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After 15 years as the Dirty Kanza, the world’s marquee gravel race is now Unbound Gravel.
And as the people involved in creating the new name discovered, changing it was more challenging than anyone expected.
For the past 15 years, the Monument of Gravel has come to represent more than just a gravel race in Emporia, Kansas. The race has grown from three dozen riders to over three thousand hasn’t just changed individual lives — it’s directly impacted the entire cycling industry. For many, as the race grew in size and stature, the name Dirty Kanza simply became synonymous with ‘gravel.’
And, as race organizers learned this year, it also bothered people.
“We had had concerns brought up from people in the gravel community that the name was causing harm and was derogatory toward the Kaw Nation,” race co-director Kristi Mohn told VeloNews. “Through our history of the event, our relationship with the Kaw Nation had been positive, but as things grew more heated, it became apparent the name needed to change.”
While organizers said that they had been discussing a name change internally before concerns began to crop up on social media, they decided to make the process transparent in June after the mutual decision was made for race founder Jim Cummins to leave the organization. Just a day after Cummins stepped down, the Dirty Kanza’s parent company Life Time issued a statement confirming that it would begin the process of rebranding.
“We have been working throughout this year on options for a name change,” the statement said. “Our event name wasn’t created with ill-intent, and while we have worked with and received support from the Kaw Nation, we also understand that our name should not cause hurt. This process does take time, and we want to make this change in the correct manner. Please know that we will share progress as we work through this process.”
The organizers’ first move was to ask people who had a relationship with the event for help.
They called upon business leaders and community members from Emporia, members of the cycling media, sponsors and event partners, and athletes, in addition to their internal team at Life Time, to form a rebrand task force.
“We really reached out to a lot of different people in the gravel community to understand what the event meant to them, what the region means to them,” Mohn said. “We wanted to do this as collectively as possible with the idea of making this an even more inclusive even in the future.”
However, the challenge in creating and then agreeing upon a name for the storied event proved to be a bigger task than anyone had imagined.
Furthermore, the task force suffered a minor setback in early August when race organizers met with members of the Kaw’s tribal council and were informed that the tribe wanted to excuse itself from both the name change and any further association with the event.
While the task force had initially considered a name that paid homage to the Kaw Nation, after the meeting in Kaw City, Oklahoma, they refocused the task force to search for words and concepts that evoked either the sense of place of the Flint Hills region of Kansas or an emotional state associated with riding 200 miles of gravel roads.
During the course of three months, the task force met regularly to discuss the options. While there were many good ideas, no one, from the impassioned owner of Emporia’s Mulready’s Pub to Dirty Kanza winner Yuri Hauswald, could come up with ‘the one.’
Michelle Duffy, Life Time’s associate marketing director for off-road events, said that the exercise was trying for everyone involved.
“How do you rebrand something with 15 years of one-of-a-kind history that helped paved the way for the industry?” she said. “How would you rebrand Pepsi or Band-Aid with a name completely departed from what it has been known as?”
Ultimately the team agreed that it wanted a name, logo, and colors that embodied the Flint Hills of Kansas. Others on the task force — each of whom had been a participant in the event before — hoped for a word that transcended a simple place name.
“We found the word when the whole team was sitting together, rambling off words that represented the region, the experience, the history, the stories,” Duffy said. “The word Unbound most literally means to be free, or unrestrained.”
The branding around the new name includes other images, words, and expressions that those familiar with the event will recognize, in addition to a new look. However, the most important aspect of the race’s rebranding is a renewed focus on inclusivity at every level of the event.
In 2021 and moving forward, the organization plans to partner with organizations that are already doing the work of serving underrepresented groups in cycling. In the next four weeks, the Unbound Gravel website will feature profiles of these partnerships, as well as offering a platform for other individuals and groups who want to collaborate on the event’s DEI initiatives.
In addition to prioritizing a more inclusive start line, the race organizers will also provide opportunities for more people to be involved at all levels — from race volunteers to paid staff.
Mohn, who has been involved with the event since 2008, said that the rebrand marks a turning point in the race’s 15-year history.
“We hope that each time riders touch the gravel roads in the Flint Hills, they take a moment to remember what has been,” she said. “Unbound Gravel provides an opportunity to reimagine what an event can look like, and this rebrand is only step one in the process.”
“So much is yet to come for the gravel community.”