Kiel Reijnen's epic weekend at Unbound Gravel in photos and words
This year’s edition of Unbound Gravel was arguably the most competitive yet. Ivar Slik’s winning time of 9:22:04 was nearly an hour faster than the winning time in 2021, and that was despite rain and muddy conditions late in the race that slowed riders down.
Trek’s Kiel Reijnen was pleased with a 19th-place finish in his third trip to Emporia, especially after dealing with health issues during his preparation, and given the exponentially rising level of the race. Simply finishing a 200-mile race is a major accomplishment even for a former WorldTour rider, more so if a broken wheel forced them to run 17 miles in their socks the year before.
“I got to empty my tank and push myself and try hard and feel like I was a part of the race,” Reinen said afterwards. “But I also had moments where I let that go and just absorbed the grand adventure. When hellacious, intense rain started, and the conditions deteriorated, that was an easy moment to say, ‘Hey, forget what place you’re in, you’ve been out here for seven hours, this is pretty epic. This is a big adventure. Be present, be here in this moment.'”
At races like Unbound, high highs and low lows are the point. Reijnen says he was hoping for “apocalyptic conditions” on race day to remind him and others, after several years of ideal, dry conditions in Kansas, that battling Mother Nature “is actually part of the spirit of gravel, and that those versions aren’t just an accident, they’re part of the idea.”
He settled for late thunderstorms that created some proper mud-spitting conditions. During one three-mile stretch, many rider were forced to dismount and either walk or run with their bikes. Reijnen managed to muscle through the muck on his pedals, but “probably ate as much mud as I drank water” in the process.
“Looking back at the effort, it’s kind of amazing how many highs and lows you can have throughout the day,” Reijnen said. “There’s definitely moments, especially when it started downpouring and I couldn’t see that well and you’re riding through these puddles and you don’t know how deep they are. Some of the impacts, I mean, it’s shocking that the equipment can withstand all of the abuse.”
Unlike last year, when Reijnen broke his wheel on a technical section within the first 30 miles of the race and tried to fix it with a Macgyver’d splint (spoiler: It didn’t work), he suffered no mechanical issues. The early portions of the race were defined by crashes, but Reijnen remained upright for nearly 10 hours, crossing the finish line at 9:58:10. He said that the way his custom Trek Checkpoint withstood punishment was “the biggest high point” of the race.
“Everything held up really well,” Reijnen said. “There were plenty of sectors out there that were gnarly, and we saw lots of people struggling with their bikes. And so getting through relatively smoothly was a big win for us compared to how things went last year. And of course, you can prepare everything and have the best equipment and things can still go wrong out there because you’re putting the bikes in an environment where bikes don’t really belong.”
Though the racing was more competitive than ever, Reijnen said that he felt more relaxed in the days leading up to the start than in previous years. Not only did he have a better lay of the land and sense of the schedule, but the Trek Race Shop rolled out a hub space at the All Things Gravel Expo, complete with a retro trailer and fake turf, where Reijnen and staff could relax, and fans could come mingle and swap stories while being served coffee and beer.
Reijnen also led group rides on the Thursday and Friday before the race, each doing recon on a portion of the course. One of his favorite things about races like Unbound is hearing about others’ adventures, and relaxed group rides create an atmosphere conducive to sharing stories.
“The first group ride we did, it was a smaller group, but everybody was in a really great space,” Reijnen said. “Everyone was excited for the event, but also really interested in hearing each other’s stories. So we went out and rescued a couple turtles, crossed a river, took some pictures on a bridge — it was just a really nice re-entry into the Unbound scene.”
By design, no one has a perfect day at Unbound. The goal of the race is the test riders’ physical and mental limits. Photos from the event, of riders caked in mud and staring into the middle distance, capture the feeling of completing Unbound well.
Reijnen is becoming well-versed in the event’s particular brand of cruelty, and the opportunities to exceed your expectations that it creates. Most importantly, he’s learned to embrace Unbound’s chaos.
“I remember at one point, a guy I was with, maybe it was 60 miles to go, we were riding pretty well at that point, and he looked over me and said, ‘Do you think it’s possible we could ride our way into the top 10?'” Reijnen recalls. “I looked at him and I said, ‘There’s a thunderstorm just in front of us. There’s still a good chance that we don’t finish.’
“Yeah, you can ride yourself into the top 10. Hell, you might even still win the thing. Anything can happen out there. And I think that’s what last year taught me: Just be prepared for all versions and don’t set a lot of expectations.”