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Unbound 2023 was a CF, and it’s the organizers fault

I wasn’t at Unbound 2023. Didn’t make it for a few reasons, one of them big, the others relatively small. I do know a lot of other athletically minded MAMILs who made the trip to Emporia last weekend for what should have been an epic and challenging race. That’s not what happened. Instead, in what I can only classify as an act of callous spite, the organizers decided that racers should hike through four miles of peanut butter mud near the beginning of the race. All of the coverage I’ve seen around this debacle focused on the pro’s experience, and didn’t even capture the larger problem that they didn’t provide enough water.

I don’t get the desire for race organizers to make gravel into really long CX events; looking at you too Barry. If I wanted to run through the mud, I don’t need to travel several hundred miles. There are myriad opportunities for me to ruin my shoes, bike, and kit within 100 miles of where I live. A perfect race is one where I don’t have to put a foot down until I cross the finish line. That’s actually one of the things I really enjoy about riding gravel more generally. There aren’t many cars, and there aren’t many places where I need to stop if I don’t want to. Why is that so hard? Why can’t we do more of that?

Training for gravel races, the long ones anyway, requires serious dedication, serious effort, and a not insignificant amount of suffering. Racing has enough random out of the gate, inserting crap like that into the mix doesn’t make it better. It just makes it suck. Destroying your bike 10 miles into a race that you trained for, traveled for, made deals with your spouse to get the time away from home for, because the organizers confused “epic” with “callous indifference” isn’t fun, not even in a Type 2 kind of way. It just sucks. Why put in the work, spend the money, spend the time away from your family to go there and have your “race” be done after 10 miles because they can’t draw a proper course?

I could go on, and on, but I think my friend who was there said it best:

The hour-long hike in the mud killed the day in the first 30 minutes. I went from being 20th going into the mud to 700th coming out of it. From there it was a TT. I felt great, but it wasn’t a bike race after that. Super disappointed with the decision making of the race director…

It was the difference between challenging and unrideable. Bike choice was huge. Road oriented gravel bikes with limited clearance were the big losers. I saw lots of broken equipment and stopped to help a friend who had his rear derailleur rip off. Just such a bad decision by the organizers especially when they stated they would reroute if it was too bad. It also has a huge ripple effect as the increase in time on course led to checkpoints running out of water. The race was a total failure considering it is supposed to be the most prestigious event in gravel. It bothers me even more that the organization has not addressed any of these failings and even treated the mud as a joke in their Instagram post. Unless the organization issues an apology and addresses what they will do differently, then I will not be going back.

If the course was the only problem, it would be easier to take a slightly less aggressive stance around the mess that Unbound 2023 was. But running out of water is inexcusable. How can that happen in any race? Let alone what is supposed to be gravel’s biggest event?

The vast majority of the riders that were out there weren’t at the pointy end. Most of the folks at these races aren’t there to race. They’re there to do something epic, have fun (mostly Type 2), and suffer in a meaningful way. Basically a Fondo, with “race” in the event name. Just to be clear, I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, the opposite in fact. We should celebrate everyone who gets on a bike to challenge themself. Everyone of these folks is winning just by being there. The organizers have a fundamental responsibility to make it as safe for them as possible. Some of that is in course design, but even simpler than that is to make sure there’s enough water on the course that no one is going to die, get heat stroke, or experience some other entirely preventable medical emergency. That’s just so simple, it blows my mind that any event would have that problem (yes, I know that I’m repeating myself, but 🤯).

Needless to say, I have no plans to put Unbound on my 2024, 2025, 2026, heck let’s just call it ♾️ calendar, and I don’t know anyone who was at the 2023 Unbound who doesn’t feel the same way.

Although, maybe I’ve rushed to judgment. Maybe we should hear both sides. Maybe the Unbound race director was so focused on promoting The Spirit of Mud Running, that they had a broader goal of introducing bike changes into these events. What better way to get people talking about that organically? That would be exciting, right? A fat bike would have floated over that mud like a magic carpet. Get one of your support team on one side, and another on the other, grab your fat bike and put the plebs without a support team to the sword. They either run, or the bike looks like this. That smells like exciting new challenge to me!

The Spirit is Mud Running is still very new, so perhaps we’re just not in the right position to judge. After all, it’s quite likely that The Spirit of Mud Running says you can do whatever you want, as long as it’s not aerobars. Those will get you DQ’d faster than you can say “soft serve”.

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Dru Henke
Dru Henke
8 months ago

Hayley Smith said it really well in Cycling Weekly:

Talking to Cycling Weekly on Monday, Smith elaborated, saying: “I get that Unbound is about the challenge, and it’s supposed to be epic. But to me, there’s a difference between orchestrated epicness (i.e., deliberately including a section of unmaintained road that is already messed up before the race starts) and organic epicness that occurs due to inclement weather and adversity experienced throughout the course of the event.”

Sir Ridealot
Sir Ridealot
8 months ago

I was seriously considering doing the 100 mile race at some point, but after this latest mud fest it’s very unlikely. Mud has been a staple of Unbound since forever, but this year it took it to the next level. I get the challenge aspect, but it’s crazy to have to carry your bike for 4 miles – if you didn’t break something first.

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