Offroad to Unbound: What if We Rode There?

Pedaling 1,400 miles from the highlands of Arizona to the plains of Kansas for a gravel race might not seem like the ideal lead-up to a long event, but ultra-endurance bikepacker and regular Radavist contributor Kurt Refsnider was convinced that taking the long way to Unbound was a journey worth pursuing. Join Kurt and Kait Boyle on an off-road ride to the world’s premier gravel event in Emporia.

“What if We Rode There?”

My friend Kait Boyle and I were talking about our plans to race the Unbound XL, a 350-mile gravel ultra in Kansas’ Flint Hills. Her suggestion immediately sounded far more appealing than the long drive to reach the Great Plains event. A 1,000-mile tour would certainly be an adventure adding so much to the subsequent race experience, and riding from home (or ending at home) always feels remarkable – it strengthens personal connections to anywhere ridden on that trip and makes part of the world feel just a bit smaller and more accessible. The idea for a long commute was an easy sell to me, even if its distance turned out to be almost 50% longer than I expected. But I never anticipated it to be as powerful of an experience as it turned out to be, linking together some of my favorite places and routes of past epics right from my doorstep, almost entirely on dirt roads. So here’s an Unbound story that’s not at all about the race or the latest gravel bike tech, but rather the experience of pedaling to the race.

Arizona to Kansas, eh? How could I get there on as much dirt as possible? Dashed lines scribed themselves across my mental map immediately following that conversation with Kait, but none had sufficient self-confidence to be particularly bold. The anastomosing route options fanned out toward Four Corners and Santa Fe, wound along paved arteries over the ranges of the Rockies that would still be covered by a healthy snowpack in May, and then straightened out across the High Plains to the east. I’ve spent so much time riding in the region that I’d probably get to retrace some previous adventures, but east of the Rocky Mountain Front, everything would be brand-new under that expansive plains sky. 

A month of travel out on the East Coast had the route visioning on the back burner until Kait and I agreed on a meeting location just a couple weeks prior to my departure. The plan was to meet up in Colorado where South Platte River Canyon meets the northern end of the Rampart Range. It was a perfect place for Kait’s route from Victor, Idaho and mine from Prescott, Arizona to converge for one last high-elevation hurrah on the Rampart Range Road before striking out onto the topographically-limited plains. Those two weeks at home flew by, and suddenly I found myself pedaling a loaded gravel bike out of my neighborhood. I’d never done more than an overnighter on a drop bar bike with skinny tires (skinny compared to a mountain bike, that is)!

I was on chunky Forest roads through the chaparral-covered Black Hills within a couple hours. My bike was loaded with gear for a comfortable tour and a few days’ of food, so it took some adjustment to get used to the laden rig’s handling. My legs also felt particularly heavy, but I sure was excited to be on the move! Two days of riding carried me through the Verde Valley, past the red cliffs of Sedona, up onto the Colorado Plateau, across the Arizona Trail, and into the ponderosa pines on Mormon Mesa before descending chunky two-track into the grasslands on the limestone bench below. I camped there, simultaneously feeling far from home and so very at home out there alone.

Retracing a route across Navajo Nation from a long ride years ago, I spent a few days following sandy roads across the Painted Desert and into the higher terrain to the east. The glowing snow-capped San Francisco Peaks gradually disappeared behind me, the final landmarks visible from my home. At the end of a day high in the Chuska Mountains near the Arizona-New Mexico state line, I was honored to have local Diné cyclist Shaun Marcus pay me a visit, and we talked all about kids and bikes and trails on Navajo Nation – the expansion of programs there is always particularly inspiring. The next morning, I plunged 2,500 feet down a sandy two track to the Toadlena Trading Post. The unassuming sandstone block building holds an unbelievable trove of blankets woven by local Navajo weavers; moving past the heavy metal door into the cool, dim museum room transported me far from my bike ride in just a few steps. After an hour in the museum chatting with the staff, they wished me a safe journey. The warm afternoon air outside was a bit of a shock to my body as I got back on the bike. I had 40 miles of pavement to reach Farmington, the longest stretch of asphalt on my ride. Along the way, I left Navajo Nation proper, but my mind lingered behind just as it does every time I have the pleasure of visiting.

A day of challengingly sandy roads and blustery headwinds through the rhythmically-pumping oil wells of the San Juan Basin led to the Colorado border and the San Juan River, and 45 miles of smooth gravel roads meandered through the stunning river canyon, entirely new country for me. East of Pagosa, I hopped over the snowy Wolf Creek Pass on pavement, proudly crossing the Continental Divide Trail on which I had spent a few months last summer. Coincidentally, at that same summit, I swapped stories with a moto rider about long trips on dirt and how they’ve impacted us.

Beyond was the sweeping San Luis Valley below the snowy ridgeline of the jagged Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Then came Salida and the Arkansas Valley, where I’ve ridden so many times on the Colorado Trail, the Great Divide MTB Route, the imposing and ridiculously technical 14ers, and so much more. My route then took me through unfamiliar terrain, rutted tracks, and high sagebrush hills south of South Park, and I grinned despite the unrelenting and chilly headwind. And then one last day of pedaling around the wildfire-scorched raw granite landscape of the Tarryall Mountains led me to the South Platte Canyon.

Simultaneously, Kait had been making her way out of wintery Idaho, across the windswept sagebrush plains of Idaho, and through Colorado. Relieved to arrive at our meeting spot on the afternoon as planned, I pulled out a snack and sat down. No more than 15 minutes later, Kait rolled up, smiling broadly and looking shockingly fresh. I felt pretty dang worn down. After nine days of pushing long hours in the saddle and being worried about my relatively slow progress on so many miles of rough roads, I was relieved to be on time and to have company for the second half of the ride.

Two days later, we climbed gradually out of Colorado Springs and onto the High Plains (yes, it actually was a climb to the east!). Lush green short-grass prairie stretched as far as we could see. Homes and farms became sparse, the wind blew steadily, and an entirely different array of birds sang boisterously even beneath the mid-day sun. I grew up on the opposite edge of the Plains, and I’d always wanted to pedal across them. This trip wouldn’t quite cross them in their entirety, but we’d still get to see 500+ miles.

We raced billowing thunderstorms, lost, and watched the road transform into a soggy sandbox. We pushed into unrelenting and exhausting day-long headwinds without exchanging a word for hours at time. We felt minute and exposed in such a big landscape. Our friend Nick Legan joined and turned us into a trio. We enjoyed a day of tailwinds and much happier conversation! We rode due east for 56 miles with nary a bend in the dirt road other than at the Kansas-Colorado state line where the old survey grids didn’t quite align. The public land surveyors, armed with compasses and metal chains 150+ years ago, were shockingly accurate, but they weren’t perfect.

The county roads we followed through Kansas ranged from bladed gravel to muddy and rutted single lane affairs to two-tracks that had been planted with wheat. Fascinatingly, the road could change dramatically every mile when we reached the next block in the section grid. In flat country with arrow-straight roads, the mile-by-mile nature of everything added considerable intrigue – we never knew exactly what to expect. Over the course of a few days, the grasslands gave way to tilled wheat fields, which gave way to lusher irrigated lands, and then eventually, trees reappeared and became more numerous. Limestone layers began to emerge, the first bedrock we’d seen in hundreds of miles, and after two weeks of pedaling, we reached the Flint Hills and the end of our journey. 

Having pedaled all the way here from home, it feels as if I can reach across the thousand-plus miles back to the Southwest and grasp where I came from despite the immensity of the geography in between. It evokes a sense of understanding and gratitude I’ve never experienced following a long drive or plane ride to reach a destination, and it’s honestly somewhat overwhelming. 

Now I’m here in the quaint town of Emporia as the other 5,000 race participants begin to trickle in for Unbound. I have no idea how my legs will respond to trying to go fast after such a long commute to get here, but in all honesty, I’m not too concerned. No matter how the race goes, I’ve already gotten far more out of this endeavor than I had anticipated.

Check out Kurt and Kait’s route to Emporia below, and follow his progress on the Unbound XL route on Trackleaders.