Bound for Unbound XL

Bound for Unbound XL

On Friday June 2nd, 2023, Kansas’s Flint Hills will be the backdrop for the gravel biking event known now as Unbound Gravel. The original 200-mile race debuted in 2006 and has since grown to include  Junior, 25-mile, 50-mile, 100-mile, 200-mile and XL categories. The XL race, entailing a 350-mile grind through rural Kansas in temperatures that can exceed 100-degrees Fahrenheit, is the longest of all the events and kicked off for the first time in 2018. Finishing is its own achievement, and standing on the podium is a laurel many pro endurance riders dream of. For GU Energy Labs’s Yuri Hauswald, this dream became a reality in the first year of the XL, where he placed second. Hauswald won the 200-mile race in 2015 and will have competed for a total of seven years at Unbound after this year’s race concludes. 

When GU athlete Jack Thompson—who completed his mission to ride 1 million vertical meters in 2022 (and Everesting once a week while doing so)—mentioned to Hauswald  that he would be signing up for XL, they both agreed that a conversation was in order. For Hauswald, there was an opportunity to pass on his extensive knowledge of Unbound and how to plan for one of the more grueling gravel races being hosted. For Thompson, this chat was a chance to learn from the best about how to prepare for the logistics of such a long, hot, and potentially muddy race. Here’s what they discussed.

Hauswald: Why Unbound? Why 350 miles in the Flint Hills?

Thompson: Like I said, I love pushing myself. I haven't really done anything where I've competed against other people for a long time because for me, I get enjoyment out of setting a goal and completing it myself. But this year I'm doing something different. I'm having a bit of a break from the super extreme stuff before 2024. And perhaps that's a story for another article. There's a big goal in 2024, so I thought this year, let's do some things where I can ride with other people and have some fun with it. And I'd heard that the event in Kansas was a good one. You as a bit of a gravel icon won the event back in the day. So I thought, why not come to the US and get stuck in some gravel?

Hauswald: I love how you downplay 350 miles as not being super gnarly. Dude, you're twisted (laughs).

Thompson: The scary thing is, I haven't been on a gravel bike for over a year. And I've got one here, but I'm off to Japan on Monday, so I'm only going to have a month to prepare on the gravel.

Hauswald: Dude, you'll be fine. You just dial in your tires, your air pressure. Do you have any questions for me about XL?

Thompson: What are three bits of advice coming into Unbound that you think would help me prepare?

Hauswald: The first thing, and I tell this to everyone, particularly somebody of your athletic background, is that you are capable of quite a bit, and you will definitely finish the event if you don't have a mechanical or a physical mishap. The second thing is that Casey's is going to be your friend. That's going to be your oasis of hydration and food. That's the convenience store out in the Flint Hills. They have really good greasy pizza. They have egg sandwiches and stuff like that.

There are the little things you can do for XL to be efficient with your time. Have small bill denominations so when you go into the store, you're not needing a lot of change. I know people who go in with the $20, buy a whole bunch of stuff and just throw the 20 down and leave and not want the change back because they want to get out of there quick. You have 350 miles so it's arguable that two minutes or whatever isn't really going to affect you. But I do know from my experience that the front group of three or four of us were pretty darn quick rolling through Casey's. There was no dilly dallying. 

Maybe fill the bottles with ice because they have ice machines if it's hot. It was super hot the year I did it. Topping off with water, maybe grabbing a few snacks that are outside of the sports nutrition realm. You know this, having done so many big events that you need to mix up sports nutrition and real food. You could do it all on sports nutrition but at some point your stomach's just going to be like, “Nope. Gimme some other things please.” So knowing what those things are is good. I carried way more nutrition than I needed. I'm a huge fan of the GU Energy Labs Roctane drink mix. I can go hundreds of miles on that, but I carried too many of those with me. So I was carrying around extra weight that I didn't need. That's something you and I can refine when you lay out your gear Thursday before the race. We can look and I can maybe give you some insights. Also, no joke, have that mud stick—a mud stick to clean your tires and brake bosses is key to keeping your hands clean. It's very likely you will experience mud at some point in your race.

Also, the race has gotten a lot faster. The year after I won, Ted King showed up and there was a freaking tectonic shift in horsepower. You'll be out there rubbing elbows with Ted. This is one of those situations where you may want to match their pace a little bit, but you have to realize it's a super long day and anything can happen. You just need to fall back into what you know you can do.

Being able to mitigate or deal with whatever mother nature throws at you, like wearing sun sleeves that you could put water on to cool you down. I've had heat exhaustion and been in the hospital too many times, so when I competed in Unbound XL, I had to really keep in mind covering the back of my neck with something cool like a bandana. You have probably utilized little tricks like that when you've done your Everesting that can keep your core temp down to a manageable level.

Also being super proficient with tire plugs is key—Dynaplugs are your friend. Flats are going to happen. It's not if it's when, and how many you may get. This is the type of situation where you want to run a tougher, heavier tire. I air on the side of heft knowing that I have a little bit more protection there.

And then it's the little things like making sure your computer's going to be able to run for 23 hours or whatever. You know, having the course dialed in because there are no course markings out there. Just little things that can put your mind at ease are really important.

The last thing would be to make sure you take in the beauty of it. Don't have your head down the whole time. It's going to probably be one of the more unique landscapes that you've ever ridden in. And remember to smile and enjoy it. So often, we get so bogged down and focused and in the pain cave and we forget to embrace the moment and enjoy it. But your race will be way more racy than mine was for sure. Just knowing the talent that's showing up, it's a lot faster than it was in 2018. So that just comes down to you knowing what kind of pace you can or can't hold.

Thompson: I'm just going to come in as a dark horse.

Hauswald: Oh, definitely. And that's the other thing. Anything can happen out there. Like anything and everything can happen. I'm assuming you're also pretty comfortable riding at night. I love riding at night having done a lot of 24-hour solo mountain bike events and the year I did Unbound, there were fireflies out there and it was magic.

Thompson: I'm excited. It's my first race in forever. It's all different. I feel like a newbie again, but I'm sort of excited because of that.

Hauswald: What about your lighting system?

Thompson: I've got a big exposure light on the front.

Hauswald: Those are the best. That's what I used. They have good battery life. I ran two lights but one was on my helmet and it was purely backup in case my front one went out. you know. It was the length of a pen but a little bit thicker—like a hotdog. And it was super lightweight and I had it on my helmet in case my front went. If that light goes out, that puts you in a weird spot out there.

I was super nervous. I nearly declined the invite when I got it. It was Rebecca Rusch and Jay Petervary who talked me into doing that. I wasn’t scared of the physicality of it, but I was scared of the places you go emotionally when you ride for that long. I wasn't sure I was gonna be capable of peeling back that many layers of the onion. But I'm super proud and stoked that I did it and got through it and ended up second behind Matt Acker, who's a tremendous rider. I look back on that day very fondly and I'm proud of that effort. Like I said at the very outset, you definitely have it in you to get it done. I think you'll surprise yourself out there with what you're able to do and how fun it is and how beautiful it is out there.

Thompson: I'm looking forward to getting in the GU house as well. Team GU.

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