Even with a wealth of experience and otherworldly fitness, Unbound Gravel has the same effect on the top pro riders as it does on the rest of us. They tinker with their tire set-up too. They also worry about what gear to pack. And the top pros are also in awe of the magical atmosphere that engulfs Emporia, Kansas every June.
So, we called up a few of our favorite pro riders to hear from them about how they’re preparing for arguably the biggest gravel event of the season and what they’re expecting on June 3 in the Flint Hills.
Photos: Avery Stumm (top left and right)
ENVE: Walk us through your wheel and tire choices for Unbound, and explain why you’re running those products. Then, what tire pressures do you expect to run? Or, are you the type to make adjustments in the days prior to the event?
Alexey Vermeulen: Tires for Unbound are just about the toughest part of the race. With the clearance on the ENVE MOG, I do not have a limiter on tire volume, which has always been a question in terms of mud. I am undecided on final tire choices but I am most likely going to race with the Kenda Alluvium 40mm. I am planning on bringing a 45c option of the Alluvium as well as some Flintridge choices and making final decisions after pre-riding. I will feel tire pressure out based on what volume of tire I end up racing with … usually I race in the low 30s though. For wheels, it’s a little more straightforward. The G23‘s are the most compliant, and I have debated running them in the past. (It’s what I would recommend to my dad.) But at the speeds we are riding, aerodynamics matter. So I am looking at the SES 3.4 and SES 4.5 and for the first time at Unbound, leaning toward the 4.5.
ENVE: What sort of changes do you make to your bike setup for the demands of Unbound? Are there some details or component choices that make your bike a little different than most of the others we’ll see lined up in Emporia?
Whitney Allison: Unbound can be a real doozy. I’ve been fourth two years in a row under totally different conditions. 2021 saw a lot of heat (I flatted a bunch), and 2022 was a rain- and mud-fest (no mechanicals besides scraping mud off my bike to ride). We don’t know what the weather will hold yet, but just from the sheer duration of the event, it’s always a good idea to have a smidge more of the extras: Tubolitos, CO2, a good multitool, etc. Luckily, the ENVE MOG has the in-frame storage so it’s not like I’m having to have a big saddle bag to carry all my worries in.
From an equipment standpoint, I feel like the ENVE MOG was literally designed for Unbound, so I’m very excited to see that come to fruition. I do run Shimano GRX 2x — with my roadie background, I feel like I need all the gears. And finally, I’m very likely to run the ENVE SES 3.4 wheels with a new, unreleased WTB tire.
Photos: Jim Merithew / Kali Protectives
ENVE: Compared to other top riders, you’re relatively new to competitive cycling. As you’ve progressed over the recent years, what are some key learnings you’re taking into your third start at Unbound?
Brennan Wertz: One of the biggest learnings is that I’ve transitioned from rowing races that are five-and-a-half minutes long to races that are up to 10 hours long. The fueling is so important, and it’s been fun for me to explore a different type of training, doing this high volume and pushing myself. When it comes to the race itself, I’m not sure if I’d say I have a super-specific custom nutrition plan, but I just get as much as I can get my hands on and keep some variety going. That has been so crucial, and it’s been fun to explore that. I think both times I’ve done Unbound, it’s been about 11k calories burned for me. I’d give myself maybe a B/B+ on fueling both years. The first year, I struggled a bit in the last few hours because it was so hot, and last year I struggled because it was so muddy and wet and required so much focus to stay upright and ride to the finish. I was in a chase group and getting a relentless spray of mud in my face. It was hard to eat or do anything — also my bottles were covered in a layer of mud.
ENVE: Ironman triathlons vs. major gravel events like Unbound. How do you compare and contrast those types of events both for yourself as an elite athlete and for the average participant?
Heather Jackson: I see a lot of similarities between events like Unbound and the Ironman racing circuit. Primarily, everyone is sharing the same course and racing the same race, and that brings an overall sense of camaraderie between everyone. Everyone is going through the same thing out there no matter the speed they are moving, and that brings out some fun war stories after both types of events. You have athletes of all shapes and sizes, different athletic backgrounds, different types of bikes, and riding for different reasons, and so as an elite athlete or everyday athlete, we are both doing the same thing, which is very cool. I think the only major contrast I see is the group riding dynamic in gravel events that can scare people from possibly trying one, or riding off-road if they don’t live in a place where that’s common to try or practice on. But I honestly think there is going to be more and more crossover between these types of endurance athletes.
ENVE: In North America, Unbound has a lot of mystique, and many people use it as a benchmark to compare other events and rides. How do European riders perceive Unbound?
Carolin Schiff: For me, as a European rider, Unbound is really something special. I expect a really strong women’s field and everyone will be in the best possible shape. I think it is the biggest and most important gravel race of the year, besides world championships. Also, for all the sponsors, this race is so important. I feel no pressure but I would like to perform on my highest level.
If you’re going to be in Emporia this week, be sure to join us for the ENVE MOG’arita ride on Thursday at 3 pm from the expo. For those not attending, follow along on ENVE’s social media feed as these riders take on 200 miles of gravel racing at Unbound on June 3.