In my younger years, living in Sydney, I remember turning a corner, one of my usual corners in my usual mid-west neighborhood and seeing one of the many street performers scattering on busy main street during rush hour. Very often I never noticed, walked past and didn’t think again. But this man. He knew how to sing. A clear and concerted voice, passion and artistry and a song I had never heard…maybe an original. I quit, listened, found some change to give to his guitar case, and continued to do so for the next year whenever I ran into him. I never knew his name, but wow I was a fan.
About a year later, I turned on the radio station in the car, nonchalantly flipping through the FM channels, when I heard a voice, and I thought, wait, I know that song… I know that voice. He’s my street artist. He had a groundbreaking video on YouTube performing an original, and then it was recorded and it exploded around the world. I was torn. In a way, I was so happy with this amazing artist, as he had, his sweet song was now for everyone. Yet there was a part of me that hurt, it was my group, mine! And when I told people I was one of his earliest followers, it was met with a whole host of blank stares who shouted, who cares man, this song is a banger. In case you’re all dying to know, the song is Let Her Go, and this street performer is now globally known as Passenger.
And there I was, a passenger in the more traditional sense of my first Unbound. This event/race has grown into something of a monster. It is beyond grand in every way. Not only for the fact that you have to be lucky in a lottery to start, but for the riders, it’s the Superbowl, Wimbledon, Tour de France de Gravel. And not just for runners, but commercially, every company that tries to carve its name in sports is fighting for space, to get noticed, to be the star in the tidal wave of content and advertising that comes and goes from this race.
What does that mean? Good. I can’t speak directly to business interests, but as a rider and fan of the whole (I HATE TO SAY IT) gravel spirit – Oooh yes I used the most overused phrase in sport in At this time, the spirit at Unbound was not what I expected. Did I miss the years when Unbound was my traveling musician?
Naive maybe, I too followed the Instagram stories of Ted King, Laurens ten Dam, Ian Boswell and the feeling was that Gravel in the US is super cool, super relaxed and racing is just riders all on the same playing field. , head to head and high five whoever wins. It’s like the antithesis of the WorldTour, so you can see how appealing that is, right?
How wrong I was! I arrived with a bike bag, some essential tools and spares, shoes, kit and a helmet. Go time. A friend of mine, Cowboy Steve from Campagnolo USA flew in the night before the race to help me out in the pits, which I was already thinking, man, how pro am I! I did not know…
At Unbound, many US-based pro racers had a whole team of helpers in the pits. Someone to swap bottles, someone to change hydration packs, someone with a pressure washer to spray the bike, another to grease up and for those worried about tire damage, the F1-like drills and well-oiled wheel changes were actually one thing… I was woefully unprepared.
By the time I swapped my bottles and grabbed a new bag, these guys had clean bikes, new wheels, full bottle swaps, and already had a 10-second lead to attack out of the feed zone. It was the game!
I think it’s actually totally badass that Unbound is so serious, that racing has become so professional, so to speak. Because winning this race can really change a runner’s life. It’s not a big deal, it’s a huge deal to win it. So obviously, this professionalism and this racecraft will follow. But it begged the question, did Unbound create a type of gravel racing distinct from the others?
I think so. Personally, I wasn’t sure what to make of American gravel after Unbound. I was thinking about my approach to racing thinking: OK, if I have to focus on this next year, do I have to increase my investment to compete with these guys? As a rider based in Europe, what will it take for me to be at this level in terms of investment? Well, Ivar Slik won as a non-American so that says a lot, and it also says you don’t need all that gear to win, but for sure it helps.
The week after Unbound, I headed to the Belgium Waffle Ride in North Carolina to encounter the exact opposite style of event. No team feed zones. No spare wheels. No pressure washing and also, much less pressure. The course was actually a lot more interesting, the race vibe was laid back, the venue felt like a big party and the race? The race was on! So was it the same? No way. Heads of state in terms of the pros were hitting each other, every uphill, every downhill, every moment. Winner Pete Stetina showed a masterclass in timing when he attacked our lead group. After the race, just a relaxed atmosphere and everyone enjoyed the stories of the day’s effort. It was a serious race, 100%, but I arrived with a bag and a bike kit and managed to get second place. It was as if the playing field was level. It felt like (I’m about to say it again, sorry) the spirit of the sport was exactly what you see and hear online.
So no, the gravel doesn’t get too professional. I don’t think so at all. However, Unbound is a beast unto itself, a self-contained event with so much development, so many business and personal interests that it has actually become a big part of what we all thought gravel was a counterculture. But does that change my dream of going back? No. Does that change how awesome the event is? No. Would I ever say that Unbound is still the most important race to win? Absolutely. It’s just a class apart, a tidal wave that can’t be stopped.
But do riders who first took on the epic 200 mile 16 years ago on janky bikes with cantilever brakes feel the same way I do about their old favorite band? Well, they’re probably not even on social media, so who knows. But maybe, just maybe, they miss the old vibe. But hey, to steal a line from Passenger, maybe overthinking the whole thing might be best met with the simple yet poignant sentiment of just “letting her go.”