Unbound Gravel is an event infamous for its difficulty. The event’s flagship offering, a punishing 200-mile (320 km) race on “hilly, tire-shredding, sun-baked gravel” in the Flint Hills of Kansas, is the world’s biggest gravel race and attracts riders from all corners of the globe.
This past weekend, the 2023 edition of Unbound Gravel was even more brutal than usual. Heavy rainstorms over the weekend turned multiple sections of dirt into thick, “peanut-butter mud”, hampering much of the field and ending the race entirely for many riders.
The problems began after just 11 miles (17 km). After climbing then descending ‘D Hill’, riders reached a section of thick mud that forced most from their bikes.
With bikes caked in mud and wheels unable to turn, riders found themselves walking or running in the grass beside the road. Some riders reported walking as much as 4 miles (6.5 km).
Some riders were critical of event organisers for opting not to reroute the event around the early muddy section. The possibility of doing so had reportedly been announced in the lead–up, but ultimately the detour wasn’t used.
One of the most critical of that choice was Australian former road pro turned gravel privateer, Nathan Haas. In an Instagram video posted after abandoning the 200-mile elite race early, Haas described the ride as “brutal”, saying it was “one of the most hectic days I’ve ever had on a bike.”
Haas’s ride had started well, and then he hit the now-infamous mud section.
“It turned to peanut butter mud and I couldn’t believe what we saw,” he said. “It was absolute madness. We went in like, maybe 50-60 km/h after a downhill and then it was just guys running with bikes. And it was utter chaos.”
Haas said the section had been fine when he rode it the day prior, but a “huge storm” in Kansas the night before turned it into the “biggest peanut butter slop I’ve ever seen”.
“No bike company designs bikes to be able to handle those conditions,” Haas continued. “Anything that has a tight tire clearance, for a more aerodynamic bike – the wheels just weren’t spinning. Unfortunately, my cassette was completely covered in mud, so I couldn’t even get into gear. And then once you start walking for long enough, you can’t even get back into your pedals.
“I ended up walking eight miles, carrying my bike and then sort of hopped on the bike for some of the downhill, sitting in the grass on the side of the road. And then I resorted to washing my bike in the little rivers that we were riding through, just to see if I could get it moving. But today, unfortunately, there was no hope for actually getting into the race.
“I think the thing that disappoints me a little bit is that the race organiser had the opportunity to reroute around the section that they knew was going to be muddy today to copy the course that we did from last year, which would have completely skipped out this one mud section,” he added. “It just sucks because it took over 50% of the front group out of the race.”
Others were critical of a lack of detour too. Like Argentinian Olympic MTBer and last year’s Unbound 200 winner, Sofia Gomez Villafane.
“I am truly gutted for all the amateur riders that were not able to complete their race yesterday,” she posted on Instagram. “There should have been a reroute around mile 10 so your bikes didn’t get destroyed within the first hour.”
Social media was indeed replete with reports of bikes destroyed, with many derailleurs and derailleur hangers falling victim to the thick mud. One unlucky rider was Chilean Andrés Tagle Galilea, who wrote that “the mud made my derailleur hanger explode. I tried to make it into a single speed bike but the chain broke 4 times!”
Not all riders were angry about the decision not to detour around the early mud pit. Like Stephen Fitzgerald, who completed the 200-mile race and pointed to the difficulty of Unbound as one of its defining features.
“So glad you had the courage to leave this section in,” he wrote on a comment under a video from the official Unbound account. “The spectrum of weather and course conditions has always been a part of the Unbound experience. This isn’t the first mud year and hopefully it won’t be the last.
“We’ve recently had many super dry and hot years with super high race speeds, and it was high time that nature reminded us that the Flint Hills are still wild, and so is gravel. You can go for a 200 mile ride anywhere, any day [of] the week, but Unbound only happens in one place, once a year.”
Interestingly, it’s not the first time that early section of dirt road has proven problematic. The last time it featured in the event was back in 2015. That year, heavy rain in the lead-up led to similar chaos.
While it was that early section that generated the most discussion, it was far from the only mud to affect the weekend. In the 350-mile (563 km) Unbound XL event, thunderstorms rolled in a couple hours after the start on Friday afternoon, making multiple sections of the course unrideable.
American former road professional Ted King was one of the riders taking part in that event. His social media posts throughout the weekend painted a grim picture.
“So this is the lead group,” King said to camera in one video posted to Strava, showing himself walking beside a road with a handful of others. “We’ve gone through the mud that makes the bikes unrideable,” he added, panning to his drivetrain caked in mud. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Later, with the sun now set, King recorded another video, again showing people walking. “Welcome to Unbound Walking Race,” he said. “Probably been walking for 2 miles or more and this is probably the, oh, 10th section? I’m making this up, I have no idea. I bet we’ve walked for seven miles.”
King withdrew from the race around 4am Saturday morning, having spent 13 and half hours on course having covered just over 300 km (186 miles). King had been walking for two hours non-stop when he pulled out, “not wanting to give myself tendonitis or trench foot before Tour Divide.”
Logan Kasper won the 350-mile Unbound XL overall while Kristen Legan won the women’s category, in sixth overall. The elite men’s 200-mile race ended in a sprint between seven riders, with Keegan Swenson winning from a group that included current and former road pros Petr Vakoc, Lachlan Morton, Laurens Ten Dam, Ian Boswell, and Peter Stetina.
Carolin Schiff won the elite women’s 200-mile race in her first attempt at the race. Her comments afterwards summed up the experience for many.
“What a crazy race!,” she wrote on Instagram. “It was like a ride through the hell with all this mud, thunderstorm, heavy rain, heat … never did something like this before! Went through my limits and just kept pedaling as hard as I can until the finish line.”
Danni Shrosbree, who finished fourth in the same race, was even more emphatic. “Genuinely the toughest day mentally on a bike I have ever had,” she wrote.
Debate will rage on about whether long, unrideable, and often bike-breaking sections of mud should be part of the Unbound experience. Regardless of each rider’s position, it’s clear from social media the 2023 Unbound Gravel isn’t an event any competitor is likely to forget anytime soon.
Nathan Haas summed it up well.
“The riders that managed to get through the mud, I’ve got a huge respect for everyone – that was just incredible.”
More social posts from Unbound 2023
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