Why Kiel Reijnen ran 18 miles in the midst of a gravel bike race he knew he couldn't win
Gravel racing is unforgiving. UNBOUND Gravel’s premiere event is 200 miles and roughly 10 hours (if you’re fast) across rocks and ruts. Mechanical issues are likely, if not inevitable. And unlike in road racing, there are no team cars to give you a wheel if something goes wrong.
Gravel racers are responsible for their own repairs unless they can find a fellow competitor willing to lend a hand. For the most part, they’re on their own.
Trek-Segafredo’s Kiel Reijnen learned that lesson the hard way. Just under 30 miles into the race, he broke a wheel while riding through a technical section within a crowded lead group. He tried to repair the wheel, and fashioned a splint, but the quick fix only lasted a kilometer and a half before the bike became unrideable again.
So with roughly 170 miles to go — and still nearly 40 miles until the first checkpoint — Reijnen started running. In his socks. With hope for a podium long dashed. (Click here to watch Reijnen’s full reaction immediately following his race.)
“I was clever enough at one point to realize I could stick my insoles inside my socks, and they gave me some barrier between the rocks and my feet. But it was brutal and I don’t really know what I was thinking,” Reijnen said Monday. “I mean when the wheel first failed, I thought I could limp there. And then when it really catastrophically failed shortly thereafter, I just told myself that if I ran steady maybe I would make it. I was clearly lying to myself, but I tried anyway.”
According to his Wahoo computer, Reijnen covered 19.7 miles in a total time of 3:23 and moving time of 2:57. He forgot to turn stop recording his ride until the van that had picked him had also stopped for another rider, so he likely ran just under 18 miles, hoping that along the way another competitor with mechanical issues might be able to lend him a new wheel.
For the data inclined, here’s what his run looked like:
Initially, Reijnen put the bike on his shoulder as he ran, before eventually bending the wheel straight enough so he could roll the bike. After roughly two and a half hours, when he had fallen behind the last place rider and reality dawned that he wouldn’t have enough water to safely get to the checkpoint (much less finish ahead of the cutoff time) Reijnen realized he had to leave the race.
“My first instinct was just, ‘I don’t care what happens, I’m going to figure out a way to finish,'” Reijnen said. “I also said at the beginning of the day that things happen out there and everybody ends up with a story, and I just felt an obligation to give my all before I threw in the towel, to honor the race and also to represent the spirit of gravel racing.”
I just felt an obligation to give my all before I threw in the towel, to honor the race and also to represent the spirit of gravel racing.
- Kiel Reijnen
Reijnen was disappointed that he couldn’t earn a result that reflected his capability, but the adversity did give him a unique opportunity to see and interact with the full spectrum of UNBOUND’s participants. More than 900 riders took the start line for the 200-mile race, and the group at the front was very different from the one at the back.
“I think the most positive moment of my day was being that far behind and seeing all the people who are really at the back of the race, and their mentality,” Reijnen said. “Every single one of them offered me help. There was just a level of camaraderie amongst that group that reminded me why gravel racing is special.”
Gravel racing is still a burgeoning sport, but it has separated itself among cycling disciplines because of its emphasis on inclusivity, sportsmanship and self-sufficiency. Above all, races like UNBOUND are about achieving personal goals and generating memories. Prior to the race, Reijnen phrased his goal as thus: “The first question I hope that I get asked, or that I would want to ask somebody at UNBOUND, isn’t, ‘What place did you come in?’ It’s, ‘How did it go out there? What happened?’”
As a professional athlete, results matter to Reijnen. But as consolation prizes go, having an inspiring story to tell is pretty good, especially while competing in a discipline that is still solidifying its identity.
Saturday was perhaps the biggest day yet in gravel racing’s young life. Reijnen said the nervous energy at the line was “palpable” for the first UNBOUND in two years. And on that big day, Reijnen’s example of perseverance reinforced the traits that make gravel racing so fast growing and beloved.
There are few sports in or out of the cycling ecosystem where how you play matters so much. Reijnen proved that, and now he’s hungry for another chance in 2022.
I am really determined to go back and have a different outcome. And I hope the same for all the other people who had tough days.
- Kiel Reijnen
“That’s the beauty of sports, right? If you get it wrong, you get another shot, generally speaking,” Reijnen said. “So I am really determined to go back and have a different outcome. And I hope the same for all the other people who had tough days, or didn’t achieve their goals that they also feel like they’re inspired to go back and try again.
“I think that will be a good lesson going forward that, no matter what happens in the race, you can still be positive.”