plowed through shallow water crossings and over cattle grates. With a more capable gravel tandem — theirs being a tricked out custom Merlin — they would pull away on downhills and flats and we’d get them in sight again on uphills.
I was also suffering from some lower back spasms on hard uphill pulls but those would eventually subside after Eureka.
They rolled through the Eureka stop while we pulled over to eat sandwiches from our frame bag and get a Coke and bananas at the paid support pit stop.
I pumped up the front tire, as it appeared to have some tiny leak at the valve area. I wanted to get dry socks out of our drop bag but they said the bag wasn’t there, which was odd, but it wasn’t a big deal and we figured it had been sent to the second stop in Hamilton.
Eureka – Hamilton
We pulled out in a light rain and stopped to put on jackets, only to take them off again 15 minutes later. This segment was one roller after another over empty countryside. We stopped in Hamilton at mile 114, hungry and a little hot under bright sun. This was a water-only rest, which was fine, except we didn’t top up our Camelbaks, thinking we had plenty of water. Bad idea.
Mary and I shared our package of Wal-Mart potato salad and it hit the spot. Thankfully we ate here, as some real drama lay ahead.
Hamilton – Madison
We were humming along making good time but aware of a muddy hike-a-bike road ahead, according to another rider we met at the Applebee’s by our hotel on Friday evening. He had ridden it earlier in the week and said there was a creek at the end to wash off bikes and shoes.
And there it was, County Road 91 at mile 121 along Willow Creek. We rode a downhill pitch right into an mud bog with forest and farm fields on either side. We stopped quickly and started trying to walk the bike, as riders came flying down and either fell or rode a few yards before dismounting.
Mud built up on the tires so quickly that we had to scrape the wheels if we rolled it. We then started to carry the tandem, but it was too heavy to continuously advance. Mary and I would pick it up, take 20 steps, and set it down to rest our arms, and repeat. A woman near us was close to crying because her bike was so hard to lift.
The whole walking section was nearly a mile and then we spent more time getting the wheels in rideable shape at the creek. In all it took us
47 61 minutes (edit: I looked again, it’s more than I thought!) to get rolling again. My Garmin’s estimate of our finish went from before 9 p.m. to nearly 10 p.m. I was officially demoralized.
I’ll admit I was stressed out by this section. There was no outward complaining by the folks around us, which helped. My mood recovered as we got rolling again and I hoped we’d claw back some of the lost time.
The afternoon sun was getting lower in the sky as we ground through the hard miles to Madison for the second official rest stop, but we had a good group around us. I call them the hard miles from randonneuring rides: that slog just beyond half way to the point when the finish seems somewhat close.
Every road looked the same during this stretch. I could only take my eyes off the road for a moment here and there, fearing dreaded soft sections or ruts that would take us down. I underestimated the mental effort it would take to pay close attention to the road surface for so many hours.
The riders made it look so normal. We took a fair bit of inspiration from Paralympic multi-medalist Meg Fisher, who rides with a prosthetic below her left knee. She was incredible. We also had some 350-mile XL riders doggedly rolling with us.
Everyone looked really strong. People we passed would pass us again within moments if we pulled over.
And we got great support by the few folks out on the course. Mary and I predictably ran out of water before Madison but a couple of very thoughtful local guys brought bottled water with them to the roadside in their truck and we stopped to fill up. They knew all about the mud bog behind us!
Madison appeared in fading daylight and we repeated our program from Eureka at the paid support stop. I pulled out my second sandwich and grabbed a Coke, a banana and some GU chews. They didn’t have our drop bag either, not that we really needed anything from it.
We found out on Sunday it was labeled with a mystery number from a Life Time rider list that didn’t match either of our number plates.
I pumped up the front tire and we gathered ourselves to try to get in.
Madison – Finish
We got a number of “you’re the second tandem!” cheers and encouragement from other support teams and residents directing us out of town, which was really, really welcome at this point. Well done Madison!
I figured Michelle and Brent were a long way in front but maybe we were closer than I realized.
We trundled on to the final muddy stretch, Township 81 at mile 165, where the mud wasn’t deep but the slope was so slick that we had to walk and scrape the tires. This section was also about a mile long and cost us just 24 minutes, which felt a lot longer at this hour of the day, just past 8 p.m. I guess our daylight finish would have to wait until next time.
The good news was the rest of the route set up nicely for night riding. The route trended down all the way to Emporia and the roads were wide with clear hardpack tracks. We’d seen only a couple of vehicles on the route all day and none appeared in the night.
Smelling the barn, Mary and I started pushing forward. Mary made sure I didn’t ease up! She’s strong that way.
We saw light in the night sky and realized Emporia was indeed out there. I put on my supplemental Exposure helmet light which let us see a long way down the road and keep up our speed.
One rider gave us a friendly “Hammer it home!” as we rolled past him, and that captured our mood. We wanted to get the race over with. My legs started to ache and I mostly ignored it.
At mile 191 Michelle and Brent appeared ahead, after we both stopped for separate trains passing across the course. I expected them to jump forward with us (are we racing? yes?) but they held back and we motored on by ourselves to Emporia.
After a big pull up the hill onto the Emporia State University campus — folks yelled “Tandemonium!” at us and cheered, thanks! — we dropped down onto Commercial Street for the finish line. That was some sweet, sweet relief to reach the end, and Jennifer and Lance were there to welcome us.
Downtown looked a little ragged at this point but we didn’t care! It was awesome to get our portrait taken at the Enve stand and get our swag musettes, and then sit down and exhale.
Michelle and Brent finished a few minutes later and we exchanged greetings. They rode super strong and we found out they had to overcome a couple of problems as well.
Let’s wrap up in question and answer format.
1. Will we go back? No, once was really, truly enough. Totally fun, totally hard.
2. Will we change our minds? Maybe. It as a pretty awesome scene.
3. What would you do differently? Bring a set of mud tires if the roads are wet. And, figure out how to carry the tandem for long stretches. I would probably bring our lighter aluminum Co-Motion 650b tandem, the one we normally ride on gravel.
4. Was it fun? Yes, a lot of fun, except when it wasn’t, which was more than we liked. The race was, being first-timers, really hard in ways mental and physical. And we had rain, which everybody said made this one epic. But the payoff is huge.
5. What would you change? Nothing really. The race works wonderfully well as it is. Emporia was great as were Eureka and Madison. Life Time and their partners gave it a genuinely full effort and even if things were not perfect, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
6. How was the podium on Sunday? Ha. There wasn’t one for the 200 mile tandems. Ben Sachs called us to a side chat at the awards ceremony to say they had no 200 mile tandem results, despite us pointing out to the timekeeping team on Saturday night that we weren’t showing up. We also could not find Michelle and Brent in the results.
He promised to send us our awards.
Turns out neither of our bib numbers were associated with our actual team number in their records. After emailing our GPS track to them on Sunday they got it all merged and our results showed up. We got our placing, but not that top step moment.
Also: you won’t find either of our names in the results, though we do show up in the starters list. For whatever reason, they only let the tandems register as a team name.
If you made it this far, congratulations! Thanks for reading. We extend very heartfelt kudos to all the riders and our gratitude to Emporia, Life Time and our pals who encouraged and supported us.
If you rode with us, leave a comment. We’d love to know who helped bring us around the course.