|4||Laurens Ten Dam||10:06:08|
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Keegan Swenson has a few big goals for 2023, and on Saturday he ticked one off the list.
The Santa Cruz HTSQD rider won Unbound Gravel in Emporia, Kansas, outsprinting Czech rider Petr Vakoč. Lachlan Morton crossed the line two seconds later.
Last year, Swenson was outsprinted by Ivar Slik in the 200-mile gravel race, and flipping the script has been on his mind ever since.
“Coming in a bit short last year stung,” Swenson said after the race. “I lost sleep over it for a long time, so I’m super excited to put it together.”
A strong septet that included the top three finishers, as well as Laurens ten Dam, Ian Boswell, Russell Finsterwald, and Pete Stetina, rode together for more than three-quarters of the race and all finished in just over 1o hours.
How the race unfolded
For the first time in Unbound history, elite riders started separately from amateurs this year. The elite men took off at 5:50 a.m., 10 minutes before the age group riders.
The biggest drama of the day came just 11 miles into the race with a five mile section of mostly unrideable mud. Shortly before that section, a peloton of about 30-40 riders had formed.
Although the muddy road appeared to be smooth, the riders who went first realized that the best lines were those in the grass on either side of the road. Nevertheless, everyone was off their bikes at some point; Boswell said that he probably rode “80 percent of it” and ran the rest.
Not everyone was as lucky — multiple riders suffered multiple mechanicals. Slik, last year’s winner, had major shifting issues. Andrew L’Esperance snapped his derailleur hanger and pulled out of the race. Alex Howes “somehow obliterated a chain guard.”
Three small groups exited the mud in quick succession, with Swenson, Finsterwald, Howard Grotts, Kiel Reijnen, and Tobin Ortenblad some of the first riders out, followed by Boswell, Morton, John Kariuki, and Payson McElveen chasing.
Another group, including Ten Dam, Stetina, Paul Voss, and Vakoč were two and a half minutes back, but the former roadies eventually bridged up to the leaders within the next hour.
By mile 40, the septet had formed and would work together for the rest of the day. McElveen dropped out due to back pain.
At the first checkpoint at mile 80 in Eureka, only Stetina stopped for a bike wash while the others opted to just switch out hydration packs and bottles. After that, Boswell and Morton pushed the pace, but no one was arguing with it. In fact, Swenson said, cooperation and mutual understanding were the themes of the day.
“The mud blew it all apart, but the group was great today,” he said. “There was no sitting on, no games. We were there to get it done and get it done fast. I always appreciate that kind of racing.”
Everyone in the group agreed that the teamwork made for fun and enjoyable racing. However, they knew that someone needed to make a move to try and thwart the inevitable sprint at the finish — one that would likely play into Swenson’s hands.
Finsterwald tried on Texaco Hill, where he was dropped last year, but it didn’t stick. Ten Dam and Morton tried, too.
“I tried a few attacks a really long way out, maybe 80 miles out and everyone would come back,” Morton said. “I think everyone knew from that point out that we’d just be together from there out. I had the idea of an attack in the finish since yesterday. I thought if it was a group it would be my best opportunity. Keegan was strong, we had to cover a lot of moves in that last bit so I was just hoping it would be one too many but it wasn’t.”
Vakoč, who was riding his first Unbound after retiring from the road in 2021, also hoped that he could try and match Swenson in a sprint. He was disappointed to find that, because of the congestion at the finish due to riders from all other distances coming in at the same time, he didn’t get the chance.
“I knew if it comes to a sprint I can end up on the podium,” he said. “I knew it would be hard to beat Keegan, but it was just a shame it was not even possible for me to do the sprint because of the people from the other races.”