As Unbound weekend approaches, stars gather for the crown jewel of off-road

New, familiar star names from the road scene jet over to Kansas, while broadcast challenges show there is still growth in the gold star of US cycling.

Jonny Long
by Jonny Long 30.05.2024 Photography by
Life Time
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It’s here! The first week in June, where gravel racing reigns supreme. Deftly plonked in between the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, although down in Kansas is a long way from professional road racing pelotons. Or is it?

Unbound is an offshoot community sprung from humble beginnings nearly two decades ago that has since morphed into what 2021 winner Lauren De Crescenzo terms the “Super Bowl” of cycling. And as the former WorldTour pros jet in, sponsors attached, other privateers in tow milling around, a hint of all-star-ness pervades.

That’s not a bad thing. Anything that is good and popular eventually becomes a victim of its own success. People are still stoked on the thriving subculture of gravel and riding 200 miles around the Great Plains.

Rather than the battle for the soul of something, the certainty is that this is now a race. A race race.

“I think there’s been a lot of riders who are very surprised how fast and how intense the racing is now, which has just changed immediately,” Peter Stetina, WorldTour roadie gone off-roadie said on a media call the week before the 200-mile race set for this Saturday, June 1.

“I think sprint finishes are just more and more commonplace, and things get more competitive, which I’m all for. You know, this is a new discipline, and it’s great to see that it allows riders another opportunity to be a professional racer.”

Riders charge up a hill at Unbound 2023.

Laurens ten Dam, another retired road pro who has been at the gravel thing for a few years, reckons finishing times now are between an hour to one and a half hours quicker than before the roadie invasion.

“I think there are some riders who come in, like [Petr] Vakoc, who are performing immediately. They know how to do the logistics, the privateer hustle we call it,” Stetina estimates. “And other riders have kind of missed the mark a little bit. Just being a good road cyclist does not necessarily translate to a good gravel racer.”

Two big names from the European scene crossing the Atlantic ocean for a taste are Greg Van Avermaet and Matej Mohorič, the former an Olympic and Paris-Roubaix champion and the latter the current UCI gravel world champion.

Van Avermaet, clothed in cream shacket rather than team-logo-laden tracksuit, admits that while it’s been a goal of his to race Unbound for a few years, as well as some retirement triathlon, of course, there’s a nervousness about stepping into – for the first time in years – a big-ticket race that he’s never done before.

“I’m a little scared of the distance, and it’ll definitely take me out of my comfort zone, but as a road rider, I was always strong in the longer, one-day races, and I will do my best and try to enjoy it as much as I can,” he said on the press call.

Riders descend round a corner at Big Sugar 2023.
Last autumn’s Big Sugar event saw interest from some top European riders, which continues apace at the 2024 Unbound.

“I still need to properly look at the route, but I think one of the most important factors in having success in this type of race is to try and limit the amount of mechanicals you have and to not panic if and when you do have them. We’ll see how things go, but I’m really looking forward to it.”

Mohorič, of dropper-post fame, is one for whom mechanical innovation is second nature, although he’s perhaps a little dismissive of the importance of gear choice (“It’s just a gravel tire, right?” he said to Velo‘s Betsy Welch). Still, all eyes will be what he brings to the field, especially as he arrives with two Bahrain Victorious teammates, Matevž Govekar and Łukasz Wiśniowski.

In the women’s 200-mile event, there’s the mouthwatering prospect of the last four winners lining up to contest the 2024 title: Carolin Schiff (Germany), Sofia Gomez Villafane (Argentina), De Crescenzo (USA) and Amity Rockwell (2019). Add Sarah Sturm (USA) to the list, and you also have last year’s podium returning for another pop.

Sarah Sturm tackles the 2023 Sea Otter Fuego XL.
Sarah Sturm tackles the 2023 Sea Otter Fuego XL, part of Life Time’s Grand Prix series along with Unbound.

The men would have seen a three-deep roll call of previous winners with 2023’s Keegan Swenson (USA) and 2021’s Ian Boswell (USA), but 2022 victor Ivar Slik (Netherlands) is currently in a Kansas hospital after being hit by a driver while out training.

“The four of us did a gravel ride for the first time, it was the second day we were here. I had planned a nice gravel ride of four or five hours,” Niki Terpstra, retired WorldTour pro and part of a Dutch Unbound contingent alongside Slik and Ten Dam, said on his Speed On Wheels podcast. The first hours were on deserted (gravel) roads and were uneventful, but after just over two hours things went terribly wrong.

“We had a slight descent,” Terpstra recounted. “Ivar and Jasper [Ockeloen] rode in front, Thijs [Zonneveld, journalist and racer] and I were behind. After three or four kilometers on a gravel road we had a blind bend to the left. Out of nowhere a delivery truck comes around the corner. One or two seconds later there was a loud crash. Ivar rides head-on into that car. He hit his handlebar in the grill and headlight, his shoulder hit the hood and his face hit the front. His body flew through the air and grazed the truck.”

Initial reports were worrying but Terpstra now reports that Slik will miraculously “recover 100 per cent,” although, obviously, not in time for Saturday’s race.

Of course, a bike race wouldn’t be a bike race without some minor scandal. In 2023 it was whether organizers should’ve re-routed the course around muddy sections that helped spell a premature end to many racers’ day. This year, organisers Life Time have put out a PSA announcement pleading with competitors to not bend, cut, or alter the number plates fixed to their handlebars so as not to potentially break timing chips, or else they’ll risk disqualification.

Last year’s men’s race was decided by less than a bike length, with Swenson sporting a bent plate, potentially providing the aero gains that gave him the victory. The spirit of gravel as it was originally known may be dead, but those extra watts are likely to give you a bigger push.

Riders plow on through dust clouds.

Americans, generally, dare to dream big. That’s how Unbound came to be what it is today. You guys have a Super Bowl, other peoples would be happy with just a plain, ordinary Bowl, which doesn’t put bums asses in seats and eyeballs on screens.

That’s why, in 2022, its first edition as a newly acquired Life Time event, there was an audacious attempt to live-stream Unbound Gravel 200. CyclingNews reported there was “aerial coverage from a dozen roaming cameras, including drones and 4x4s on the 200-mile route … the effort was made, but the product suffered.”

Life Time intend to provide proper live coverage within three to five years, senior marketing director for Life Time, Michelle Duffy, also told CyclingNews, but for now the race will stick to a bumper 40-minute highlights video that will come out a couple of days after the winner crosses the finish line, while live updates will be provided on Instagram.

Star names arrive, the world watches, and the race struggles to catch up with what it’s become. A nice problem to have, and an innate cycling-ness that is hard to shift – and what makes organic phenomena like Unbound what it is.

Riders wait on the Unbound start line.

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