2021 UNBOUND Gravel preview: Bigger and deeper than ever

Payson McElveen, Quinn Simmons and Kiel Reijnen are ready for one of the toughest editions of UNBOUND yet

UNBOUND Gravel in the Flint Hills of Kansas is arguably the premiere gravel race in the world. Thousands of riders take the startline every year in events ranging from 25 to 350 miles. The 200-mile race was the original event when UNBOUND was founded in 2006, and remains the most competitive, with WorldTour road riders mixing with the heartiest and most experienced gravel grinders for one of the toughest prizes in cycling.

Trek teams will be well-represented this year, with Orange Seal’s Payson McElveen and Trek-Segafredo’s Kiel Reijnen and Quinn Simmons all taking part. If this year’s UNBOUND will be your first time checking out a gravel race, click here for a primer on the joys of cycling’s fastest growing discipline. If you’re already a hardened gravel fan, then you know all about the exciting racing and incredible atmosphere on tap this Saturday.

UNBOUND is one of the most unique, difficult and also friendliest races in all of cycling, with its emphasis on amateur participation, perseverance and community. Here’s everything you need to know:

A roving herd of UNBOUND racers.

The course and favorites

The 200-mile course begins and ends in Emporia, Kans., about 60 miles southwest of Topeka. The route makes a twisty loop around the Flint Hills, and features near constant ascending and descending, totaling more than 11,000 feet of elevation gain

If you’ve watched cyclocross or cross country mountain biking, you’ll be familiar with the terrain. UNBOUND is almost exclusively gravel and dirt, which means riding will be slow and grueling. Along the way, riders will also have to deal with river crossings, deep ruts, potholes and more. The weather should be cooperative this year, at least, with calm winds and dry conditions expected, and temperatures in the 80s.

The course, as always, is self-guided — there are no barriers or signs telling riders where to go. They will have to stop at two check-ins, the first in Alma at Mile 69, and the second in Council Grove at Mile 156. There is also a water “oasis” at Mile 126, but otherwise riders will be fending for themselves, handling their own mechanical issues and relying on personal support crews to help them refuel and cheer them on at key points.

Payson McElveen is a gravel veteran who won The Mid South in 2020.

Reijnen (who finished sixth in 2019), McElveen (fifth) and Simmons (a first time entrant!) are among the favorites for the final podium, but the field at UNBOUND is maybe deeper than ever. Five of the top 10 women’s finishers and six of the top 10 men’s finishers from 2019 UNBOUND return.

In the men’s race, former road pros like Laurens ten Dam, Peter Stetina (second in 2019), Ted King (eighth) and Greg Daniel will make their own bids for the podium, not to mention defending champ Colin Strickland.  The defending champion is also back in the women’s field. Amity Rockwell will try to hold off the likes of 2019 runner-up Alison Tetrick, American cyclocross rider Rebecca Fahringer and American Ironman record holder Heather Jackson.

You can check out the official website for maps and startlists for all the events.

(BONUS: If you had questions about Reijnen’s gravel bona fides as a professional roadie, check out this video filmed on his turf in the Pacific Northwest.)

How to watch

The 200-mile race will begin at 6 a.m. local, 7 a.m. ET, with the first finishers expected to cross the line around 5 p.m. ET. 

For the first time ever, the race will be streamed live. To watch, you’ll need a subscription to FloBikes. The broadcast will begin at 1 p.m. ET.

If you don’t have FloBikes, you’re out of luck in terms of live footage, but you can still follow along on social media. The UNBOUND Gravel official Twitter account is a good starting point, and might we suggest the Trek-Segafredo account, as well?

If you happen to be in the Emporia area, UNBOUND is hosting a number of watch parties, which may be the best way to experience the race if you have the opportunity.