Chris Mehlman recaps his account of 2023 Unbound Gravel XL where he not only survived, but also placed fifth!
Bike racing presents a complex equation of inputs that lead to the challenging output a rider faces. Physical, technical, mental, and mechanical obstacles combine to create a unique experience in every race. The 2023 edition of the 352-mile UNBOUND XL gravel race in Emporia, Kansas, was no different on paper than other races, aside from its length. The combination of inputs, however, led to hours, or even days of muddy, dark delirium that pushed some of the top racers past their minds’ limits. If there was ever a race about pure grit, this was it.
UNBOUND XL has always been a race for the ambitious. Sometimes, I describe it as the race for the outcasts who don’t quite fit into the intensity and pressure of the mainstream 200-mile race but instead prefer the idea of challenging themselves against their own minds and spending hours alone in the Kansas prairie. Last year, it was fast and dry for almost all of the race, but still, the hardest event I had done to that point.
This year, the growth of gravel was evident even in this niche event, with top professional riders such as Ted King, Jack Thompson, Sebastian Breuer, Taylor Lideen, and Cory Wallace taking part. We rolled out of town at 3 PM under a beating early-June sun to much larger crowds than in previous years. Waxed chains, wide tires set up for the expected dry conditions, white socks, and smiles accompanied a group of blissfully-innocent riders, many of whom had spent days agonizing over bike setups, down to the number of gels to carry, single PSI tire pressure changes, and aero kit choices. Few people expected that 10 hours later, these decisions would be laughably insignificant.
With the pace noticeably higher than last year, we entered the first gas station in a group of about 18 after 5:30 of racing. Nerves were high as we scrambled to grab food and water and refill our bottles, leaving a poor gas station cashier stunned. Unbound XL has become a race of efficiency, and the small-town Casey’s gas stations are the victims of the most full-on racing, an issue that will likely need to be addressed in the coming years.
We left in multiple groups from this chaotic “rest” stop but soon regrouped, only to hit rain and, eventually, mud. My chain dropped for the first time after thick clay caked onto my frame. The group silently rolled away from me as my heart sank. My hands and mind seem to freeze in moments like this. I desperately struggled to wrap my previously-pristine oil slick chain around the chainring. The chase back on was the start of a cleaning process that never ended. I caught back on, then was dropped as I shoved my paint stirrer between my frame and my wheels with little thought given to the peril my fingers faced.
When I caught back on, I was scared–not for what was to come, because I thought that was the end of the mud, but afraid because my plan had fallen apart. I was wasting energy, and I had lost my bar light, leaving me with the meager beam from a headlight for the entire night. My mind was still in type-A racer mode, willing everything to go smoothly from then on…until it wasn’t.
I was the first to grind to a halt in the next mud bog. The roads were deceiving, appearing dry and pristine yet hiding the true arduous journey they would lead us on. In what, even at the time, was comedic, one by one, every rider ahead was stopped by this confoundingly-sticky mixture of clay and rocks. Although the sun still shone, this was when the darkness really set in: clean some mud off, try to get the chain back on. Rinse, and repeat. Someone had the brilliant idea of walking through the grass. Soon, everyone was following his lead. The race rode away from me. Those who could make it through the mud faster were gone, and my hope of a result was gone. I had come here to win. My thoughts drifted to this sad reality. I was convinced it was true that any chance of even a top ten was gone.
In the pure cruelty of this race, we were teased by sections of hard, fast, dry roads: the type that just makes you want to hammer on, only to be beaten down by the mud.
Night fell as I struggled to clean my glasses off with mud-caked gloves, alternating in Goldilocks style between glasses on and glasses off, each with their own perils and discomfort. Do I want to get hit in the eye with a rock or ride with drunk goggles all night? The solution? Grandma glasses: down on the nose, just enough to protect my eyes but also enough to see over. This got me to the next gas station, where I washed them.
As I hit more mud and eventual winner Logan Kasper left me behind, the daunting task of hiking continued. My mind drifted to the eye-watering truth that I still had 175 miles left. I hadn’t trained for an ultra-marathon, but that is what the race was becoming. Darkness smothered me. I was one button away from quitting for the eight hours of darkness. All I had to do was send a message on my GPS tracker to be picked up: so easy, yet so consequential. After more dropped chains, and time spent teaching myself the best way to get a rock-and-mud-filled chain back on the chainrings (hint: get your chain line straight and force it on then turn the cranks to get it to bed in), I stood on the side of the road and stared at the full moon as Team Amani rider Geoffrey Langat plodded through the grass next to me. In what must have been a script written for a fairytale in hell, I heard a pack of coyotes yapping. Was I really living through this? I had gone eight miles in two-and-a-half hours.
More people caught me, but at this point, I didn’t care about the result. All of those hours spent agonizing over whether I should run 36 or 37 PSI or carry 23 or 24 gels were laughably trivial. There are moments in life that put prior decisions and challenges into perspective. These hours, during which I was alone with my thoughts and the occasional cyborg-light friend to commiserate with, gave me a new view on every challenge I had faced up to that point. College exams became easy, work became simple, and intervals became fun. Despite the full moon, I had reached a new depth of darkness.
Moments like these are equalizers. The word “strength” in cycling immediately conjures images of a fit rider sprinting up a climb. This race, in particular, proved that strength alone, does not lead to wins in all races. It brought those riders with a hidden strength to the surface: one of grit and willpower. There are few secrets to training this. My tool during the race was simple. I told myself I would regret quitting later. I convinced myself that finishing this race in any position would be the proudest result I had achieved. It would make any win look like a nice easy jaunt on a weekend. I was correct.
Daylight broke after hours of hiking and one welcome gas station oasis that could not have been more different from the feelings of tension I had at the first. I had run out of water and was barely pedaling. My wheels were still dragging, but at this point, I did not think too much about it. I continued to cram food into my face trying to bring myself back from the physical brink.
In a race of serious mood swings and dark moments, there was nothing better than entering the 100-mile course and passing other riders. Humans are sociable animals, and the extent to which I had longed for that connection at earlier moments in the race was made clear when I was able to pass riders, cheer them on, and hear the same encouragement back. I found a new gear and rallied. Eighth place became seventh, became sixth, and finally, I found myself back in the top five. After the race I had endured, this was a shock.
The last ten miles brought rain but a needed tailwind. Finally, and as if in reward for the mental toughness we riders had shown, we were home. That finish line was hard-earned, and, as it turns out, that decision to stay tough ended in a result I could have never imagined fifteen hours into the race.
The 2023 edition of UNBOUND XL tested every racer, but gave many of those same riders a gift. It brought a new appreciation of how capable the human body is if the mind says the body is capable. While the race left bikes trashed and bodies sore, it revealed the resilience of humans. It does not matter if you are a professional rider or someone doing your first gravel race. Your mind can help you accomplish incredible things.