The Dust-Up: Enduring Growth and Why I (Still) Want To Race Unbound Gravel


The Dust-Up: Enduring Growth and Why I (Still) Want To Race Unbound Gravel

Going into this year’s Unbound Gravel, someone asked Hailey Moore why she was lining up. Turns out, after a bit of thought, the answer was more complicated than she’d expected. Read on as Hailey writes about gravel’s bittersweet growing pains and her motivation for toeing the line for the fourth time in Emporia.

I recently finished reading environmentalist writer Bill McKibben’s lane-changing self-reflective chronicle, Long Distance: Testing the Limits of Body and Spirit in a Year of Living Strenuously. The pages of the slim volume detail McKibben’s personal experiment: at age 37 and at the turn of the 21st century, the writer decides to pursue training for cross-country skiing with the seriousness of a semi-professional athlete, employing a coach to outline a rigorous one-year training protocol, structuring a racing calendar with target events in the US and abroad and generally becoming fully absorbed in the athlete mindset. At the outset, McKibben examines his motivation for what he sees as a last-ditch effort to maximize his physical potential. By the end of the year, one stated hope for the author is to have “more sense of what life lived through the body felt like.” Furthering expanding on his motivation, McKibben writes:

“I had no idea what I was capable of, how high I should aim. I wasn’t going to win any races, I knew, but what other goals could I have? Finally I wrote […] at least once I want to give a supreme and complete effort in a race.’ A supreme effort—how often had I mustered those in my life?”

I love that notion of giving a “supreme” effort, in the way that it captures the equality and subjectivity of such a goal—making the most of the bodies and minds that we have to pursue a worthy end—and I’ve been giving McKibben’s words a lot of thought as I head into the Unbound Gravel 200-mile race in Emporia, Kansas this weekend.

I’ve lined up in Emporia three times in the last five years. In 2019, I raced the 200 for the first time; I’d been riding with intention for less than a year and it would be my second time racing a bike. I was drawn to the still somewhat infamous Flint Hills and captivated by the possibility that I could ride 200 miles in one shot. The course was hard and hot, and I rode a heavy aluminum bike. Like McKibben, I had no real idea of “how high I should aim” so, in many ways, I just set my sights on finishing, which I did.

Start and finish of Unbound 2021 (left photo: Thomas Woodson)

After the pandemic year lapse, I returned to the 200 in 2021 on a lighter carbon gravel bike with the kind of dangerous expectations that can seep in after you think you’re no longer a beginner at something. I went out too fast to reach the first ~68-mile checkpoint, butchered my nutrition for the mid portion of the race (and the hottest part of the day) and bonked terribly from miles 135-150, to reach the second crew station, at which point I had to stop for quite a while to regather myself. My moving speed was notably faster, but with the stop time at the aid station, my finish time was basically the same (though the course was six miles longer) as my first crack at the event two years prior.

In 2022, I decided I wanted to try something different and registered for the XL event: a 360-mile unsupported race that starts the Friday prior and takes riders across the Flint Hills through at least one night and the following day. I ate more but, as I learned, ate the wrong things for me, resulting in a crowded gut, many stops on the side of those wide-open roads and ultimately dropping out at mile 302 after 25 hours of riding.

In retrospect, I view my initial ride at Unbound as the most “supreme” of these three efforts; given the place I was at in cycling, it demanded the most of me. My other two years feel like the learning curve. They remain profound experiences for what they taught me, but I can’t say I’m really proud of either. Still, after my DNF of the XL a friend told me that, in similar ultra-distance scenarios when the inevitable thoughts of quitting and succumbing to short-term physical relief start to sound like a siren song, she reminds herself that, in the moment, “the only thing that will feel worse than finishing the thing, is not finishing the thing,” because that feeling of letting yourself down can take years to fade. I’ve also been thinking about those words as I prepare for my fourth return to Emporia.

Friday evening at the Unbound XL 2022 (photos: Leo Brasil)

On a few occasions, I’ve come away from races self-concious about my results, feeling the need to ‘stravasplain’ why the day didn’t go as planned (i.e. poor nutrition, mechanical, injury during training, etc.). While I think it is reasonable and natural and admirable to have personal ambitions and goals, I also think that falling short of one’s own expectations can sometimes simply be summed up as: this is what I had to give today. We may want every effort to feel outstanding but in reality it rarely works out that way. But living in the digital age has resulted in the need to be constantly explaining and/or justifying ourselves, I’d say to an exhausting degree.

In the same vein, I kind of hate it when people use air quotes when talking about “racing” an event as a self-conscious hedge that they weren’t really trying or prepared/didn’t have the “race” they wanted/aren’t fast enough to be competitive, etc., etc. The impulse to diminish the quality of one’s own effort feels depressingly self-defeating because even though it’s true that only one person can win a race, it is still possible for everyone who lines up to surprise themself on course by extracting, as McKibben would say, a supreme effort.

I think it’s this notion—that a race is most important for what is happening at the front end—that was the implicit assumption I inferred when Life Time made the decision in 2023 to separate the pro Men’s and Women’s starts from the rest of the field at Unbound, after being a mass start event for 16 years. While far from the reason I decided to skip the 2023 race, I found the decision disappointing.

Though the trajectory of the Life Time Grand Prix series (now in its third season) had already been shifting toward a more commercialized and professionalized form, the move to isolate the elite fields seemed to wholly cut ties with the vestiges of Unbound’s egalitarian roots. This separation is commonplace in Road cycling but Gravel was supposed to be different. But I also get it: from a safety standpoint, the bottle-necking and ensuing crashes that were happening were untenable. And, from a fairness standpoint, I understand the desire of the top women to want to have their own race for as long as possible. Aside from drastically tamping down or altering Unbound’s notorious terrain to move pinch points later in the race, I don’t see a ready solution to remedying the tension inherent in wanting to cultivate a competitive, professionally-attended race and preserving the original ethos of the event, if the goal seemingly continues to be to grow Gravel cycling in the US through attracting big names and media exposure.

The growth of Unbound, and by extension Gravel cycling, has brought in, I’d wager, thousands of new riders and given more professional opportunities to those vying for the pointy end. Both of those data points are exciting. Yet as some have lamented, the culture of the sport seems to be bearing most of the brunt of these recent growth spurts. In addition to the physical separation now on some start lines, the series’ increased media coverage and sensationalization of the elite riders has further “othered” them from the lay participant. Unbound seems to be stuck in the impossible situation of trying to be many things to many people. And in doing so, there have been compromises.

For example, this year’s starting waves for the 200-mile race have the pro men starting at 5:50 am, the pro women at 6:05 and then the main field at 6:30 (where I will be). On the elite side of the race, there has been a lot of buzz about how the pro women may alter their racing strategy with some, perhaps, banking on being caught by the front riders from the main field and then being able to work with those riders to bridge any gaps back up to any leading women who have formed a gap. On the amateur end, the Race-the-Sun constituent is frustrated that they now have a half-hour less (the 200 has previously started at 6 am for all) to achieve their sun-down finish-line objective; Unbound has historically given out a special finisher’s prize for riders who make it back to Emporia before sunset. Going into this year, I actually had doubts about whether I was motivated to return to Unbound given the current tension between prioritizing performance and preserving the ever-elusive “spirit of gravel.”

Unbound 2021

To be clear: I’m not completely, or even mostly, down on Unbound; the tallest tree always catches the most breeze and there’s been a lot of wind in Kansas these past few years with the Life Time acquisition, name change and last year’s intense mudslinging about the mud. I think, on the whole, Life Time has made an admirable effort in navigating Unbound’s growing pains. But I do think it’s worth examining how it has and continues to change. In contrast, from a person outside the inner workings of the event, it does seem that The MidSouth has reached a kind of healthy stasis; it is a beloved, well-attended competitive event with firm inclusivity values (no call-ups; mass start; finish-line hugs for all) where you’d be laughed out of Stillwater by Bobby Wintle himself if you complained about the mud.

There’s something spiritual about getting to see your favorite band when they’re still playing small venues, close enough where you can watch the sweat flying from the stage. But, eventually, if they’re successful, that wave crests and they book larger spaces and all but the first few rows of the audience get more and more removed from the immediacy and rawness of the music. And, if you’re a truly supportive fan, I think you want that for them. In this analogy though, I wonder who the “them” is at Unbound. I want more people on bikes and I want more people to experience the terrain and the challenge offered by the Flint Hills. But, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that it’s still bittersweet to feel like you’re one in an ever-growing crowd inching further out from the experience that first hooked you; as more people want a piece of something, each piece gets a little smaller. And, importantly, I’ve only been doing this for five years! During my second Unbound 200, I shared a couple miles with a man who was on that day completing his 14th edition of the race. I can only imagine the conflicted protectiveness that those original attendees may feel as the event continues to grow.

And yet, to return to my motivation for lining up this year, sprawling expo, Gravel Hall of Fame and all, I can say with near certainty that I will be thinking about approximately none of my ramblings about the “current moment” in Gravel as I turn the pedals over that white rock for 200 miles in Kansas. It’s so easy to feel like one’s own experience is threatened by change, and to want to tear down said thing that’s changing instead of being open to a new experience. Seeing the curling queue of riders in the distance of the opening road, before the main field starts to splinter, is the closest I’ve felt to being part of a protest march. So many hundreds of people protesting their perceived physical limits can’t be anything but inspiring. In search of giving a supreme effort, I’m excited to return to a race that’s catalyzed my, and many others’, growth in cycling. I hope that I’m able to apply what I’ve learned from my previous forays in the Flint Hills—to empty myself but also, at the end, to feel more complete.

If you’re new to this series, welcome to The Dust-Up. This will be a semi-regular platform for Radavist editors and contributors to make bold, sometimes controversial claims about cycling. A way to challenge long-held assumptions that deserve a second look. Sometimes they will be global issues with important far-reaching consequences; other times, they will shed light on little nerdy corners of our world that don’t get enough attention.