After a year with very little racing, two weeks out from Unbound XL, I was thrilled when I realized the race was going forward, and I made it a priority to be there. – Lael Wilcox
Unbound (formerly Dirty Kanza) is a gravel bike race in Kansas that’s been going on since 2006, which motivates upwards of 4,000 people to participate in the various events annually. Races include the 25 mile, 50 mile, 100 mile, 200 mile, and the newer 350 mile XL. The flagship event is the 200 mile race, which boasts a massive field, and a very competitive pointy end.
In 2018, the race organizers started putting on the XL to get back to the roots of the race by adding distance – 150 more miles of it, to be exact – and difficulty by requiring racers to be entirely self-supported.
Racers can’t have a support crew or receive any personal help along the way. They must find food and water, deal with mechanicals, and carry whatever gear and fuel they need to complete the distance.
As a bikepacker, the 350 XL is much more my style. I love how unpredictable long rides are, and that without support, every rider is on a pretty equal playing field.
I first raced Unbound XL in 2019, finishing the 350 mile ride in just under 24 hours. I was the first female finisher and 6th overall in a field of 79. That year, I rode nearly 600 miles from Boulder, Colorado to get to the start of the race in Emporia, Kansas, and I was the keynote speaker at the Women’s Forum. I used the trip and Unbound XL as training for the 2019 Tour Divide, a 2,700 mile self supported mountain bike race through The Rockies from Banff, Alberta, Canada to the Mexican Border.
This year, Unbound XL was more of an afterthought. In May, I was focused on a project surrounding the Oregon Outback, a 364 mile gravel route that crosses Eastern Oregon. My wife Rue and I toured the route together over the span of a week, and I went back a few days later to try and break the FKT (fastest known time) on the route. I finished my ride in just under 28 hours and missed the FKT by 31 minutes. I was pretty trashed from the effort, and only had a week to recuperate before Unbound XL. I wasn’t sure if it’d be enough time to truly recover, but I really didn’t want to miss the race, so we went for it.
The 2021 Unbound XL course was both longer and much more rugged than the 2019 version. It was 358 miles with long sections of double-track, large rocks, rutted tracks, grassy fields and stream crossings. We started at 3pm on Friday, June 4th in 88℉ heat. It’s odd to start such a big effort in the afternoon, but it makes sense as the ride will take at least a day to finish— you have to ride through the night one way or another!
so we went for it.
Fuel during the race
I had a plate of spaghetti for lunch and drank a Gnarly Pre before leaving the house. The energy at the start line was electric, since the racers for all of the other distances wouldn’t start until the following morning, so many of them came out to send us off! This is really unusual for an ultra-distance event; most of the time, there are very few people at the start line and zero fans. For Unbound XL, there were 125 starters, dozens of photographers, and hundreds of people cheering.
After the neutral rollout, the group took off at a blistering pace. It was loads of fun to make pace lines on chunky gravel and start the ride averaging 20-25 miles per hour. This lasted until the first resupply point at mile 41. I started my ride with two bottles of Fuel2O limeade and drank them dry before the first gas station.
There, I bought 3 liters of water and two bottles of Coke. I knew staying hydrated and fueled would play a huge component in this ride. I didn’t worry too much about eating solid food because it was just too hot. I drank nearly a liter of water while waiting in line to pay at the convenience store, filled my bottles, and poured the rest of the cold water on my head and over my clothing to cool off. I stuffed the bottles of Coke in my jersey pockets, and got back on my bike.
A huge part of my strategy for long races is being efficient and minimizing my time off the bike. If I have to get off to buy food or get water, I try to multitask. During these stops, I’ll take a bathroom break, lube my chain, take care of my electronics (swapping GPS units for battery life, wiring in external batteries for lighting, etc) and do anything I need to regulate my body temperature (more layers for the cold, or soaking my clothing in the heat). For the most part, I try to stay on the bike as much as possible— long breaks destroy your moving average.
Throughout the ride, I rode with about ten different people. Long races can be a really fun way to get to know other riders. We’re all out there trying our hardest, and we all have our different strengths and weaknesses. My personal strength as a rider is climbing. The Unbound course does not have any sustained climbs, but it’s constantly rolling and there are often very steep pitches. Over the course, I recorded 18,000’ of climbing. I rode through the night with a guy named Dave, who probably outweighed me by at least 70 pounds, and has an incredible amount of power. We’d go back and forth; I’d dance up the climbs, and he would absolutely smash the flats.
Everything got easier when the sun came up 13 hours into our ride. It’s always easier to ride fast in daylight – since it’s easier to be alert, and easier to see the course.
Overall, the biggest challenge was the wind. There were very strong winds coming out of the south and west. Resupplying with 140 miles to go, Dave and I caught up with another rider named Robb. We all set out together and Robb did the majority of the work pulling us through the wind. It’s amazing how much drafting can help.
The Unbound organizers strategically planned the start times of the different events so we would all finish around the same time. With about 30 miles to go, we merged onto the same course as the 100 and 200-mile riders. It was amazing to see riders from the shorter distances battling to the finish. There’s a lot of comradery in sharing terrain.
The most special part about Unbound is the community spirit of the event. The Kansas locals are excited to host riders from all over the globe to participate, and they even ride the races, too! There are signs all over town welcoming gravel racers, and at the grocery store, the checkers will ask you about your event and preparation, and wish you good luck. Farmers set out camping chairs in their fields to cheer you on through the night. Other locals put out impromptu water stations and always have kind words.
I usually ride multi-day races— long distances across countries. To be able to finish in just over a day is a real treat. I don’t have to think too much about logistics, resupply, or sleeping. I just get to ride my heart out!
A couple days ago, we flew to Switzerland, and I’m preparing for the Hope 1000 on June 19. It’s a 1,000km self-supported mountain bike race across the Swiss Alps with 100,000’ of climbing. When I last raced it in 2018, I finished in 4 days, 10 hours. It’s exceptionally beautiful and exceptionally hard.
My main hope is that I recover in the next week, so I can give it my all!