New elite rules, fast southern course for packed 2023 Unbound Gravel field – Preview

Ivar Slik wins 2023 Unbound Gravel 200
Ivar Slik wins 2023 Unbound Gravel 200 (Image credit: Snowy Mountain Photography)

Unpredictable and epic, the Garmin Unbound Gravel presented by Craft Sportswear returns June 2-3 to Emporia, Kansas and is set to be a pursuit of prairie pain on a scale not seen before. The 17th edition of the endurance event in the heart of the US Midwest features a record-breaking 4,000 amateur and professional athletes across six riding distances, varying from 25 to 250 miles. 

The signature event is the Unbound Gravel 200, a 200-mile (322 km) escapade across the Flint Hills of Kansas which is known for its hilly, tire-shredding, sun-baked terrain. Unbound Gravel 200, run on Saturday, is also the second stop on the seven-race schedule of the 2023 Life Time Grand Prix presented by Mazda.

Leading the list of international contenders are last year’s winners. Dutch rider Ivar Slik (Wilier Factory Racing) and Argentinian Sofía Gómez Villafañe (Specialized). The defending champion in the women’s race comes in with impressive form, Villafañe having won the Belgian Waffle Ride Scottsdale, Fuego MTB XL at Sea Otter Classic and Whiskey 50 while Slik has been building, with a fifth at The Traka and third at Gravel Locos.

Unbound Gravel has grown from a startline of 34 North American riders in 2006 to thousands who represent all 50 states and 38 countries. The majority score entry through a lottery process and seek to reach the finish for personal satisfaction and a custom Muck Insulated bottle with a limited-edition map graphic. There is a special ‘Gravel Grail’ custom glass chalice awarded to any participant who reaches the 1,000-mile club – five Unbound Gravel 200 finishes. And in keeping with the ‘spirit of gravel’, participants who finish before sundown become members of the “Race the Sun Club”.

New rules were adopted by organisers for the men’s and women’s elite fields in the 200-mile event this year. For the first time elite males, elite females and age group athletes will start in three separate waves, with the pro men taking the course at 5:50 a.m. followed by the pro women two minutes later. The balance of Unbound 200 riders will begin at 6 a.m. on the same start line on Commercial Street in downtown Emporia.

Aerobars, bar extensions or clip-on attachments will no longer be permitted for the elite riders. Last year both winners, Slik and Villafañe, as well as a large number of competitors used some type of “comfort” bars on their bikes. The other prominent rule change is that all elite riders will be subject to random drug testing. Life Time anticipates these changes will have a positive effect on the race dynamics, and create a safer, more competitive experience at the front of the field.

“We hope these changes allow for a number of outcomes – we hope to see a safer first 20 miles, without as much jostling for position with nowhere to go. We hope to see the women’s race unfold from the get-go, with a clear line of sight on where competitors are. We want to preserve the race experience for the masses, who are racing for a finish or a personal best, maybe an age group podium position,” said Michelle Duffy, marketing director for Off-Road Events at Life Time.

The contenders

Jumping for joy. Sofia Gomez Villafane celebrates her win at the Unbound finish line.

Sofia Gomez Villafane celebrates her win at the Unbound finish line in 2022 (Image credit: Snowy Mountain Photography)

The start lists for Unbound Gravel include a who’s-who of off-road veterans, retired road pros, current WorldTour roadies as well as specialists from around the globe in cyclocross and cross-country mountain bike disciplines. Last year’s results proved that the interest in gravel racing has exploded globally, and made its mark on this US classic, one that alternative-racer Lachlan Morton calls “the biggest gravel race in the world”.

Morton, who crashed out of the race in 2022, is one of the many among the elite pro field in the 200-mile event looking for a top result in Emporia. He's among the 35 men in the invitation-only Life Time Grand Prix who will line up Saturday, only Bradyn Lange opting out of the race from that group. A top contender from the Grand Prix that is looking to take the title from Slik is 2022 overall series champion Keegan Swenson, who finished behind the Dutchman in second place last year. In 2023, Swenson won Fuego XL in April and holds the early lead in the series. Other top US riders in the mix are Peter Stetina, Alex Howes, Alexey Vermeulen, Howard Grotts, and you can never count out Ian Boswell.

There are also a whole group of new challengers from Australia, with national gravel champion Brendan Johnston leading the charge in the men’s category, along with UCI Gravel World Series round winners Adam Blazevic and Tasman Nankervis.

Among a Dutch contingent are Laurens ten Dam, who was second at Unbound 200 in 2021 and fourth last year, plus Jasper Ockeloen, who was in the top 10 at Unbound in 2021 and won BWR California in April. Retired road professional Belgian Jan Bakelants is also giving Unbound a try and the German winner of 3RIDES and The Traka 200, Paul Voss, will be back to try and better last year's 15th place. Italian rider Mattia de Marchi – who came thirteenth last year – is coming in having delivered a scorching time at The Traka 360 last month, becoming the first rider ever to finish the 360km gravel event in under 13 hours. 

A top challenger for Villafañe will be 2022 women's Life Time Grand Prix champion Haley Smith. She comes to Emporia as the newly-minted BWR Vancouver Island women's champion. The newest Grand Prix competitor, Lauren De Crescenzo, has her sights on the top step at Emporia, having finished second to Villafañe last May. She recently won a second title at The Mid South. Another US rider to watch is Heather Jackson, who won BWR California and Stetina's Paydirt. The 2021 runner-up  and 2019 winner Amity Rockwell is once again carrying impressive form into the race this season, delivering a stunning record breaking performance at The Traka 360, finishing 45 minutes ahead of her nearest rival.

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. 

Among the cyclocross specialists looking to make an impression at Unbound Gravel are Caroline Mani of France, Maghalie Rochette of Canada and three US riders - Rebecca Fahringer, Crystal Anthony  and Pan-Am champion Raylyn Nuss. Three of the debuting US men at Unbound are 2021 elite cyclocross champion Eric Brunner, 2022 single-speed cyclocross champion Kerry Werner and single-speed runner-up Tobin Ortenblad.

The courses

Lauren De Crescenzo (Cinch Rise) spent a large portion of the day in second place in the women's field behind Sofia Gomez Villafane an Argentinian living in Heber City, UT.

No more aerobars in 2023 (Image credit: Snowy Mountain Photography)

The courses unfurl each year in a different direction, through the sharp rocks, primitive roads and steep pitches in and out of gullies across eastern Kansas. What doesn't change each year is the type of roads, most travelling on remote and primitive terrain. They all remain open to traffic, be it motorised vehicles in a few towns or roaming livestock across extensive Tallgrass prairie. 

Weather plays a big role in the consistency of the surface, with rain turning dirt to heavy mud, or the wind creating chaos with dust. Last year riders endured wet and muddy conditions, and this year's forecast tips toward much of the same.

Athletes are also responsible for course navigation in a self-supported environment, with only two checkpoints on the 200-mile route (in Eureka at mile 79 and in Madison mile 167) and one checkpoint on the 100-mile course (in Madison at mile 64).

The routes head back to the south this year, in a counter-clockwise direction from Emporia,. The 200-mile route, actually 205.5 miles (330km), includes 9,100 feet (2774m) of elevation gain and will feature a number of new sections. including D Hill at Mile 10, which will be the first hill outside of Emporia. This hill hasn’t been used as part of the course since 2015. From mile marker 59 thru 63 is the approach to Bee-Yotch hill, a punchy little climb into a curving, doubletrack descent before the big climb.

Also new is Horse & Buggy Highway, a nine-mile section that marks the half-way point for the 200 mile riders (mile 96 through 105). This secluded road with a series of rollers leads to a crossing over the Verdigris River at Rocky Ford Crossing, and back in 2016, when it was last used, the water was waist high. 

The famous Texaco Hill returns, with different approaches on both halves of the course, first on mile 40 to 43, then steeper from mile 143 to 146 on a return to the ridge.

And of course, the terrain dictates an entire realm of nutrition and equipment decisions. Much of the cycling industry looks at Unbound Gravel as its version of the Tour de France to introduce new tech, from new bikes to sturdier wheels, wider tyres and endless other gear selections. Let the gravel games begin.

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Jackie Tyson
North American Production editor

Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp for several minor league teams. She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times (not fast). Her favorite road and gravel rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in Provence (France), and some mtb rides in Park City, Utah (USA).

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