Unbound Gravel: What the stars said after the punishment on the prairie

Here's what Amity Rockwell, Peter Stetina, Lael Wilcox, Ted King and others had to say after finishing Unbound Gravel.

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Once again, Unbound Gravel delivered a long day of sweat and suffering on the flint hills of eastern Kansas.

Riders spun across the hills in three different distances on Saturday: 100- 200- and 350-miles, and throughout the day riders pedaled across the line in downtown Emporia, covered in grit and grime.

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We caught up with some of the top riders in the 200 and 350-mile races to get a feel for the long day in Kansas.

Amity Rockwell, 2nd place

Defending champion Amity Rockwell at the start line. Photo: Wil Matthews

Defending champion Amity Rockwell made a late charge in the 2021 event to pass multiple riders and slot into second place overall. Rockwell, who heads up the Scuderia Pinarello team, said the effort she expended in 2021 far surpassed her effort from 2019 when she won. This year the race saw a block headwind for much of the race, yet Rockwell was 39 minutes faster than her time from two years ago.

One of the talking points at the race is whether or not the women should start separately from the men, since the combined fields create challenges in following the front of the women’s pack. Rockwell said she is firmly opposed to separating the two fields.

“I don’t think it’s a gravel race with a separate field,” Rockwell said. “I’m so opposed to that, I would reconsider gravel racing. There’s something really nice starting with 1,000 people and feeling like just another person on a bike, and not just a female cyclist. The energy is different, and while it is incredibly confusing at times of where you are, I think that is part of the sport and I’m not opposed to it. I know it creates complications, of whether we’re able to bring people to work for us or not, or to have teams. I’d rather we have to figure that out than forcing a separation. It’s in the opposition to the spirit of what this is.

“I had to go way harder and deeper to get second this year than I had to win it in 2019, which speaks to the caliber of the female talent that decided to come and try this. It speaks to how talented Lauren [De Crescenzo] is. The conditions were slower this year because there was so much wind from every single direction. I went 39 minutes faster and wasn’t even close to Lauren. I can’t be anything but satisfied. But I had to find deep places in myself to pull that off.”

Ted King, 4th place

Ted King held on to fourth place overall. Photo: Wil Matthews

Two-time champion Ted King came into the 2021 Unbound Gravel with modest expectations, due to a recent injury suffered during a training ride in California. King cracked his collarbone and underwent surgery in early May, and competed three weeks after the crash at the Gravel Locos race in Texas.

King surprised himself at Unbound Gravel and made the final group of five riders, alongside Colin Strickland, Laurens ten Dam, Peter Stetina, and eventual winner Ian Boswell. While King couldn’t follow Boswell and ten Dam’s surge with 25 miles remaining, he rode with Stetina and finished fourth place overall. With five Unbound Gravel/Dirty Kanza races under his belt, King was the veteran of the final group, and he said the 2021 edition of the race opened faster and more furious than ever before.

“I think everybody would agree that it was a fairly stressful start, and that has been an escalation over the years. I used to categorize the beginning of the race as stressful — I told people ‘it’s like two hours of neutral riding!’ and this was like ‘braaap’ and a little precarious, and that speaks to the growth of the event and the horsepower on the start line,” King said.

“I don’t know if it’s linear or exponential over my five years, but it’s bringing in a heck of a lot of talent. It’s a deeper field… Ian retired from the WorldTour in 2019 and Laurens was retired in 2019, and I think that residual fitness is a wonderful thing, and the two closest guys to the WorldTour who are outside of the WorldTour made the final.”

Lael Wilcox, 1st overall Unbound Gravel XL

Wilcox didn’t need to sleep. Photo: Wil Matthews

Ultra-cyclist Lael Wilcox has made a name for herself as the top rider on the planet at riding extreme distances. Wilcox was in Emporia to compete in her second Unbound Gravel XXL, the 350-mile race. Wilcox said that the distance is much shorter than what she’s used to, and that the event was fun because of the limited gear she needed to bring. She did not sleep once during her winning 350-mile effort.

“I want more women to race it, just to see — are you curious what happens out there all night? This year it was harder than in 2019 — they made it so much harder, and it was like the first 100 miles were just a beast. Whoever decided that — thank you! It was really hard. But it’s not cold and there are people around and you only need lighting for one night. I was dodging possums all night long, and snakes.”

Ian Boswell, 1st place

Photo: Wil Matthews

Boswell surprised everyone by winning the men’s event, outsprinting Laurens ten Dam in downtown Emporia in just his first attempt at the race. After the race, Boswell acknowledged that his newbie status, and lack of pressure, helped him win.

“First time here. You were there last night — I wouldn’t say I was underprepared, but because I’m somewhat underprepared I have less expectations on myself. I couldn’t have come to the finish with a better person to sprint against because we’re both pretty slow on the sprints. It’s pretty incredible. I’m new to this whole thing and I’m still learning how this all works. Colin flatted at one point and I was like do we wait or keep riding?

“It’s so different because it’s not my job to race anymore. I did that race two weeks ago and was way more cooked after that. As far as victories it’s probably the biggest victory of my career. And I fly home Monday and I start work again.”

Taylor Lideen, 1st overall Unbound Gravel XL

Taylor Lideen smashed the men’s record to win the Unbound Gravel XL in 22:57:14. Like Wilcox, Lideen didn’t sleep once during the effort. During his interview, he was asked what he ate on the bike.

“I brought 8,000 calories with me on the bike, so I had a little left afterward, but I snacked at a ton at gas stations, and a few were open 24 hours. At the last one, I had two Red Bulls, chocolate milk, soda, Gatorade, water, and another soda in like five minutes. For me training the gut is more important than training the legs.

“Everybody out there is going to face adversity, I don’t care if you’re racing the 25-mile or the 350. Everybody is going to have something go wrong. It just matters how you handle it. You can’t rush yourself. You have to be calm, cool, and collected. It’s easier said than done but it makes the experience better.”

Peter Stetina, 3rd place

Stetina attacked up a climb 25 miles from the finish. Photo: Wil Matthews

In 2019 Stetina waged a battle with Strickland at Unbound Gravel, and he rolled across the line that day in second place. That experience helped persuade Stetina to abandon the WorldTour and launch himself into gravel racing full-time.

Stetina was back in 2021 and made the front group of riders. He attacked with 25 miles to go, but was caught and passed after he stopped to deal with a stuck chain. He eventually finished third.

“We all worked very well together and when the dust finally settled midway through the day it was the five of us,” Stetina said. “All of these guys are buddies. We text each other outside of this race, and I think we were very excited that this was the selection.

“The wind made it really tactical and very difficult to get away. Colin would try on the flats. I would try on the flats, the other guys would try everywhere. There was that area just before the dam and that rough double-track, and I made a move and that kicked it off. Colin lost contact, then there were four of us, and I had a mechanical and had to stop, and then that was my day. I saw them riding away, and it was three vs. one but I could re-join Ted.

“In the end it was agony. I could see [ten Dam and Boswell] one minute up the road for the last hour and a half, and it was a great race. I couldn’t be more satisfied with this crew. That was a lot of fun.”

Shayna Powless, 5th place

Shayna Powless finished 5th. Photo: Wil Matthews

Shayna Powless turned heads in her Unbound Gravel debut, starting slow and then powering her way through the women’s field to finish 5th place overall. Like other athletes at the event, Powless said she battled through some demons across the 206-mile route.

“I think I went through every emotion imaginable. Everything from a little bit of nerves at the beginning — the nerves did go away pretty quickly after we started. And then excitement,” Powless said. “I was so happy to be out there for my first Unbound. I was so happy to be here. I had some dark moments too. It was definitely an emotional roller coaster. The low point was the last 50 miles when I was just by myself. Mentally, that was the hardest part. I had nobody around me to ride with, just solo, for the last 50 miles. I just always tell myself that no matter low point I’m in, and what ever negative thoughts I have, it will pass. Pain is temporary and the negative emotions are temporary, and I’m so happy I was able to push through that and finish strong.”

Colin Strickland, 5th place

Strickland, the defending champion, made the front selection and appeared to be in position to defend his win. Then, Stetina’s attack at mile 175 saw Strickland dropped into the wind. He finished 5th overall, and said he was happy with his finish. At the line, Strickland said he hadn’t picked Boswell to win — he thought ten Dam would be the winner.

“No offense, Ian is a freak and was the strongest, but I didn’t think so. I thought Stetina was on one today. The way he can push himself is unreal. He’s so mentally tough. He will push his body to lengths that is mind-blowing. He was super aggressive, constantly driving it, he would get on the front if people were driving. I thought ten Dam [would win]. I did a ride with him in Austin in the heat and I could only finish 75 miles. He went out for another 25 and left me at the coffee shop. I was amazed by his adaptation to heat and he has monster power. He showed some cracks but he pulled through pretty well.”

“The level has been upped. The front group is now a bunch of grand tour finishers and me — random fixie commuter dude. Yet it has managed to maintain that spirit that I was expounding on in that recent VeloNews article. We are riding for the fun of it, while you smash each other, and staying really positive. There’s no reason to not have a positive competitive outlook.”

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