All the forecasts held true. Rain fell and thunder clapped, and racers still returned to Emporia in record time, with every distance’s winner setting course records amid conditions that ranged from dry and dusty to gritty and mud-packed.
Ian Boswell came to Emporia as the defending champion of the Unbound 200, having won the race last year in his debut, outsprinting fellow former World Tour Pro Laurens Ten Dam to the finish line. But an early flat at mile 20 jeopardized Boswells chances this year. “I thought my race could possibly be over,” he says after losing the lead group. But following a furious chase, Boswell caught the leaders, a group that eventually winnowed down to just a handful of riders.
“My high point was when we had a select group of five riders all working well together and knowing that we’d get to the finish together in record time,” Boswell says. Five became four when Ten Dam fell off the pace, and Boswell came to the line with Ivar Slik, Keegan Swenson and Alexey Vermeulen, ultimately placing third behind Slik and Swenson.
“I learned that in long events like Unbound, you just have to keep riding because you never know what might happen, and there’s always a chance to come back,” Boswell says. “Just keep pedaling.”
For 22-year-old Chris Mehlman, the experience at Unbound began on Friday afternoon at 3 p.m., when 141 riders departed Emporia for the XL, a 350-mile, fully self-supported race through the Flint Hills. In his fourth-ever gravel race Melhman hung in the lead group while riding through the night, a surreal experience that he says will stick with him for the rest of his life.
“I felt like I was pedaling through a dystopian, post-apocalyptic landscape, past deserted towns bathed in a harsh yellow from streetlights,” he says. “I felt as alone as ever despite being with other riders. Each gas station stop seemed like an oasis from the nightmare, yet each came with its own stress, as there was a scramble to get out of the store with the group.”
When dawn broke, news spread through the PA system in Emporia that Melhman was still in the lead group, having surpassed his longest ride ever hours earlier. He’d eventually place fourth, just 20 minutes behind the winner, William Harrison of Charlotte, North Carolina. “Unbound XL was a life-changing experience,” he says.
Mike Barton, who’s 26 years Mehlman’s senior, needed to trust his preparation and rely on perseverance to push through his 200-mile race. Barton had only raced four times since 2019 and experienced significant adversity during the race, including two punctures in the first 50 miles, a loose front axle and a wrong turn that took him two miles off course.
“The big life lesson I relearned is that facing setbacks is likely to happen and is difficult to accept,” Barton says. “But if you can manage to persevere through those challenges, you will likely experience immense satisfaction at the end.” For Barton, that satisfaction included the joy of overcoming the adversity, feeling good for the race’s last 80 miles and enjoying the final 30 miles riding solo with a tailwind. He won his age group and placed 28th overall.
Kristin Motley, from Waterbury, Vermont, drew strength and energy from the riders around her and the landscape. “The race is a solo endeavor, but you’re not truly alone,” she says. And, she notes, racing a bike all day is straight forward, compared to real life: “No part of the race was as hard as jumping back into parenting/working on Monday morning when still exhausted!”
Motley finished just over an hour after the sun went down on Emporia and, she says, “I’ll be back to race the sunset in 2023.”
All photos by Dan Hughes, four-time winner of the Unbound 200 and member of the Gravel Hall of Fame. Find Dan and more of his photography on Instagram at @dhughes101.