Unbound, the race previously known as Dirty Kanza, is a race that needs little introduction at this point. On June 5th, after a yearlong hiatus, the race will once again take place amongst the storied Flint Hills surrounding Emporia, Kansas. And this year, we have something special in store. For 2021 we will be teaming up with a number of our partners and sending a small team of riders to Kansas to race the world’s best on the gravel. The team will be made up of two AC representatives and three of our close friends from Enve. On behalf of AC, myself (Brennan) and Tony Little will be taking on the 206 grueling miles of gravel roads, alongside veterans of the scene, Neil Shirley, Jake Pantone, and Ike Pantone from Enve.
While Neil, Jake, and Ike have raced Unbound countless times with Neil - even finishing in the top fifteen in 2018 - Tony and I will be hitting the famed flint roads for the first time after our friends at ENVE extended a kind invitation to join them at the start line in Emporia. After a year of missed racing, we certainly weren’t going to say no to that!
Training and Prep
Preparing for an event like Unbound can be quite challenging. The long hours of endurance rides are tough, but my biggest challenge has been making sure I get a good balance of training between all the different disciplines I’ll be racing throughout the summer. While Unbound is one of my main target races for the summer, I’ll also be aiming to ace the time trial at the US Pro Nationals just two weeks after I collapse in a heap in Kansas (to find out where, follow along on Instagram - no bets please!). But in all seriousness, having such a high intensity event so close to a big endurance ride has forced me to be very meticulous in my preparation to ensure I spend enough time on my time-trial bike, while still clocking the long hours on my road and gravel bikes too. Practicing to fall gracefully into the dust takes a surprising amount of panache.
Fortunately, I have a great coach who has been able to help me find a balance that gives me the freedom to ride extremely long endurance training blocks on the weekends, while still rocking the time trial bike during the week. Prepared but not spread thin? That’s the plan.
Racing 206 miles on gravel is tough. And if you have any doubts about how tough, mentally flick through the social media images you’ve seen of pros and ex-pros alike coming to a squeaky stop mid-course. Yep, even super strong riders fall foul of the duration, the heat, or simply stop pedaling after a puncture too many. So how do you prepare when even the best riders in the world come up short?
With the help and advice of my coach, for the last two months, I’ve been trying to ride six or more hours at least once per weekend, with some weekends including two rides that length. On one of these weekends, Tony and I did a nine hour training ride in the East Bay to really push the envelope and see how our bodies would respond to that high level of volume and fatigue.
These longer endurance rides were a shock to the system, but after getting a few under my belt, my coach and I began dialing in my fueling strategy. I’m pretty big for a road rider, and have a tendency to burn a considerable amount of calories per hour. But knowledge is power, so with that in mind, I began setting out on these training rides with as many calories as I could feasibly carry in my pockets and bar bag. My stomach can handle the carb-heavy gels, waffles, and blocks, but I also needed to incorporate proper solid food into the fueling too. These more solid calories come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but some of my favorites have been baked sweet potatoes, various burritos, and homemade baked goods. As I started to bring increasing amounts of food on these rides and be more diligent with the consistency of my caloric intake, I found I could maintain a much higher tempo, well into the ride.
Another important element of these long training rides was doing a series of incredibly hard efforts in the final two hours - exactly when you want to be phoning it in, not foaming at the mouth. But just like the increased distances, familiarity took away the fear, and once I’d got used to ramping up, I gained a heap of confidence from blasting those last couple of hours, especially when I saw the way my fitness was improving with each passing week.
How to Hammer
Here’s how it worked: I would go for a training ride and hold a fairly steady pace of around 300 watts for the better part of five hours. Throughout those first five hours, I would have stretches where I was riding in the 350-400w range, as well as stretches at 250-350w (the majority). As the hours ticked by, and the salt crystals began to show on my kit, this pace became increasingly difficult to maintain. As I rode into the final two hours, things would begin to get interesting (just like how bungee jumping is ‘interesting’). There were multiple rides where my coach had me do a twenty minute effort, well into the 400 watt range in the last hour. There were also days where I would ride a series of shorter, more explosive intervals, to simulate the final rolling hills on the way back into Emporia.
As brutal as some of these rides were, they were a cornerstone in my preparation for the Unbound 200. After a few weeks of this high volume training, I found myself feeling drastically stronger and more efficient in the latter portions of these rides.
Racing to the Start
Even in a year without proper head-to-head racing, we still managed to find creative ways to get the competitive juices flowing from time to time. One event that Tony and I both took part in during our preparation for Unbound was the OSBR Dirt East Peak TT that AC hosted in March. This event gave us both a chance to dust off the cobwebs and experience a true lung-burning effort up a beloved mountain here in our beautiful backyard. Throughout the pandemic we have loved exploring new corners of Mt Tam and these fun Strava battles definitely kept us fresh and positive during such a globally trying time.
Fortunately for us here in California, we have had the chance to pin on a number a handful of times in advance of the big event in Kansas. I kicked things off with a crit in Livermore and while that may not be my favorite style of race, it was such a joy to be back in the bunch, hurtling through corners and waking the legs from what has at times felt like a yearlong hibernation.
Getting Wild in the West
After multiple weekends of long training rides in the heat, it was once again time for me to pin a number on, but this time on the gravel at the Wild West Gravel Grinder in Red Bluff, California. I spent the better part of the evening at the shop swapping tires and getting my bike race-ready before I set off up ‘the 5’ towards Red Bluff. Following a restless night in a hotel along the interstate, I forced down some oatmeal and coffee and took to the start line. This race would be my first proper off-road test in over a year. I went into the race knowing the course wasn’t necessarily ideal for me due to the considerable elevation gain, but I felt pumped nonetheless. I opted to race the Extra Grit route that boasted over 120 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing. A whole lot of oatmeal.
The race began with a mellow mass start on paved roads as we set off towards the first gravel sector. When we rolled past the first yellow ‘Pavement Ends’ sign, it became clear that we were racing. Rocks and chunks of dirt were flying left and right through the dry dusty air. After many miles of rolling gravel roads, a brief nature break, and a few early gels, we arrived at the bottom of the main climb. As we began to work our way up the initial slopes of the climb, the main race favorite took off with a serious attack. I had to weave through some of the group to make my way up to the front of the race so I could chase down this attack. After 15 minutes of chasing through the steep rollers at the beginning of the climb, I finally caught the race leader.
After lobbing a few blows at one another, I punched it hard out of a sharp hairpin where I had taken a better line. The gap quickly opened and I realized I was finally solo off the front of the race. Just after this attack, I made my way off of the steep rollers and onto the steadier, more consistent portion of the climb. This is where I was able to settle into a groove and ride my own pace through a beautiful forested climb topping out at over 5000 feet. Upon reaching the crest of the climb after over an hour of ascending, I finally had the chance to recover as the road pointed back down towards the Central Valley. After what felt like an eternity descending a freshly grated gravel road with beautiful panoramic views in all directions, I could finally see the bottom of the descent where I was to return to the pavement for a brief moment of respite. Just as the thought crossed my mind that I might actually win the race, I heard what sounded like a gunshot and immediately felt my legs become covered in a layer of sealant from my rear wheel. I skidded to a halt knowing I would need to be quick with the tire repair if I wanted to maintain my lead. Unfortunately, the slash in my tire was much too large for any sort of plug and ultimately required an inner tube and a waffle wrapper as a boot. I was forced to spend many minutes getting my rear wheel to a point where it would once again be rideable. While I was stopped on the side of the road struggling with my tire, I was passed by two of my competitors. They were both kind enough to ask me if I was ok and make sure I would be able to make it back to the finish before they continued on. A true class act!
Unfortunately for me, after this mechanical I was resigned to limping in for third. I continued to ride hard and push the pace, knowing anything can happen in these races, but to no avail. Additionally, the tube had a slow leak and I was out of Co2 canisters. Thankfully with the help of a friendly rider from one of the shorter courses, I was able to continue on with just enough air in my tire to make it back to the finish.
Photo: Jeff Vander Stucken
This was a great event, a beautiful course, and an example of how quickly things can unravel with a simple mechanical. Luckily, I have some really great new tires I will be on for Unbound and will be more prepared than ever for any sort of mechanical thanks to this experience.
The Final Countdown to Unbound
Now that the preparation phase is coming to a close, you can expect a feature next week where I share the bike I will be riding in Kansas and highlight the many incredible partners I have had the fortune of working with on this exciting project.
Tune in next week for the unveiling of my Unbound race bike. And if you have any guesses as to what the rig will be, send us a message!
If you want to catch all the action and get updates from our team out in Kansas, then be sure to follow along on our Instagram, or subscribe to the Above Category newsletter in the footer. And if you’re a fan of podcasts, tune in for a conversation with Neil and Jake from Enve and Tony and I from Above Category as we chat about prepping for Unbound. You'll find it here: in the coming days.