10 contenders at Unbound Gravel 200 – Who can challenge Slik and Villafañe?

Sofía Gómez Villafañe wins the 2022 Unbound Gravel 200 women's overall
Sofía Gómez Villafañe wins the 2022 Unbound Gravel 200 women's overall (Image credit: Life Time)

The prestige of an Unbound Gravel 200 win is drawing an ever-growing field to the start line in Emporia, Kansas, with an influx of riders from around the world and varying disciplines. What used to be a US-centric off-road contest is now a glaring global spotlight for the pinnacle of the discipline.

The 200-mile (322km) race, which first ran in 2006, crowned its first international victors in 2022 with Dutch rider Ivar Slik and Argentina-born Sofía Gómez Villafañe making the leap to the top step. It has also been clear from the strength of the international riders coming in early to fine tune setups in North America, such as Gravel Locos, Stetina's Paydirt, BWR Vancouver Island, Iron Horse Bicycle Classic and other events, that the local players are going to have a battle on their hands to wrest the winners' belt buckles and titles of King and Queen of Unbound back onto home soil.

There is a long and strong list of US gravel 'ninjas' who are expected to contend for victories, but there is also an influx of riders who have recent success in the new UCI Gravel World Series or staked their claim in one of the growing array of off-road races in Europe, Australia or South Africa. A few WorldTour roadies, men and women, have also been drawn to Kansas to try their hand at a race which has played such a crucial early role in the development of the sport. 

Narrowing down the contenders is never an easy task, but with 205 miles (330km) of tough terrain to test the limits of even the hardiest of souls and toughest equipment, the room for something to go wrong and quickly take a rider out of contention is vast. The race is unpredictable, but we've picked 10 of the favourites from across the men's and women's elite field in the Unbound Gravel 200, plus a couple of other notables riders to watch.

Five Men's Unbound 200 favourites

Ivar Slik wins the 2022 Unbound 200 men's overall in a three way sprint

Ivar Slik wins the 2022 Unbound 200 men's overall from a four-rider sprint in the closing stretch (Image credit: Life Time)

Ivar Slik

  • Unbound record - 2022 winner, 14th in 2021
  • Disciplines - Gravel specialist with road, beach racing background

When Ivar Slik won last year, he was far from an unknown, but the one time road professional, who made gravel his key focus in 2022, also wasn’t top of the list when the Unbound favourites were discussed. The Wilier Factory Racing rider had come 14th in his 2021 debut, which stoked his interest in the discipline, but victory at The Traka 200 on the run in of 2022 signalled his potential for more.

This year, after having turned his attention from beach racing at the start of the season and back to gravel in April, he has yet to capture a gravel win, but the results have been building with a fifth at The Traka 200 and third at Gravel Locos. The difference this year, however, is that is that there can be no doubt it is a race he knows exactly how to win. Still, he also now has a big target on his back, particularly with wet conditions a possibility again.

Keegan Swenson

  • Unbound record - Second in 2022
  • Disciplines - Mountain bike, gravel

The 2022 edition of Unbound came down to a sprint, with the mud-covered Slik getting the best of Keegan Swenson and Ian Boswell while Laurens ten Dam dangled off the back. The professional mountain biker with Santa Cruz said after last year’s second place that “I thought I had the legs for the sprint. But I made some tactical errors and kind of blew it.” That means 2023 could be the chance for redemption. 

After that runner up spot at Unbound in 2022 Swenson went on to win Crusher in the Tushar, Leadville 100 and the overall Life Time Grand Prix series, which Unbound is a part of. The 29-year-old from Utah has started on a good footing again this year, taking the win in the first round of the series at the Sea Otter Classic Fuego XL MTB. He’s also taken to the top step at the 50-mile Whiskey Off-Road and the 123-mile Belgian Waffle Ride Arizona. Now, that top step in Emporia is calling.

Russell Finsterwald

  • Unbound record - Seventh in 2022
  • Disciplines - mountain bike, gravel

Russell Finsterwald is a self-described "mountain biker with a gravel problem". Given he came seventh last year at Unbound – even after a long chase back from a flat at 50 miles in – and last month won at the Belgian Waffle Ride California it may be his rivals that have a problem instead in the Flint Hills.  

The Specialized Off-Road team racer from Colorado was third overall in the Life Time Grand Prix series last year and closed the 2022 gravel season with a win at Big Sugar Gravel. It also looks like Finsterwald is setting the scene for another high placing on the Life Time Grand Prix leaderboard in 2023, coming second to friend and some time training partner Keegan Swenson in the opening round at Sea Otter Classic in the Fuego XL. judging by the Instagram training shots, both are going all out in pursuit of that Unbound title.

Mattia De Marchi

  • Unbound record - 13th in 2022
  • Disciplines - Gravel, long distance, former road pro

Mattia De Marchi is one rider where there should be no doubts about his ability to go the distance, with Unbound just a short jaunt compared to some of his bike-packing forays. Speed too is not at question for the Italian rider, who has a proven ability to keep pushing the pace when the hours on the bike begin to accumulate having three times won the 360km-long (224 mile) The Traka. This year he sent a warning shot to his Unbound rivals by delivering an all-time record as he finished the Girona race in less than 13 hours.

The Enough Cycling Collective rider has ridden Unbound before, coming 13th in 2022 and in his words "It was a fucking battle. Fast, muddy, hard, technical. This Unbound was an experience that as always taught me something." In 2023 we'll see just what he learned.

After Unbound, De Marchi is going seriously long range again, taking on the Tour Divide on June 10, a bikepacking race over the 2,745 miles (4,418km) on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Banff to New Mexico. 

Adam Roberge 

Adam Roberge won 2021 Big Sugar Gravel

Adam Roberge won 2021 Big Sugar Gravel (Image credit: Life Time)
  • Unbound record - 10th in 2022
  • Discipline - Gravel, road

Adam Roberge just made it into the top 10 last year, even after double-flatting out of the lead group and having to go on the chase alone to try and make up the five minutes lost. This year, if luck runs his way, the Canadian rider, who came second at his nation's Gravel National Championships in April, is showing signs of building form just as Unbound is approaching. 

The Jukebox Cycling rider won Gravel Locos, the race where he began his US gravel journey in 2021, earlier this month with a solo charge from the front bunch. Roberge quickly stepped up to the podium when he began racing gravel two years ago, winning Big Sugar Gravel in his debut year and in 2022 winning Gravel Worlds in Nebraska.

Also in the mix

There are a number of notable riders that we couldn't quite fit in the five, but could still well make a mark. Ian Boswell of course can't be ignored with his record. The US rider won in 2021 and came to the line positioned to contest the sprint in 2022 but ended up third. 

Then there is also Dutch rider Laurens ten Dam was second to Boswell in 2021 and came fourth last year and last year's fifth-placed Alexey Vermeulen always has to be considered to have a good shot. Paul Voss is clearly heading into the race in good form with the German rider this season having come second at Gravel Locos, won the 3RIDES Gravel World Series round and taken out The Traka 200. 

With less bad luck this year, after crashing out in 2022, Lachlan Morton could also be a contender as could Nathan Haas and Australia's national gravel champion Brendan Johnston who is one of the leading players in a group from the nation that are making their debut at the race. Retired Belgian road professional Jan Bakelants is also taking a shot at Unbound as well as current WorldTour rider Larry Warbasse of AG2R-Citroën.

A big "maybe" surrounds Payson McElveen, as he suffered a concussion and other injuries at Gravel Locos two weeks ago. But he is not a scratch from the start yet. The Mid South winner says he's feeling 50/50.

Five Women's Unbound 200 favourites

Sofia Gomez Villafane attacked with 40km to go and took solo victory for elite women at BWR Arizona 2023

Sofia Gomez Villafane won BWR Arizona 2023 (Image credit: @unroadunltd)

Sofia Gomez Villafañe

  • Unbound record - 2022 winner
  • Disciplines - mountain bike, cyclocross, gravel

This rookie rocketed across the Flint Hills last year to earn the victory and Queen of Unbound title. Sofia Gomez Villafañe embarked into gravel racing just two years ago, winning in her first outing at Crusher in the Tushar. She had no intentions of ever starting Unbound Gravel, as she was focused competing at the Tokyo Olympic Games for Argentina in cross-country mountain biking. That done, the Specialized rider then turned her attention last year to the Life Time Grand Prix, and Unbound Gravel 200 reared its face as one of the six events. 

So far this year Villafañe has won Belgian Waffle Ride Scottsdale, Fuego MTB XL at Sea Otter Classic and Whiskey 50, which is only 47 miles in length but packs in more than 6,500 feet of climbing across single-track, double track and gravel in Arizona's high desert. That climbing prowess will prove to be an advantage at Unbound.

"Each of those races are so unique and require a different race winning effort. I would have to say I am the most proud of my Whiskey 50 race as not only did I finally beat my demons there, but got a glimpse into the climbing legs I have been working on this winter," Villafañe told Cyclingnews.

Haley Smith

  • Unbound record - 6th in 2022
  • Disciplines - mountain bike, gravel

Haley Smith finished sixth in the elite women at last year’s Unbound Gravel, her first outing across the Flint Hills. Later that summer the Maxxis Factory Racing rider went on to win at Crusher in the Tushar and had podiums in her mountain bike specialty at Leadville 100 MTB and Chequamegon that boosted her to the inaugural women’s champion of the Life Time Grand Prix.

Unbound was only the fourth gravel race of her career and Smith referred to her debut as “a hilariously ambitious first attempt at gravel racing”. Now that she has more than doubled her experience with gravel grinding, Smith will be a serious force in Emporia this year. She comes in with a GC victory at the four-day Ekopak Belgian Mountainbike Challenge, an endurance test with flat bars. On the drop bars, she took the victory last weekend at BWR Canada, dominating the race with a 19-minute margin over her closest rival.

Sarah Sturm

  • Unbound record - 7th in 2022
  • Disciplines - mountain bike, gravel

Sarah Sturm (Specialized/SRAM/Rapha) has followed a similar path to Haley Smith, transitioning from a focus on mountain bike races to gravel with her invitation to the Life Time Grand Prix. Last year she finished third overall in the six-race off-road series. At Unbound Gravel 200 she finished seven seconds behind Smith in seventh, and she was ninth at Big Sugar Gravel. 

This year she seems prepared to improve at Unbound, or “funbound” as she refers to it on the positive side, with a new setup from Specialized. Sturm travelled to Girona in April to take on the 360km The Traka, coming away with second place, 45 minutes separating her from compatriot and winner Amity Rockwell. The last prep race for the 33-year-old US rider was Stetina’s Paydirt, where she had the best time for elite women, but ultimately took second place when Heather Jackson nailed a post-race game of ‘tyre toss’ and earned bonus seconds to boost her to first place overall. There will be no games on the gnarly gravel this weekend, so look for Sturm to storm across the 205 miles.

Lauren De Crescenzo descends a muddy potion of the course on foot after dealing with 3 seperate crashes.

Lauren De Crescenzo descends a muddy potion of the course on foot after dealing with 3 separate crashes. (Image credit: Snowy Mountain Photography)

Lauren De Crescenzo

  • Unbound record - second in 2022, winner in 2021
  • Disciplines - road, gravel

Lauren De Crescenzo (Cinch) used to race on the US road scene before a horrific crash in 2016 left her learning how to walk and talk again. She soared to gravel fame by winning Unbound Gravel 200 in 2021, and hasn’t stopped stacking up the off-road victories since. Last year she crossed the finish in Emporia for second place, trailing 9 minutes behind winner Sofia Gomez Villafañe in the wet and muddy conditions. She’s on track this year to earn her way back to the top spot, having gone back-to-back as The Mid South champion in the spring. 

Amity Rockwell

  • Unbound record - second in 2021, winner in 2019
  • Disciplines - gravel, road, adventure

Amity Rockwell (Trek/Pas/Maurten/Schwalbe) is one of the early adaptors to the gravel scene and won Unbound Gravel 200 in 2019. Also the 2021 runner-up, Rockwell didn't race in Emporia last year, after have a few hard crashes at BWR and another in training after racing Fuego MTB 80K in April. She rebooted in the fall and won the first BCBR Gravel Explorer, a five-day gravel stage race.

Rockwell is once again carrying impressive form into Unbound this season, delivering a stunning record-breaking performance at The Traka 360, finishing 45 minutes ahead of her nearest rival, Sarah Sturm. Back in the US she was third at The Mid South. Is she ready for the 200 grind on gravel again? The short answer is yes.

Also in the mix

The women's field is very deep this year, and they get their own dedicated start on Commercial Street which has given the elite riders a boost even before the race begins. Look for a more tightly-packed group, with some new names from Europe and beyond likely to be able to make moves into a lead group.

Justine Barrow has made her gravel strength clear, with the Australian parachuting into the US scene this year, immediately taking fourth at Desert Gravel and then third at Gravel Locos. 

Another rider to watch is German Svenja Betz, winner of multiple rounds of the UCI Gravel World Series in 2022 and this season she took second at The Traka 200 and third at The Gralloch. Still, like many of those who have made their mark in the shorter races of the UCI Gravel World Series, it is a bit of an unknown how she will perform over the longer distances. Fellow German rider Carolin Schiff has stepped to the top of the podium in the World Series this year and has also strengthened her claim with a win at The Traka 200 and at Gravel Locos. 

On the US front, Heather Jackson is on fire this season. She won BWR California and Stetina's Paydirt, and is looking to make a mark in the Life Time Grand Prix. One of the youngest in the Unbound elite field is Anna Yamauchi. She impressed with a second place at BWR Arizona and won in Bakersfield at Rock Cobbler. 

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Australia Editor

Simone is a degree-qualified journalist that has accumulated decades of wide-ranging experience while working across a variety of leading media organisations. She joined Cyclingnews as a Production Editor at the start of the 2021 season and has now moved into the role of Australia Editor. Previously she worked as a freelance writer, Australian Editor at Ella CyclingTips and as a correspondent for Reuters and Bloomberg. Cycling was initially purely a leisure pursuit for Simone, who started out as a business journalist, but in 2015 her career focus also shifted to the sport.