Unbound bike and gear test: What worked well for me, and what didn’t

I finished 30th with just a single flat. Here I rate each piece of gear used, plus list what I'm thinking of bringing next year.

Photo: Ian Matteson

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Coming into his first Unbound Gravel, Zack Allison couldn’t believe the tire situation could be as bad as the hype. People getting six, seven, eight flats in one day? Come on. It’s just gravel roads, right?

As it turned out, the sharp flint rocks were indeed a force to be reckoned with. A seasoned pro rider, Zack ended the day with eight plugs in his tires.

In my second attempt at the 200-mile race, I considered myself lucky to get through with a single puncture that I fixed with two Dynaplugs.

I definitely screwed up some things. For instance: Putting chain links in my Dynaplug egg, so they immediately fell into the tall grass when I went to plug my flat? Fail.

But other choices worked out well. I was happy to go into a 12-hour day with comfortable gear for the contact points — a Specialized Power Elaston saddle and the wide-top Cervélo handlebar.

Here is a rundown on each piece I used, plus a few things I am thinking of bringing next year.

Bike and parts

Cervélo Aspero-5: The internal routing looks clean to the eyes and to the wind, and the aero-but-ergo handlebar was part of why I choose this bike for Kansas. The bike also has levers on the thru-axles instead of Allen bolts, which I figured would be appreciated if and when I had to put in a tube or six. (Full review here.)

Enve AG25: The Utah brand’s second-tier carbon gravel wheel offered a wide, 25mm internal base, and is easy to mount tires on. I was debating running Hunt’s new Unlimited aero gravel wheels, but I was staying at a house with the Enve crew, and using their wheels seemed like the polite thing to do.

Schwalbe G-One R: Launched at Unbound, I love how soft and supple these tires feel. The new ‘R’ has more tread than the G-One Allround but still feels like it rolls fast. The tread got pretty shredded over the course of the day, with torn knobs and scores of cuts in the rubber, but I only had one puncture at mile 26 in a stretch of double-track. That ended my time with the front group.

Shimano Ultegra chain with Allied Grax: The last time I did the race, I used ProGold lube, and my chain was basically seizing up by the first checkpoint, squawking and screeching like mad. Allied’s gravel wax lube was golden! My chain was quiet and smooth-running all day long. I was very happy with the Grax. It’s now my go-to for gravel.

Stages 50/34 crank: In the group with the tailwind early on, I was happy to have a 50/11 instead of the stock 48t big ring. I tried to keep the power in check in the first few hours, then laughed at how 200 watts felt like 800 in the final hour. 641 TSS on the day.

Shimano GRX Di2 with D-Fly: I love GRX Di2. The hood is a little longer than regular GRX, the hood hooks my hands in place, the brakes are excellent, and with a plug-in D-Fly I can click through Garmin pages without touching the computer.

Specialized Power Elaston: I used this padded version of my favorite saddle the last time I did the race and put the sucker on for 2021. When you are in a loving relationship, why change?

Tools and accessories

Dynaplugs: The hero of my day. I couldn’t find my Dynaplug Racer set so I went to my local shop to buy a Dynaplug Pill the day before I left for Kansas. I was so glad I did. I screwed up by not bringing more plugs, and by using the container to store chain links.

Liv C02 breaker: I had one in my saddle bag with two Schwalbe Aerothon tubes and one in my Bontrager keg under the down tube with a standard butyl tube. This one has a flow-control dial, so you can use part of a C02 if you just need to top off air. Not wasting resources is always a good thing, but it can be race-defining at Unbound.

Chain links: I didn’t need them, but I was glad to have them. Just. In. Case. I just need to figure out a better place to put them…

Lezyne pump: Similar to the above, on both accounts. I lost my frame clip, so carried this in my CamelBak Chase vest.

Bontrager lights: You must start the race with front and rear lights. Bontrager makes the best little lights I have found. I used these around town all the time, and have them on my kids’ bikes.

Arundel cages: These came on the test bike and did not jettison a bottle.

Photo: Ian Matteson

Dusk to Dawn Captive 14 cage: After a keg jettisoned from my bike during The Rad Fest test ride, I made sure to use this high-grip-strength cage for Unbound.

Garmin Edge 830: It’s incredible how much battery life has improved in a few years. The first Garmin Edge 1000 did not last me more than 4.5 hours when using navigation. This Edge 830 still had 20 percent battery remaining after 12 hours. Plus it was cool to see text messages from friends pop up on screen in the last hour when I was struggling.

GoPro Hero Black 9: Similar to improvements in battery life, GoPro’s video stabilization has made leaps and bounds. I’ll put a link here when we have our video done to show you.

K-Edge mount: Rock solid, metal, and made in ‘Merica. Garmin up top and GoPro below. It’s a no-brainer.

Polar HR arm strap: I’m a fan of arm-mounted heart-rate straps. I could still get the data but without a sweaty piece of plastic wrapped around my chest.

For next year

Frame mounts: The first year I did Unbound Gravel (then Dirty Kanza), I made an absolute mess of a flat change, blowing through all manner of resources and spending more than 20 minutes by the side of the road. This year I was stopped for under three minutes for a flat, but I could have done it much faster had I been prepared with materials at the ready. Next year, instead of having CO2 and a breaker and the Dynaplug set all tucked in a saddlebag, I am going to have them attached to the frame or in a pocket, ready to go with a minimum of faffing around. I don’t know if a 30-second repair would have allowed me to rejoin the front group, but I do know that a 3-minute gap to world-class athletes in a pack is unsurmountable.

Core temperature regulator: Core makes an internal temperature monitor that you can wear, and that relays data to a Garmin. This is more for a post-race navel-gaze than anything actionable in the race. But I am curious to check it out.

Quarq pressure regulator: Being able to see real-time tire pressure on the Garmin throughout the day could be interesting and perhaps useful as you wonder, ‘did that plug actually seal the tire?’ The downside is that since the gauge threads into the valve, it would be one more thing to fiddle with if I had to put in a tube.

Jeremiah Bishop came back from a flat to finish 8th overall and on the top step of the 45+ podium. I was happy with second.

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