Unbound Gravel: Everything You Need To Know

Unbound Gravel is the pinnacle of the competitive gravel calendar in the US, attracting both professional cyclists and amateurs from all over the world to take on the famous Flint Hills of Emporia, Kansas. Here’s everything you need to know, with a little help from Team Velocio // Exploro

 

 

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Unbound Gravel, a women overtaking a group of gravel riders.

Photo credit: Danny Awang

 

Unbound Gravel is a competitive cycling event that takes place in the Flint Hills of Kansas, USA with 25, 50, 100, 200 and 350 (Unbound Gravel XL) mile courses to choose from. Widely considered the world’s premier gravel event, pro-cyclists and amateurs are drawn to the rolling gravel landscapes, sense of community and kudos that comes with completing these challenging courses.

While the 200 mile race is the marquee event, attracting the most attention due to the separate elite rider category, the 350 mile Unbound XL route is gaining in popularity as a gateway to unsupported, ultra-distance racing. The 25, 50 and 100 mile routes also make this event accessible to a wide range of riders hoping to get a taste of gravel racing.

Key information

 

Start dates:
May 31 2024: Unbound Gravel XL 350 mile; June 1 2024: 200 mile, 100 mile, 50 mile, 25 mile

 

Location:
Emporia, Kansas USA

 

2024 winners:
200 mile elite men: Lachlan Morton (09hr 11min 47sec)
200 mile elite women: Rosa Klöser (10hr 26min 02sec)
Unbound Gravel XL 350 mile: Sebastian Breuer (20hr 05min 36sec), Svenja Betz (23hr 46min 57 sec)

History

 

The first Unbound Gravel event took place in 2006, which comprised of just the 200 mile route and had 34 participants. The 25, 50 and 100 mile distances were introduced in 2013, with the Unbound XL 350 mile route being introduced in 2018.

While the 200, 100, 50 and 25 mile route have set checkpoints and aid stations where riders can rely on a support crew to help them refuel and deal with any mechanicals, the Unbound Gravel XL 350 mile route is completed by riders entirely self-supported.

I love Kansas gravel so much. And I just love seeing what adventures the route designers cook up for us. The 200 always feels stressful and hectic, but always rewarding.

-Rachel Wills / Velocio // Exploro team member, 4 x Unbound Gravel XL rider

The event wasn’t always known as Unbound Gravel, undergoing a name change in 2020 as a mark of respect to the Kaw nation – the region’s indigenous tribe.

In 2023, the event had 4,743 registered participants – the most of any year so far. However, the 2023 event also went down in history for its extreme mud and weather conditions, derailing many riders’ plan for a speedy finish. “Peanut butter” mud plagued parts of the course as did rain and stormy weather.

How to enter

 

Entries for Unbound Gravel are awarded by a random ballot for all distances. Entry submission for Unbound Gravel XL took place from December 1, 2023 until December 15, 2023 and entries for all other distances took place from January 5, 2024 until January 20, 2024. Riders are notified at the end of January whether they have been successful or not.

For 2025 entries, expect the ballot to take place on a similar timescale.

Routes

 

For 2024, the 200 mile Unbound Gravel route will head north of Emporia, a direction it has only taken twice before in the race’s history, promising chunkier gravel, tough terrain and more climbing than previous years. Following suit, the Unbound Gravel XL 350 mile course also follows a more northerly route.

The energy and spirit of the race is an unforgettable experience, so it only seemed fitting to give the XL a go!

-Meghan Owens / Velocio // Exploro team member

Rules

 

200, 100, 50, 25 mile routes

Drafting is allowed for both elite and amateur categories, however the use of aerobars was banned for elite riders in 2023 because of fears over safety in large groups.

Outside help and support crews are allowed to assist riders at official checkpoints and each rider must have at least one support crew member available throughout the race in case they need to abandon the event.

Unbound Gravel XL 350 mile route

Drafting is also allowed for Unbound Gravel XL riders but the ban on aerobars does not extend to this route, allowing riders to capitalise on the comfort and other benefits of using them over such a long distance.

The Unbound Gravel XL 350 mile route is unsupported, meaning that there are no official checkpoints and riders must not receive outside help from a support crew. They are allowed to resupply at local merchants along the route, which are accessible to all riders.

Riders doing this route must also register for live tracking through Trackleaders as an additional safety precaution. This is also means that spectators can “dotwatch” the event, similar to a traditional ultra-distance races.

For participants on all routes, a new rule for 2024 does allow the bending, folding, or wrapping of number plates around the bike’s headtube.

Photo credit: Joshua W Strong
Velocio Exploro gravel riding

Photo credit: Joshua W Strong

What’s it like to ride?

 

The tracks north of Emporia that the 2024 routes will take have been reported to be rougher terrain than usual, with handling technique being a key skill for riders aiming for a quick time. Team Velocio // Exploro’s Sarah Lange, who came 5th in the elite women’s category in 2023, is making sure to prepare her setup for the anticipated chunky gravel as well as the long, windy sections that characterise the Flint Hills:

“I will be riding the 3T Exploro Racemax. It is a pretty aero frame which will be helpful on the windy course. I have a mullet set-up for simplicity to (hopefully) minimize the risk of mechanicals. I am someone who doesn’t change my drivetrain setup from race -to-race so last year I raced the same gearing. Tires are the main thing I change from race-to-race and I will be running a tire with more puncture protection than usual.”

Sarah Lange at the finish line in 2023. Photo credit: BrittLee Bowman

Unbound Gravel

Sarah Lange at the finish line in 2023. Photo credit: BrittLee Bowman

Unbound Gravel

For Velocio // Exploro’s Meghan Owens, who is riding the Unbound Gravel XL 350 mile route for the first time, having a setup for long-distance comfort will be a priority.

“This is my first year racing on the 3T Exploro Ultra and I am already in love with it! I have the SRAM Force/XX1 AXS mullet setup with a 42T, 10-52 cassette and a Hunt 42 Limitless Gravel wheelset.”

Velocio // Exploro’s Rachel Wills is an experienced Unbound Gravel XL rider, using her knowledge from previous editions to really perfect her setup.

“The only major change from this race to others is swapping out that front wheel for the Dynamo setup. It keeps my front light going, and my Wahoo topped off on battery life as I plug it into the Sinewave beacon light.”

Preparation

 

For riders on all distances, staying fuelled and hydrated will be key to a successful event. “Eat, eat, eat!” says Sarah Lange. “Staying fuelled is so important for these long events and when you are in a group on rough terrain, it can be hard to take your hands off the bars to eat so try to take any opportunity you can to eat and drink.”

“We all joke that Unbound is an eating competition, but it is true! I will have food and fluid in my Racing Hydration Vest, food in my top tube bag and drink mix in my bottles. I will be resupplying all of those at the aid stations.”

While riders on the 25, 50, 100 and 200 mile course have access to support crews at checkpoints, those doing the XL 350 mile course are self-supported and won’t be able to rely on a support crew or aid stations.

“The self supported nature requires you to be strategic with your food and water resupply needs,” says Rachel Wills. “So if you have the option to fill up, take it! I also love the zombie apocalypse gas station raids. You gotta be smart when making purchase decisions and kind and courteous to the overwhelmed employees.”