Surviving The Unbound Gravel XL: Tips From Past Finishers

Please note: This blog post has been updated to reflect this event’s current name.

Every summer, riders descend upon Emporia, Kansas (dubbed the “Gravel Grinding Capital of the World”) for what’s considered one of the toughest events in cycling. Unbound Gravel became legendary within just a few years of its inception, as riders from all over the world sought to test themselves on 200 miles of dirt and gravel in the Flint Hills region.

In 2018, Unbound Gravel organizers added a more extreme option to the event: the 350-mile unbound Gravel XL. This feat of endurance pits riders against rough roads and weather that can swing from oppressive heat to hailstorms and headwinds. Participants ride through an entire day and night with no support other than what they can carry or find at stores along the route. Very few have ridden this invitation-only event, but we’ve gathered advice from five of last year’s finishers—including the winner—for those who are riding the Unbound Gravel XL this year or plan to in the future.

Know what you’re signing up for

Unbound Gravel XL is in a class of itself. It’s beyond any “norm” of a gravel race, Unbound Gravel 200 included. It is also different than any ultra-distance, multi-day, bikepacking event. The biggest thing to understand is the distance is 75% more than Unbound Gravel 200 but you only get an 80% increase in time. That means you will need to keep up a 9.72MPH average speed to finish. –Jay Petervary, Salsa sponsored rider

Jay and Tracey Petervary, pre-race...

Goal #1 is to finish

When it comes to ultra-distance events, the most important goal is to finish. I’ve seen many racers quit because their goal had shifted from finishing the event to setting a personal best or top-five finish. When you face multiple flats or suffer from heat issues, re-focus on finishing rather than achieving loftier goals. You’ll learn more about yourself and what you are truly capable of in these moments than when the race goes really well for you. –Sean Mailen, Salsa product design engineer

More important than finishing in a certain time or ahead of another rider is the experience of finishing. I try to keep perspective during endurance events and remember why I’m out there (to ride my bike, accomplish something pretty great, live a healthy lifestyle, be a great example to my kiddos and see some beautiful things along the way). During the inaugural Unbound Gravel XL, Sean Mailen and I were sitting at a gas station eating breakfast, exhausted. At one point, I turned to him and said, “All we have to do today is ride our bikes and get to that finish line.” There will be a first-place finisher for the XL, but I truly believe that everyone who finishes is a winner. Finishing means that you started something that only a small fraction of riders will ever consider doing. Finishing means that you overcame physical, mental, emotional, and environmental barriers that will break other riders. Unbound Gravel XL finishers are met with applause in downtown Emporia, Kansas, but equally exciting is the pride that you get to take into the office on Monday morning when all your co-workers ask how that crazy thing you did over the weekend turned out. Just remember: we are the normal ones. -Joe Meiser, Salsa product manager

Note the 5 water bottle setup that Salsa product engineer Sean Mailen is running...

Test your setup, test your setup, and then test your setup

Plan for the worst, hope for the best. My setup was cautiously hopeful—I didn’t take everything, but I covered 90% of what I thought could plausibly happen. I wanted to know my setup and be riding it fully assembled (bottles in cages, bags on bike, gear in bags, etc.) two months before the race, and have it dialed and ready one month before. This gave me plenty of time to make sure it was right and I didn’t have any weird issues. Those small, almost imperceptible annoyances (something rubbing, chafing, etc.) become big deals at 4 am when you’re 195 miles in. Do your homework. –Sean Mailen

It’s important to have your bike race-ready several days before and test it out. Fully load your bike with food, water, clothing and have a place for garbage (it can add up fast). Organize your clothing so you know where you're going to put it when you need take it off or put it on. Have your repair kit in order and a place to store it. -Tracey Petervary, Salsa sponsored rider

There will be moments of beauty...embrace them...

Mentally prepare for the highs and lows

I like to create mantras to help get me through tough times. A few of my favorites are: “I worked hard to get here. I am strong. I will finish this. I can do more than I think I can.” Also remember, this is what you chose to do today, and it is special. So however long it takes you, whatever challenges are thrown your way, stick with it, relax and enjoy the ride. –Tracey Petervary

Unbound Gravel XL is a long race and a lot can happen. I’d never had stomach issues or thrown up during a race, but 100 miles into the Unbound Gravel XL I was throwing up in a Casey’s parking lot. Thankfully I had followed my own rule (“goal #1 is to finish”). I knew that not everything was going to go my way during a 350-mile event. This gave me an opportunity to take stock of the positives and refocus on what I looked forward to: the night ride. I set small goals of only drinking water—and lots of it—since I knew I was very dehydrated. I talked to locals and thought about how thankful I was that my Warbird was dialed for the ride. I also set an objective of just making to Checkpoint #2, no more. If I made it, then I could decide to go on or quit, but I wouldn’t decide until I finished riding what would likely take all night. On the other end of the spectrum, when things went well during the second day I kept in mind that they likely wouldn’t last and that I needed to get ready for another low or two before I finished (sure enough, I had multiple flats less than 20 miles from the finish). –Sean Mailen

Take care of yourself

Stay on top of your hydration and nutrition—it is a discipline and part of the ride. Maybe set a timer to remind yourself to eat and drink every 15 minutes. Be flexible; something that may have always worked well for you may not work today for whatever reason, so you will need to adapt, which I find fun at times. –Tracey Petervary

This is a self-supported event, and chances are you will spend a lot of time by yourself. This also means you will be resupplying from c-stores and doing all maintenance on your own. Besides being self-sufficient, you need to be self-motivated. Beware of getting sucked into other people’s rides or decisions (especially the ones that made the decision to or are discussing quitting) and don’t spend too much time in the comfort of civilization eating pizza at a Casey's. –Jay Petervary

Salsa product manager Joe Meiser...

Know your analytics but listen to your intuition

I do not typically use analytics and data—I listen to my body and have a good sense of what my limits are. Am I riding at a sustainable pace? Is my discomfort healthy or foreshadowing a larger issue later on in the event? Am I mentally in a difficult place because I’ve missed putting calories into my body? Use that data with your own intuition. Staying fed physically and mentally is vital during endurance events. If music will improve your mood, use it. Changing what I eat can also help. Some quick, sweet calories may bring me out of a funk, while savory rice cakes fuel me for the long haul. Caffeine in the middle of the night keeps me alert but I also took many quick naps (5–7 minutes) on the side of the road last year during the Unbound Gravel XL. Naps, music, and diversity of calories were what I needed when I listened to my brain and body. –Joe Meiser

The old Sean Mailen bungee cord trick...

Be ready for ever-changing conditions

Unbound Gravel XL 2018 was hot and dusty for the first 50 miles, nice with a tailwind for the next 50, I was dehydrated in the dark for another 100 miles, followed by darkness and 60 MPH winds for 20 minutes, then hot and sunny for the last 100 miles. The incredibly rocky road in the last 20 miles gave me 3-4 flats that I somehow desperately fixed with CO2 and a prayer to get me home. The XL is full of challenges from weather and terrain, so make sure your gear is ready to handle them. For me, this meant new brake pads, extra protection on my dynamo wires, new tires with lots of sealant, and bottle cages with bungee cords to keep bottles from ejecting. I was glad I carried extra clothing since temperatures dropped rapidly during the storm. I recommend a light rain shell, cap, rain gloves, nylon vest, and arm warmers, as they can help you cover a wide range of temps. Check the weather and don’t chance it if weather looks questionable. –Sean Mailen  

Have a plan but prepare to adapt. The weather will change. You may have a mechanical. You will have physical and mental low points. Changing my race plan to adapt to the circumstances is the most challenging aspect of endurance events for me. Think through and visualize scenarios that could happen. I imagine the disappointment of a flat tire and take a deep breath and then internalize what it will take to get it fixed and get on to finishing the ride. Thinking back to past DNFs, nearly all of them could have been overcome if I had been willing to adapt. -Joe Meiser

Inaugural Unbound Gravel XL champion Matt Acker enters the night...

SPECIAL BONUS - Advice from the inaugural Unbound Gravel XL champion, Salsa sponsored rider Matt Acker

How do you even prepare for something like Unbound Gravel XL? By training and having a plan.

The training side of the XL is easy, relatively speaking. Ride your bike a lot, and when you get to what should be the end of a long ride, just keep riding. You don’t have to ride 350 miles to train, but it’s crucial to enter that zone of deep discomfort and uncertainty to know how your body will handle it and how to keep moving forward.

Getting used to riding much farther without stopping was the key to a good XL. For the Unbound Gravel 200 I would do a long ride of 130-140 miles and dial in my plan during that ride. For the XL I knew I’d have to do this several times and in adverse conditions to test my plan more than once. I pushed myself to go farther than I wanted to on training rides. I would ride 100 miles and end up back at my house, but instead of calling it a day (even if I felt terrible) I would force myself to go back out for another hour or two. Spending time in this discomfort zone is critical to success on these ultra-distance events because no matter what you do, you will find yourself with discomfort at some point.

Do what you need to do to get used to and feel good about gas station eating...

What really upped the difficulty was knowing that for Unbound Gravel XL there would be no crews or drop bags, so stopping at convenience stores to resupply was a necessity. Sometimes those resupply points are more than 100 miles apart, which greatly increases how much you need to carry. When training, I loaded up my bike as if I were racing and then pushed myself to ride all day without relying on c-stores.

Speaking of resupply, that leads in perfectly to my nutrition plan. For 100- to 200-mile rides, I know my body can rely on drink mix, gel, chews and a small amount of real food. There’s no way I would want to carry all of that on a 350-mile ride, and I knew I would get sick of it at some point. During many of my training rides, I took a small amount of my drink mix and other nutrition items, then relied on convenience store food. Getting used to eating greasy convenience store food during hard efforts is not always easy, but it’s probably what you’ll need to do out on course. Figure out what you can find at most c-stores and get used to eating it. I always plan what I’m going to buy at a c-store when I’m a few miles out, as opposed to wandering around like a spandex zombie. You can save or lose a lot of time with your stops. Be sure you practice packing the extra food and that you have room for it too—it’s easy to load up in the store and then find your frame bag already bulging at the seams.

Have a plan for when you haven’t eaten and are bonking and know how to deal with stomach distress. Not that I like to go out for a 100-mile ride and bonk until I end up in the ditch, but It’s important to practice dealing with that situation. Know the symptoms of bonking and how to deal with them. I always carry some antacids and supplements to help calm my stomach and keep things running smoothly. Foods like bananas, rice, toast and applesauce are easy on the gut and can help settle things out. If you’re out for a long ride and you start to go downhill, take it a little farther (safely speaking) and see what happens. I’m not suggesting burying yourself but dabble in that bonk zone where your brain turns to mush, then figure out how to recover. When you’re 215 miles in and bonked on the side of the road in 95-degree heat and humidity, you’ll be glad you have a plan.

Stay calm...fix the problem...

Practice and plan for the worst-case mechanical scenario. Last year I cut a ¾” hole in my tire around 30 miles into the ride. My first instinct was to panic and throw my hands up in the air and say “Well, that’s it, I’m done.” Instead, I calmly removed the wheel and tire, removed the sealant and glued and booted the cut. Lucky for me, Jim Phillips came along and had a spare tire on his bike that he gave to me just in case. It took more than 20 minutes to get back up and running, but since I stayed calm and did the best repair job I could, I was able to run my original tire for about 170 more miles. It sounds corny but taking a few deep breaths and assessing the situation is the best advice I have for that situation. Diligence pays off in the end. This year I’ll be carrying a spare tire.

Just another photo of a smiling Matt Acker riding his bike...make no mistake, Acker's mental game is strong...

Arguably the most important advice I can offer is to sharpen your mental game. If you’re planning to do the Unbound Gravel XL, odds are you’re serious about the challenge, and are riding and preparing all your gear to the extreme. One area that many people overlook is the mental game. You need to have the will to push through the darkest moments and the drive to get yourself to finish. Play games with the distance to make it seem less intimidating—I like to break the ride into small chunks like c-store to c-store distance. That way you’re always finishing one ride and starting another. Tape a note or put some stickers on your bike that cheer you up. Maybe it’s a photo of your dog or a small note from your kids. I like to have some music on my phone to use as a reward for hitting certain milestones and treat myself to a few songs to break the silence.

You may have ridden 200 miles during the day, but have you ridden during the day, then through the night and then through the day again? Practice riding through the night and know how to deal with lack of sleep. It can take practice to eat lots of food at 3 am since most people sleep through the night. Think through these unique circumstances and head out for a ride at 10 pm someday and ride until the sun comes up. Preparation and planning are key to success. You won’t have your crew to rely on and might not see other riders for long periods of time. Being confidently prepared to rely on yourself is the best bet.

Inaugural Unbound Gravel XL Champions, Rebecca Rusch and Matt Acker...


You can’t make the Unbound Gravel XL easy, but you can set yourself up for success. Even if you don’t plan to participate in this race, many of these tips are applicable to any endurance cycling goal on your radar. We hope they help you find success in your next cycling effort.

This post filed under topics: Cutthroat Dirty Kanza 200 Fargo Gravel Harrison Maddox Jay Petervary Joe Meiser Matt Acker Powderkeg Salsa Crew Sean Mailen Sponsored Riders Tandem Tracey Petervary Ultra Racing Warbird

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Harrison Maddox

Harrison Maddox

I’m a jack-of-all, master-of-none sort when it comes to the outdoors. Riding, climbing, paddling, skiing or hiking—everything has its own appeal. All that matters are the effort and the solitude. I’m not competitive but I enjoy a good challenge, and I’ll say “yes” to anything that puts me in over my head or involves type 2 fun, as that’s where life’s spicier moments seem to live.


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