Chaos and controversy: Inside the quagmire that clogged Unbound Gravel

At the 2023 Unbound, heavy rain turned a seemingly innocuous dirt road into a treacherous pit of 'peanut butter mud'. This is how the riders coped, and what they had to say about it.

Clock13:47, Thursday 5th October 2023
Riders resort to walking on the grass next to the mud track

Courtesy of LifeTime

Riders resort to walking on the grass next to the mud track

The section would have been utterly forgettable in the dry.

The one-lane dirt-packed B-road that connects the more central gravel roads around Emporia, Kansas, is generally supple and quick. And coming at mile-11 in the 205-mile Unbound 200, well, it’s hardly crunch time.

Had the event taken place in regular conditions, the 4,000 elite and amateur riders would have breezed through without a second thought.

But on race day, the conditions were far from regular.

Rain in the week leading up to the 2023 Unbound saturated the soft dirt road that had never been built to drain water very well. In fact, these roads, with their bankings on either side, tend to act as de facto rivers in the face of the pocketed downfalls that hit the American plains in the summer months.

The mud that's created sticks to everything with the tenacity of peanut butter. It clings to tires, which in turn fling gritty detritus onto all parts of the cyclists who have come to race.

Worst of all, it clogs up their bikes, slowly grinding them to a halt as a critical mass of muck wedges itself between the frame, tires and drivetrain.

Once the mud starts to bog, walking is the only way through.

The leading group followed the route’s slight right onto this mud section at full strength. Within 100 metres, it was as if a bomb had dropped and each highly-trained athlete was shrapnel splayed across the grassy field surrounding the road. Riders were running, scrapping, or returning their chains to their respective chain rings.

Watch: Documentary: Conor Dunne's wild ride at Unbound Gravel

Around 12 riders rode through those initial metres, before having to dismount through a low corner which sank even the most intrepid individuals.

“I had three things written down on my stem,” Tobin Ortenbladt, teammate of eventual winner Keegan Swenson, told GCN. “Mile 11 and the two feed zones. We knew that would be a pretty decisive shit show.

“After about one or two minutes I looked back and it was blown to bits. Eventually even our bikes started to pack mud badly and then we stopped and scraped mud before riding the mud by the barbed wire.”

The skill and luck of the mud

Ortenbladt usually focuses on cyclocross, so he’s not unfamiliar with mud of that magnitude, but he required all his skill and experience as he made his way through.

It also worked out okay for Swenson. While gravel is limited in the ability for teammates to play central roles, in this case the partnership was crucial.

“The key to that situation was to keep pushing, if you were in the first or second group,” Swenson told us. “But in the mud like that it's about being smart about when to move to the grass and reading the terrain. Tobin was really a help for that.”

I was also one of those riders trying my best to navigate the mud. With slick 40mm tires, a history of misadventure in mud bogs, and wide tire clearance on my bike, passage for me went reasonably smoothly. I was one of the fortunate riders who managed to pedal most of the section, and that allowed me to witness the aftermath of that total chaos.

US gravel and endurance mountain biker Peter Stetina, who had been held up in the initial fray, was making his way back to the front of the race about halfway through the thickest of the mud.

“It was chaos. I was trying to ride in the grass as much as possible,” Stetina told us. “The grass was so high I didn't see this two foot culvert heading into this corner and I rode right into it and went ass over tea kettle.”

After Stetina got himself out of the mud puddle, he was able to escape the rest without much incident and linked with Dutch rider Laurens ten Dam, Czech cyclist Petr Vakoc, and German rider Paul Voss. They were the last riders to make the bridge to the leaders, but only after a full on, 90-minute chase over the hilliest stretch of the course around Texaco hill.

When Stetina’s group rejoined the front of the race, the win of Unbound was all-but settled and they were the seven that would sprint for the title.

I ended up leaving the mud in ninth or 10th position, having followed Lachlan Morton out onto dryer roads. After that point, I slowly started dropping back. My day wasn’t about competing – my fitness wouldn’t allow that – but it was still meaningful, as the game of gravel snakes-and-ladders the various professionals were playing around me showed how a race like Unbound unfolds when everything goes awry.

Should the race have been re-routed?

Since the race finished, the main point of discussion has been the inclusion of that section. Even amongst the professionals who succeeded at Unbound, there was some protest.

“For us, the mud was fine,” ex-road race pro Russell Finsterwald said. “But I definitely think the organisers should think twice about including a section like that so early that can ruin so many peoples' races. The race is so important, so it's a bummer that you can lose a derailleur and end your race at that point.

“The thing was to get there first. Everyone knew the mud was going to be there at mile-11 and yet did nothing to put themselves in a position to be successful.”

An official from race organisers, Lifetime, confirmed to GCN that although the race route could have been altered, the race’s by-laws state that this could only be in the event of significant change in the conditions of a road that would affect rider safety - not for the sake of comfort or ease.

In other words, when the course is finalised, it is final.

Perhaps for a race like Unbound, renowned for its brutality, inconsistency and scale, Finsterwald’s comments ring true and better preparation and homework ahead of the race could have been the key to more successful navigation. Or maybe it's just part of the challenge that riders should expect from a race on such unpredictable terrain.

Then again, the fact that it came so early and had such an impact on so many was a shame for an event of such wide-reaching participation.

Either way, for all those present in the pit, the memories will cling as stubbornly as the mud on their bikes.

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