It’s been over a decade since I’d been to Emporia to help establish Unbound Gravel’s Crew For Hire program. The world is a great deal different now. Having spoken at length with Kristi Mohn about things like generational change I was curious to see what, if any, of those changes had taken place in not just Emporia but also in the Unbound Gravel event itself. There was also the tragic passing of Moriah Wilson, the induction of the first class of the Gravel Hall of Fame, and a variety of other things going on that really made this year’s Unbound Gravel more significant than most.
Every day that I spent in Emporia had its own moments that showed me something new and unexpected. There were signs of the massive changes the cycling community, industry, and Emporia itself are going through. I witnessed grief, loss, love, and more. Throughout everything, there was one common theme: People who were doing the best they could.
Be that as members of their community trying to help others, as athletes facing the hardest challenge of their lives, or as professionals attempting to make a massively complex event execute smoothly…everywhere I looked it was just people doing the best they could. Here are six out of the literally thousands of stories that could be told from Unbound Gravel 2022. I hope you enjoy them.
Thursday, 9:00am – Change
Although the race is on Saturday, Unbound Gravel really begins Thursday morning at Gravel City Roasters. The last time I was in town this little place was called Java Cat. Like the rest of Emporia, it’s been transformed by what was once a small bike race attended only by, basically, 38 lunatics. 200 miles was unthinkable enough in 2006. 200 miles through the Flint Hills on tire-shredding, oftentimes impassibly muddy, unpaved roads? You’d have to be stark, raving mad.
But that was then. This is now. The unthinkable has become an attainable dream chased by well over a thousand cyclists every year. There are also shorter options for those who are crazy, but just less so. Many, many other things have changed as well.
With the race starting early Saturday morning cyclists start arriving en masse in Emporia on Thursday morning and Gravel City is where they gather. I’m sitting next to one legend, Mark Stephenson, aka “Guitar Ted”, the founder of Trans Iowa, and across from another, Chris Skogen, the founder of the Almanzo 100 race, watching other legends like Rebecca Rusch, Yuri Hauswald and Molly Cameron wander through. I introduce myself to a para-cyclist, and it turns out to be 11x World Champion and 4x Para Olympic medalist Meg Fisher. Because of course a random cyclist in Gravel City Roasters two days prior to Unbound Gravel is going to be an 11x World Champion.
Mark and Chris were inducted into the first “Gravel Hall of Fame” class the night before, along with Kristi Mohn, the aforementioned Rebecca Rusch, Corey Godfrey, Dan Hughes and Bobby Wintle. “I didn’t really want to come. I don’t like the attention.” Chris tells me. Chris is a quiet and intense guy. He’ll let me take his portrait, but it’s obvious that he’s not happy in front of the camera. We compromise and he lowers his head, face obscured by his “Howdy” baseball cap.
Mark and I head outside to find a media scrum around Queer Gravel founder Abi Robins, Mid South Non-Binary race winner Apollo Leonard and non-binary cyclist Molly Cameron. A few days later there will be a feature story in the New York Times about Unbound Gravel in which Abi will play a central role. Nearly 100 cyclists are gathered as well to do a short fundraising ride supporting local non-profit Bloom House Youth Services (BHYS). BHYS serves at-risk and homeless youth and also has LGBTQ+ youth-specific support programs. The founder, Clara Corn, tells me she and her partner weren’t locals. “We came here and fell in love with this little town. Then we moved here.” The ride itself is led by Yuri and Molly (see: legends) and sponsored by GU Energy, Kenda Tires and Craft Sportswear.
The ride departs. Alexandera Houchin, Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) tribal member, activist, Colorado Trail race winner and Tour Divide Women’s singlespeed record holder, rolls up. She’s premiering a biographical short film later that day and racing in the 350XL race which starts on Friday. Having missed the BHYS support ride she grabs a cup of coffee and starts a conversation with All Bodies On Bikes founder Marley Blonksy.
The whole experience amazes me. All of this would have been inconceivable in 2006 when this was a tiny race of lunatics. Or even in the last time I was here in 2010 and it was a moderately sized race of lunatics. World Champions? Openly LGBTQ+ cyclists being the center of a media frenzy? A Non-Binary race class? Cycling industry companies sponsoring BIPOC and LGBTQ+ riders and events? A Native woman premiering a movie at the historical crown jewel of downtown Emporia, the Granada Theater? Even there being a local youth homeless shelter with LGBTQ+ specific programs would have been unheard of 12 years ago.
But now…it’s Thursday morning. Unbound Gravel is no longer a tiny race, the cycling industry is no longer quite as closed in as it once was, and Emporia is feeling the effects of both.
Friday, Sunrise, Camp Alexander – Mourning (Moriah “Mo” Wilson Tribute Ride)
They ride into Camp Alexander in almost complete silence, a large group of cyclists who had traveled from all over the world to be in Emporia, KS for Unbound Gravel. Little is said as they stop to wait for the sun to rise. Even though most of them don’t know each other, they are all here to pay their respects to Mo Wilson. Mo, a favorite for the Women’s 200-mile race, was supposed to be at Unbound Gravel to defend her title. Instead she’d been murdered a month prior in Austin, TX.
Lost in thoughts and memories, they watch the sun rise over the horizon. Then, just as quietly as they arrived, they turn around and make their way back to Emporia.
Saturday, Support Stop 1, Mile 77 – Pain & Love (Crew For Hire)
“26! 1014!” The numbers are shouted quickly, loudly, often repeated two or three times. Volunteers run down rows of bags, searching tags for the numbers 26, 1014, and others. One by one they are found and quickly taken to the Unbound Gravel cyclist bearing that number on their bike. In the meantime other volunteers converge, taking water bottles to be refilled, cleaning chains, putting bikes on racks while the riders themselves get sandwiches, pickles, GU Energy gels and more from tables that are constantly restocked.
I’m at Support Stop 1’s Crew For Hire area, taking it all in. 12 years ago myself, Sandy Knight and Jennifer Martin started this program. We took care of a modest 50 riders that year. I haven’t been back to Emporia since. Over the last 11 years Sandy and Jennifer have grown it to an incredible degree. This year they are supporting over slightly more than 500 riders on the 200 mile course and another 500 on the 100 mile course. 1,140 cyclists started the 200 mile race that morning, which means the Crew For Hire program is responsible for supporting nearly 45% of the field.
All of this was done in memory of Sandy’s son, Adrian, who passed at the age of 13 from Wilm’s Tumor. In the last 11 years over $100,000 of proceeds from the Crew For Hire have gone to local nonprofits including Sandy’s Never Let Go Fund. Never Let Go gives money to local families who have a child with cancer to help offset their costs of, well, anything. Chemotherapy. Gas to drive to the hospital. Hotels. Food. Rent. Whatever they need.
Starting this year Joie Payne and her husband are taking the program over. Their fund, Payne’s Promise, will be used in memory of their daughter, MacKenzie, to help pay the tuition of local kids who are pursuing medical degrees. MacKenzie was murdered in 2018 while in medical school.
Jen, Sandy and Joie gather together for a portrait. “Close your eyes.”, I tell them. “Now, let your faces relax, and then think about everything this program means to you, why you’re here, why you’re doing what you’re doing. On the count of three, open your eyes and show me all of it.”
They opened their eyes and it all came out: Raw, unfiltered sorrow, pride, pain, loss, determination and fierce love. The shutter clicked twice, the camera came down and all four of us started to cry.
Saturday, Unbound 200 Mile 154 – Humility
Etienne Couture slowly rolled up to the intersection, gingerly got off his bike, set it down, and then gently lowered himself into the grass. After making a phone call he collapsed onto his back, eyes closed, face to the sky.
“Hey, man. Are you OK?”, I asked him.
“I haven’t been able to keep down water or food for three hours. I’ve called to have someone pick me up.”
I gently requested his permission to take his portrait. “Close your eyes,” I said when he agreed, “and think about everything you’ve gone through today. And then think about what you’re taking away from this experience. On the count of three, open your eyes and show me that.”
“Humility.” he said, as he opened his eyes and stared at the camera. “Humility.”
Saturday, Support Stop 2, Mile 164 – I’m so happy!
It’s been a brutal 167 miles for Erwin Sikkens. He got a huge sidewall cut in his rear tire at mile 50 after the Teter Hill climb. His replacement tube didn’t have a long enough valve stem for the new wheels he’d put on his bike at the last minute. After a kind fellow rider had given him a tube with a barely long enough valve stem he’d used his last American dollar bill as an emergency boot and then pushed on. It had rained on and off for hours during the day. Before reaching Support Stop 2 Erwin had been forced to hike his way through a three mile bog of mud and gravel. Afterwards he joined other racers in washing their bikes off in a creek so they’d be rideable again.
He’d come all the way from the Netherlands to ride in the 200 mile event. It was his first trip to America, and his first attempt at anything this long or brutal on his bike.
“I’m happy. No, really! I’m so happy!” he said as his face repeatedly switched between elation, relief and exhaustion. “It’s been hard. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I’d be riding in small groups, with more people, but that hasn’t happened. I’ve just been riding alone a lot of the time. I’m fine with that. I’ve been in a really good place mentally. I was afraid at times that my mind would go to dark places, but it hasn’t. I am so happy I’ve made it this far, and there is only a short ways to go!”
“I’m just so happy!”
The week after – I had no idea…
“I learned about gravel last year. When I googled ‘gravel’ and Unbound came up. It was a few days before the (2021) event so I went to the website, read the notes and declared in my tiniest of tiny offices that I wanted to do what those people are doing.
I had a blast on Saturday on the 100 mile ride. I loved every moment of the rain. Not the muddy aftermath, but the suffering in the rain was amazing! I had no idea what I was in for. I’ve been riding gravel for less than a year. I plan to do the 200 next year.” – Taneika Duhaney, 100 mile course finisher
About Stories From Unbound Gravel
Unbound Gravel is a massively important event in the cycling world. Incredibly difficult to ride yet open to all comers, people come from around the world to attempt it. With Unbound Gravel’s growth has also come an undeniable impact on the local community within Emporia and even, it can be argued, on the very fabric of the cycling industry itself. As such it is a gold mine for stories. It was my goal to convey as much of this as I could in my coverage with the short vignettes as well as portraits of the racers, volunteers, family members, and event professionals in attendance.
The black and white panoramics were made on film with a 1916 Graflex 3a SLR, a hand made by me camera lens, and Ilford HP5 medium format film. Those images sadly only go to 2 / 3 of the way through the race. The big Graflex took a tumble out of the back of the rental pickup truck, hit the ground hard and broke. But it gave me some of the best, if not the best, images it had ever made before that. All I can do is be grateful for what I got instead of dwelling on what I didn’t get.
To all the people who were kind enough to let me take their portrait or tell me some small part of their story: Thank you! None of my work would be possible without you.