Unbound Gravel was racing at its best

The Trek Driftless crew gave some of the gutsiest performances at one of the most grueling races in the world

In Emporia, Kansas, 200 miles of dry dirt road racing was decided by mere meters. Paige Onweller and Haley Hunter Smith finished third and fourth, respectively, in the largest heads up sprint in Unbound Gravel history. Nine women gunned it for the line, and Onweller and Smith would finish just one second back of winner Rosa Klöser.

Those results are praiseworthy on their own. They’re downright astounding given what both riders have gone through the last several weeks. Onweller is just 12 weeks removed from serious ankle surgery. Smith has been battling breathing issues since finishing fourth at Sea Otter last April. Neither expected to find themselves within spitting distance of the win at one of the hardest bike races in the world.

Torbjørn Andre Røed (yellow kit) and Russell Finsterwald (purple kit) sprinting to the line.

“I am absolutely blown away by my ride,” Onweller said. “I just committed to the process of racing aggressively, and I think that set me up really well to have a good day out there. And then ultimately, I never made any excuses.”

For the first time in the history of Unbound, the women were given their own start at 6:05 a.m., 15 minutes after the men. A battle of attrition ensued, with 30 riders getting whittled down to the final nine with under 100 miles to go. 

“It was really cool to do a women’s only race,” Smith said. “It was my first time doing that in a drop bar event, and I honestly got pretty emotional out there a couple times at just how cool it was to roll in a peloton of 30 women, and just witnessing that strength and being empowered.”

Haley Hunter Smith just after a historic sprint finish.

With neither Smith nor Onweller feeling 100 percent, they had to use their energy wisely. Smith rode as efficiently as possible and smartly measured her fuel so that she didn’t agitate her breathing issues. Onweller, knowing that she was lacking top end speed, proactively took the front of the group on climbs to discourage attacks.

“I think about halfway through the race, I started recognizing that I was one of the stronger riders of the day,” Onweller said. “I also figured if I blew up, then at least I knew I gave it a good shot, and I could learn and bring that into the following years to try to come back and win the thing.”

Paige Onweller leading the pack.

Smith summed up the day succinctly. 

“It was hot. It was fast,” Smith said. “I’m very surprised that I was able to stick in. I had a pretty decent breathing day and it all came down to the sprint. Fourth, so I’m pretty happy about that. And I’m very glad that Paige got on the true podium. I’m stoked that one of us was able to do it.”

In the men’s race, Torbjørn “Toby” Andre Røed and Russell Finsterwald also finished right next to each other, taking 11th and 12th respectively in a deep men’s field. They both battled hard.

Røed got up from two crashes and crossed the line with a bloody elbow. He was able to chase back onto the front group after his first fall just 40 minutes into the race. His second occurred with 20 minutes to the line, however, and prevented him from making his bid for the podium on a day when the Mid South winner was feeling on top of his game.

There's no topping the atmosphere at Unbound.

“It felt pretty bad to not be able to fight for that third place that I wanted to fight for,” Røed said. “I felt good enough to compete for it. So I’m definitely excited next year to come back and properly smash it, hopefully without any crashes.”

Finsterwald had a clean day, in which his only lament was just missing out on a move for a potential podium spot.

“Where to begin in a race as crazy as Unbound? In a field larger and deeper than ever, it was a hectic day of fighting for position, protecting equipment, and trying to play it smart tactically,” Finsterwald said. “The legs were good, but I didn’t play my cards right in the final miles and missed the move that went up the road to the podium. Still, I’m really proud of the effort, and really excited to see all my teammates excel over the weekend.”

Finsty in the heat of battle.

Including Joris Nieuwenhuis, who finished 34th in a guest appearance in the midst of the cyclocross offseason with Baloise-Trek, all five Trek-sponsored athletes crossed the finish line. They suffered no mechanicals at a race that is notoriously punishing on equipment. From frames, drivetrains and tires, to fueling and pit stops, the team support effort ran smoothly.

“Equipment performed flawlessly and the staff was incredibly dialed,” Smith said. “It was a really good day for everyone on the team, which is very rare at Unbound.”

The Trek Driftless family portrait.

After Unbound, Smith is now the No. 1 ranked rider on the women’s Life Time Grand Prix standings, having finished fourth in two events. Røed is sixth on the men’s standings, and Finsterwald is 13th. Four events remain in the series. Next up: The Leadville Trail 100 MTB on Aug. 10 in Colorado. Based on Saturday, the battle for the top of both standings could come down to the final pedal strokes of the season.

In the meantime, let’s bask in Saturday’s glow. Racing doesn’t get much better than what took place in Emporia. The Trek Driftless crew put on a show of strength, grit, and bravery — what people mean by “the spirit of gravel.” This crew showed that no matter the challenge before them, they’ll fight every inch.