As you know The UnBound 200 is known to be the “Super Bowl” of gravel racing, which brings together everyone from hopeful finishers to world-class Athletes focused on smashing course records.
For some context, my last and only participation at UnBound was in 2019 when I took to the line stubbornly trying to deny that I was in a deep over-training slump. It was the single-hardest day I have ever had on a bike. I wanted to quit so many times that day, and probably should have, but despite those strong feelings, I managed to finish…
Since that day I have held the desire to return to UnBound and do a solid ride.
The weeks festivities kicked with a curve-ball, that came in the form of torrential rain for two days. Roads were flooded, washed-out, or impassable all over the region. This fact forced a last-minute course change and re-route, despite two-days of sun shine leading into the event.
Before the event kicked-off I got to enjoy the Casa Ramos Mexican Restaurant that was decorated and resplendent in Bianchi Célesté complete with information about the Bianchi bikes and R/D Collective team. Who ever would have thought that my mug would be on a place-mat? An old friend once told me I might grow up to be notorious…
In addition to the restaurant take-over, I joined ENVE for a shake-out ride and donuts, hit the expo to talk with Shimano and Momentous, not to mention cruised over to MulReady’s Pub to see my friends at Chamois Butt’r. It was a packed few days!
Finally it was race morning, the time to “clock in” and get to work! This is where the “quote of the weekend” comes in. My friend Steve Driscoll of Pure Gravel mused, “I was hoping the rain would lead to epic weather conditions for the race!” As late as Friday evening the weather forecast was calling for clear conditions. The talk of the town was that the temperature would be ideal and would likely have a tail wind for the final quarter of the race… Well, the tailwind portion was spot-on!
On the line, as we awaited the dawning sun and starters gun, the clouds began to gather and I turned to my friend, and former teammate Inno Zavyalov and said, “as a mid-west guy you know what those clouds mean…” To bad I had already given away my rain-cape! A short two hours later we would be riding through some of the worst rain I have ever pedaled through, and I love the harsh elements!
The race started as you would expect full of jockeying for position and aggressive riding. Sadly there were a number crashes at the front of the race that took down top-level competitors as the rocks, pot-holes, and other road conditions caused the predictable cramming of “4lbs of sweetness into a 2lb bag”. Luckily, I avoided all the mayhem and was in a great position. My bike was working incredibly well and everything was “on-point”. That is until I decided to throw myself on the ground to even the playing-field a bit.
Just before the rain started we were rolling through a muddy and rocky section where I had some great momentum. As the front riders slowed, I jumped out of the left wheel-rut onto the middle of the trail hoping to switch the right rut and pass some riders who were slowing down. Instead, my wheel caught an unforeseen rock and I was down, cut-up, chain off, and with two riders on top of me before I knew it. “Ouch! Damn it! That was DUMB Brian,” is what I thought… well, it’s time to chase! So I chased, caught on, the rain started, the group split, I made the first selection, the group split again, but I was dropped, gassed from chasing.
Then along came a pod of Thomas Dekker, Dylan Johnson, Alex Howes, Jeremiah Bishop, and another one of those Dutch monsters not to mention some other speedsters. We rolled together until the rain intensified and I made a rookie mistake that got me dropped. With glasses off, I took my pull in our little pod, then moved off the racing line to allow the next rider to pull. That’s when one of the Dutchies hit his aero-bars and the afterburners! I was chasing vehemently as I immediately realized my mistake as I was on rougher terrain, peering through clenched-eyes trying to see where I was going. The rain was spitting, dirt was flying everywhere and we were all fighting for the one space on the road that was smooth… This is when I was dropped from that group.
Ultimately the group split and I stayed with the second group, that included Bishop and Dekker. We rotated our way to the second aid station where I again received stellar service from my Bianchi support crew of Rory Mason and mechanic Mike, not to mention my lovely wife JoyJoy. I’m guessing Séamus the Nugget was there too playing in mud puddles somewhere!
At one point we hit a 2.5-mile mud sector where we blended back on-course with the 100-mile riders. All of them were walking… And I should mention that at the rider meeting we were told that if someone was walking in front of you, it likely meant that you should walk too! So it was with trepidation that our soggy, chaffed, and fatigued group proceeded onto the muddy sector, an off-chamber rolling section with mud everywhere. No dry line was to be found! I was third wheel, then almost immediately the lead rider in our group slipped and “SPLAT” his way into the mud with a suction-cup like sound. It was comical, we were ice-skating on bikes… I avoided that crash and weaved through the walking riders, thanking them for making room as keeping the bike upright was so challenging. Then a moment later, the second rider went “SPLAT”! With a quick dodge and weave, suddenly I was the lead rider and presented with a choice, ride or walk!
The two previous casualties were darn good bike riders, so I was reluctant to ride, but I went for it anyway begging the walking 100-milers “rider back… a little help here, PLEASE!” As I went along. I’m pretty sure this was a bad idea, but my disdain for muddy feet kept me pedaling instead of trudging through the mud! It took full concentration, I was muddy, crusty, dirt in my eyes, squinting to see, and completely at the mercy of those riders that had already dismounted. Somehow I managed ride the entire section and emerged from the mud, which ended with a water crossing that was nearly up to the axles on the bike, with a HUGE smile on my face. What satisfaction… and at 8hrs into the race!
In the moment I wish I could have shared how PUMPED I am on my equipment this season. I keep telling everyone how good my equipment is and riding that section showcased it! But my delight quickly changed to frustration as my Garmin touch-screen device had become flooded with water during the rainstorm and was on the fritz. Who buys a touch-screen Garmin for racing anyway? Lesson learned…
Now I was solo and unsure if I was still on-course. I rode-on with trepidation for another two-miles, I nearly turned around because I had not seen anyone for some time. Then just as I started to apply the brakes and commit to stopping, my Garmin “beeped”, I came upon an intersection saw tire-tracks that turned left and people up the road. It was magical, a wonderful sensation!!! Then my mindset changed from frustration to, “let’s get it on!” From there things dried out, the remnants of my past group including Jeremiah Bishop and Thomas Dekker caught me. I suffered, rotated with them, and suffered some more.
Things were pretty uneventful until the final kilometer of the race when we were going to sprint for the finish. I was feeling confident and opened-up the throttle as we excited the college campus. Surprisingly, I had good legs! As we accelerated and entered finish-chute there were many 100-milers finishing. Some who had their hands off their bars celebrating a job well done, and here I was leading six stampeding dirt balls to the line. That’s when I decided to shut it down and not sprint. As an old-school motocross racer it is engrained in us to “race to the line”, but the thought of there being a crash in the finishing chute or ruining one of those 100-mile finishers moment of triumph just didn’t sit well with me.
Maybe I made the right decision, maybe I didn’t, but I would be lying if I told you that when the final results came in with me at 34th when I was sprinting for 29th, that I second guessed my decision not to sprint. I crossed the line elated and got to spend the next hour recounting the days events among JoyJoy and The Nugget, my Bianchi support crew (Rory and Mark), Steve Mathews of Chamois Butt’r, and our Emporia host family. All the smiles, the photos, the stories, it was incredible!
Oddly, I was so muddy that Séamus The Nugget wouldn’t get close to me, which is funny because that kid can’t pass a mud puddle without jumping in it! Afterward I got cleaned up and returned to the finish area with JoyJoy for the ENVE Finish party to welcome finishers from 10PM-1AM. I was sure to grab a cowbell and thunder-sticks to make some noise for these conquerers! It was so cool to do to share some stoke with them as they finished long after the crowds had gone. It is a tradition that I will definitely participate with in years to come!
Pure Gravel, Dan Hughes, & ENVE Composites
CA MTB Series Big Bear: June 19th
Over The Hump MTB Summer Series: June 21st
The ENVE Grodeo: June 24th-25th
Leadville Trail 100 MTB: August 13th
SBT Gravel: August 14th