I wasn’t looking for a new a new cycling love but that’s usually when IT finds you, right? I’m still not sure if it was the serenity of the remote roads, the expanse of the tall prairie grass, the punchy little hills that rolled off into the horizon, or the chunks of menacing flint that littered the roads, but it was love at first ride when I first set tires on it. I’m talking about gravel, endless miles of it, and I fell head over heels for it that fateful day back in 2013 when I completed my first DK 200 (now Unbound Gravel) and have returned to this iconic event every year since. I’m proud to say that in that time I’ve won the race, earned the 5-time finisher Gravel Grail, and finished 2nd in the inaugural DK XL, a 350 mile self-supported ride.
There are no National Parks in Kansas, there's no BLM land, and there certainly aren't any mountains, so gravel gives people a chance to see the landscapes just a few miles outside of town and get away from it all. And the landscape that’s outside Emporia, KS, the birthplace of the DK 200 (now Unbound Gravel), well, it’s stunning. Yeah, I know, most folks don’t put “stunning” and “Kansas” in the same sentence, but those people haven’t experienced the geography that makes this part of the state unique and beautiful. The Flint Hills, also known as Bluestem Pastures or Blue Stem Hills, are a region of eastern Kansas and north central Oklahoma that contain the largest intact tallgrass prairie in North America. Less than four percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains—and most of it is in the Flint Hills of Kansas. One of the other distinguishing features of this region, and the bane of those who dare to ride bikes through it, is the sharp flint rock that has survived eons of erosion and has prevented the tall grass prairie from being plowed under for farmland.
It wasn’t just the racing/riding that I found so endearing, it was the local community that welcomed me with a warm embrace. In my ten years of riding gravel in the Midwest, I’ve experienced the depth of Midwestern hospitality. The greater gravel community must have followed the example of the good Midwestern ethos, as positive vibes and kindness permeate this event. I mean there’s no better testament to this phenomenon than the Unbound finish line, which takes over downtown Emporia and brings together the families and friends of the racers and pairs them with curious locals who are genuinely interested in the raucous celebration of human achievement. And if you really want to experience some finish line magic, make sure you’re there at midnight, when the true heroes of gravel are digging their deepest to beat that 2:00 a.m. cutoff time.
Speaking of finish lines, my attendance at this year’s Unbound was definitely not a given considering that just 21 weeks ago I broke my leg while backcountry skiing. Heck, I’m just two months off crutches and have a left leg that’s atrophied significantly, so just being able to walk again, almost normally, feels like a huge win for me right now. But pedaling a bike, something my doctors didn’t want me doing outside in an uncontrolled environment for at least another month after getting cleared to walk, well, that’s proven to be a bit more challenging. To be totally honest, I pushed back when they suggested I not ride outside and asked for another opinion. I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, or knuckle-headed about pushing the limits of my recovery, I just know my body well enough that I felt I could ride without doing any damage to my leg. Yes, wrecking again that early in my recovery would’ve been disastrous, but they eventually acquiesced and said I could pedal for an hour or two outside, so I immediately put a plan in place.
My early pedal strokes weren’t pretty, but I began by doing short road rides on a quiet stretch of country road, a place I know well and one that sees very little traffic. I would drive out to the start, gingerly throw my bad leg over my bike, and cautiously pedal a few miles out and back, totally focused on engaging my left leg, grinning from ear to ear the whole time. I couldn’t get out of the saddle due to the weakness, and some pain, but at least I was turning circles and making incremental progress. Eventually, I began extending the mileage, and then I started riding from my house as my confidence and strength began to return.
The next big boost to my recovery was attending Serena Gordon’s inaugural three day Special Blend Women’s Gravel Camp in Dufur, OR, as a coach. It was my first time back on gravel, so I volunteered to be the “party in back,” the caboose, and had so much fun making new friends and imparting knowledge, all while experiencing some amazing gravel roads. The camp culminated in the Gravel Gorge Grinder, a local Oregon race, where I was able to pedal a whopping 67 miles.
The final step in my plan was attending Campo Gravelvino, a four-day mixed terrain camp hosted in Paso Robles, CA, that explored some of the most amazing gravel roads I’ve had the pleasure of riding in my career. It was here, while stacking nearly 160 miles in the span of four days with some great company, that I finally felt like my riding mojo was beginning to show itself again. Yeah baby!!
Love can make us do some foolish things, that’s for sure, so does that mean I’m tackling the 200 miler at Unbound on June 4th? Nope. This year I’m just grateful to be in a position to return to the event that helped redefine my cycling career and have made the decision to ride the 50 miler with some dear friends. Does the shorter distance mean that the finish line will be any less sweet for me? Considering where I was 21 weeks ago, just getting to the start line of Unbound, and completing any distance, will feel like a win to me.