For anyone who has ever competed in the Unbound Gravel race (yes, formerly known as Dirty Kanza), they would know that beyond a lifetime of memories to take-away from the event, there are also hundreds of tips to either rely on for the next effort, or at least, pass on to someone heading out to Emporia for the first time. One thing to to know is that the host town of Emporia, Kansas, as well as race promoter LifeTime, go out of their way to ensure the best experience possible and support every competitor.

No,  despite participating in the grueling race three-times, I have never signed-up for the big daddy 200 miler.  Unlike my RBA workmates, I’ve never had the gumption, fitness, or desire to spend what would likely be over 15 hours on the bike just to finish.  Besides, I hate riding at night.

For years now, both in defense of the decision to avoid riding  the  200,  and as a convenient rationalization why I stick to the hundred miler, I always dredge up one of my favorite Clint Eastwood  quotes…


My first Emporia  effort was back in 2015 aboard National Cyclocross Champ Tim Johnson’s prototype Cannondale  ‘cross bike fitted with a Lefty suspension fork. That was the year of the massive night-before thunderstorm that created a 5 mile long mud  bog that was responsible for an hours long hike-a-bike section. That was also where I realized that seatstay bridges on a frame using disc brakes were stupid…all it did was become a mud dam!

Remember, not all gravel races are the same. In fact, what makes them so special is how unique each one is.  I often hear people say that since they’ve done one gravel race that they know what to expect with Unbound – likely not! Tires choice, of course is key, but Unbound is it’s own beast which makes this story we wrote useful

Belgian Waffle Ride versus Unbound Gravel

For my next two attempts I rode an Alchemy and then a Pivot and although each time I returned thinking myself smarter than the year previous, I ended up doing worse and making even stupider mistakes. It’s from those three efforts that I’ve drawn the following tips which I hope UBG first-timers can learn from to make for a better, less eventful, race.


If there’s one thing certain about Unbound, it’s that the weather will always be uncertain. This was the 2015 mudder and my one tip here is one that holds true for any ride – dress for the finish. Other than my Mavic Helium vest and DeFeet arm warmers, I kept the clothing to a minimum and had a top 30 finish.


I know Peter Stetina & many top pro riders rely on road pedals, and although I use road pedals for 99% of my local gravel rides, for Unbound I make sure to use mountain bike pedals because due to either the weather or simple exhaustion, walking  (for most of us) will be inevitable. My faves (and the same pedals I’ve used for all my gravel races) are the aluminum bodied Crank Bros. Candy pedals (middle).


Generally speaking, I hate  riding with hydration packs. Note in that top photo of my 2015  race I’m not using one. I never repeated that mistake. In year two I used a small pack to carry a water bottle, spare tubes and food. In year three I went whole hog with a USWE pack and loved it for the extra water it carried – if only I drank it!


Another mistake I made in 2019 was chasing fashion over function. Sure, that pink Bontrager helmet looked sweet, but its WaveCel safety feature helped undo my race by diminishing both air ventilation and the flow of water I poured over my head as I began falling apart due to dehydration.


And this was the ugly result. I’d never bonked this hard in my life. I was dizzy and the cramps rated  a 7+ in pain. As much as I thought I was drinking, clearly I wasn’t. Like the old adage says, “drink before you get thirsty!”


No, that’s not me, but I’m sure I looked no different when I finished. Another tip – it’s a good idea to have some Hylands or Theraworx anti-cramp cream which an EMT handed me after he saw me lying in the street writhing in pain from post-race cramping.


I’ve always advocated not being a mercenary rider and sitting on wheels. It’s important to do the work in a group. However, I have to admit that my dedication to that notion falters somewhat in Kansas. To best survive the headwinds, find a group and work with them by taking turns at the front. But if you’re really hurting just sit and try your best to survive…it can get really tough out there!


Trust me, no matter how good of shape you are in, the roads and winds of Emporia will waste you. Here Neil Shirley and Jason Judy try to find some solace (and humor) after finishing the two-hundy.


As further evidence of the exhaustion to come here’s Neil helping his pal – and former BWR winner Brian McCulloch – stand up after his effort. Be there for each other!


Two things about this guy’s set-up gives me the creeps; 1. Those flared “gravel” handlebars and 2. The fat, mountain bike-like sized treads…in a word – eek! Regardless, get your Unbound set-up that works for you at least a month out from the event and get used to it. Do not make any changes to your gear in the days before the race.


When it’s all over, when all is said and done, don’t walk, but run to Casa Ramos for the best food in town. My post race feast was always the same; the carne asada plate washed down by a massive Cadillac margarita to help kill the pain! Heaven!


No matter which distance you choose, the Unbound Gravel will be an adventure you will never forget. Yes, it can be (really) painful at times, but my most important tip of all is this – keep your humor about you and have a safe ride!

More race info: UNBOUND GRAVEL

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