Unbound Gravel XL 2022: Race Report from winner William Harrison
Distance: 352.6 Miles
Speed: 17.8 mph average moving speed / 17.25 mph average speed (including all stops)
Time: 19:50:15 moving time, 20:17:27 official finish time
Average Power: 184W
Normalized Power: 212W
Kilojoules: 13,131 kJ
Nutrition I started with on my bike/body:
Fluid set-up was 2 x 1L bottles on bike plus 2L hydration backpack, so started with four liters and picked-up the rest of the water for mixing powder nutrition on the course.
14 x Skratch Super Fuel 1L, 400 calories = 5,600 calories
4 x Skratch Hydration 1L (2 servings / liter), 320 calories = 640 calories
4 x SIS Gels (2 x Double Expresso + 2 x Caffeine Citrus), 90 calories = 360 calories
8 x Honey Stinger Waffle (Vanilla, Chocolate, Cinnamon), 150 calories = 1,200 calories
Calorie sub-total = 7,800 (and 100% of the above was consumed)
Nutrition I picked up and consumes along the way:
1 x 12 oz Coke = 140 calories
2 x 12 oz Chocolate milk, 250 calories = 500 calories
2 x 20oz Redbull, 270 calories = 540 calories
Calories sub-total = 1,180
Calorie total = 8,980 (over 20 hours equates to 450 calories / hour)
Fluid total = 20.25 liters (or 5.35 gallons! – kind of nuts, but still right on 1L / hour)
Frame: Trek Checkpoint SLR 2022, 54cm
Wheelset: ENVE G23Tires: Specialized Pathfinder Pro 42mm / Stan’s No-Tubes Race Sealant / 31/32 PSI
Groupset: SRAM Red eTap ASX 48/35 x 10-33
Handlebar: Zipp Service Course XPLR SL-70, 42cm (aluminum) + Zipp Vuka Clip-on Aero bars
Stem: Zipp Service Course SL 110mm (aluminum)
Saddle: Fizik Antares VS (been on this one for 10 years now, just works for me!)
Pedals: Shimano XTGPS Head unit: Garmin 1030 + spare battery pack in top tube bag connect via usb cable
Lights: Exposure lights six-pack (mounted out front of stem) + Diablo MK 12 (mounted on helmet)
Bags: Apidura Racing Long Top Tube Bag (2L) + Racing Saddle Pack (5L)
Accessories / tackle kit:
4x Pirelli Smartubes + 6x CO2 canisters + 2x CO2 nozzle heads + 6x tire boots + mini pump
2x tire levers + wolf tooth master link combo pliers
1x spare tire - Pathfinder S-Works, 42mm (Thanks Josh!)
2x chain quick links + 10 links of extra chain
1x crank brothers multi-tool with chain breaker
12x Stan’s darts + applicator tool + 6x tire boots + 2x mini super glue + 6 bacon strips
1x Hutchinson Fast’air tubeless inflation fix canister
6x mini chamois butt’r
Squirt mini chain lube + small rag
Rain jacket and arm warmers (used the arm warmers overnight)
Garmin Fenix 6 GPS Watch (for back-up navigation)
Part 1: The Big Group – Miles 0 - 60 (100+ riders down to ~15)
Part 2: The Small Group – Miles 60 - 270 (12 riders down to 5)
Part 3: The Race – Miles 270 – 350 (5 riders down to 1)
Part 1: The Big Group – Miles 0 - 60
3:00pm mass start from downtown Emporia was really neat. A ton of the other participants and spectators were gathered around to send us off. My nerves were pretty high for the 3-4 days before, so it was a huge relief to just get the wheels rolling. After a short pace car lead out of town, we hit the gravel and left civilization behind. The group was obviously huge and there would be 50+ riders in the front group for the first 30+ miles.
I wasn’t in a position to see it happen, but less than five miles in three guys went off the front. I really couldn’t believe it, and didn’t yet have a sense for who in the group was going to be there after the first few hours, but given the three guys were already out of sight and we had 340+ miles to go, I didn’t consider bridging the gap as the group was still rolling a decent pace.
I’d later learn that it was Marius Karteusch “The German” (who would go on to get 2nd place) that made the move, and Chris Mehlman (who would finish 4th) had gone with him plus one other rider. In my head I figured these guys knew what they were doing, were there to win, and wanted to rip a super-fast time. I was content to give them the top three steps on the podium if they were going to take it from the start.
Flats and mechanicals started almost immediately throughout the group, and as I’d do for the rest of the race, I was super focused on line choice and staying tuned-in to the status of my equipment.
At mile 40 the group was down to about 25 people, and I was getting a better sense for who some of the people were, how they were riding, and the strength of the group (which felt incredibly strong). The proliferation of skinsuits, aero socks, and no hydration packs had me thinking that a lot of these guys knew what they were doing, wanted to go fast, and from everything I could sense, brought the legs with them to get it done.
The first gas station stop (of six in total) was at mile 60, and I knew from researching prior years races that there’s always a shake-up at the gas stations stops and it’s a place you can get dropped (at worst), or at least put yourself in a position to have to fight back to the group and waste energy if you take too long or don’t get in and out before most of the group.
Around mile 45 with the group of 25 (three still off the front) we hit one of the biggest “climbs” of the day yet. You can still see the top from the bottom of the climb, but I knew it was long enough (probably a 3-5 minute effort) that the pace would slow and we’d settle-in to the “climb”. I had been riding very conservatively for the 2+ hours prior and felt that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to set tempo up the climb in an attempt to whittle down the group prior to arriving at the gas station. This was only a ~3 minute effort at 315 watts, but I kept it rolling really fast over the backside of the climb and a few more minutes of tempo was good enough to split the group with about 10-12 guys making the split. We rolled turns for the next 15 miles and as we were approaching the gas station we caught the three guys who had been off the front.
Somehow I was first in and out of the gas station (total stop time was only 3 minutes) and when the group re-combined on the road there were about 12 or so people and we started rolling turns.
The German attacked the group shortly thereafter and we all just let him go solo this time (again in my head I figured this guy is going for the win – and if he was going to do the next 280 miles solo, he deserved the win).
The average speed for this first section was 18.1 mph, avg. HR of 146, and average power of 195 watts.
Part 2: The Small Group – Miles 60 - 265
There was great cohesion in the group of 12 or so and with The German off the front no one really seemed interested in attacking or making an attempt to bridge the gap.
My energy levels were great and the legs were warmed up by this point with zero signs of fatigue setting in. We were doing a pace that definitely felt like “all-day sustainable” for me, so my confidence levels were high feeling like I would be able to stay with the front group even if the pace were to increase – which seemed unlikely.
The landscapes were incredible as we went into the evening and the sunset was amazing. I continued to focus on line choice during the frequent technical sections and chunky gravel sectors. I was consuming fluids and calories consistently and the energy levels, legs, and stomach all continued to feel really good.
We didn’t turn our lights on until it was nearly completely dark (a bit after 9pm), but when we did it felt like we had instantly entered a new phase of the race, night riding! I’ve never raced at night/with lights before (besides the world famous COCAC515 ride) so I wasn’t sure how things would go, especially being in a group. I was a bit worried that some of the more experienced 24 hour off-road races might start turning the screws at this point, but that didn’t happen and we just continued rolling turns with everyone sharing the workload pretty evenly.
There were 2-3 guys who were talking longer and harder pulls and I made note of this as these guys seemed really strong (but they were also definitely spending a bit more energy than I was interested in with 10+ hours to go).
Through the night the group of 12 or so would be whittled down by mechanicals, rest-stops, and probably legs for a few guys.
There were gas station stops at miles 120, 180 and 235. Each of these looked pretty similar for me – a quick dismount and run into the store straight to the big 2 liter water bottles, snag a chocolate milk and red bull too, throw a $20 at the cashier, thank them for being there and then out the door back to my bike where I would mix the Super fuel in my bottles (I had zip lock bags in my back pockets with super fuel mix for 2 bottles and Hydration mix for the hydration pack), and mix the hydration pack too.
After focusing on mixing my beverages, then I’d look up and try and assess what the rest of the group was doing. This would typically give me 1-2 minutes to do things like clean my glasses, clean by bike, lube my chain, make sure my lights were in the right setting and that my Garmin was charging / had enough battery left. The redbull and chocolate milk came along for the ride in my jersey pockets and I’d down them during a smooth segment of the road and mentally used these a “treats” and would try to tell myself that they’d give me a boost!
At the third gas station stop at mile 180, around 1:00am in the morning, we found The German standing there trying to fix his front light (not sure what was wrong with it). So, now the group was all back together, and there were only six of us left rolling out of this rest stop.
It may have been because it was dark, but my sense was the most technical terrain we went through all day was throughout the night. Around 3:00am, ~ mile 210, we were navigating a very technical descent (at pretty high speeds) when the guy in front of me had a hard crash. We waited as a group for him at the bottom of the descent and saw his light moving after a few minutes.
He rolled up to us covered in blood with his jersey shredded, and told us that he was OK and was able to ride, but likely wouldn’t be able to hold the pace with the front group. This brought the pack down to five.
Everyone was rolling steady turns (with The German still pulling the hardest/longest as well as Chris Mehlman (who would finish 4th) pulling hard/long). Ernie Lechuga (who would finish 3rd) was the only one not pulling turns. He was sitting on the back of the pack and was telling us that his handlebars had come loose (although that didn’t seem to be the case as he wasn’t attempting to fix his bike) and we all thought he was playing us. This was the first indication that cooperation in the group would inevitably break down at some point.
Each time I was at the front of the group I focused on picking the best line, keeping the speed high, staying as aero as possible, but also doing a minimal / manageable effort so that the group thought I was contributing my fair share, and hopefully the cohesion would stay high, but at the same time trying to save my legs as much as possible. My sense for the workload was 30% The German, 25% Chris Mehlman, 20% me (perfectly doing my fair share of course), 15% Mat Stephens, 10% Ernie Lechuga.
At some point in the night I miss-shifted my front chain ring and bent my front derailleur a bit (it was now hitting my crank when I was in the big chain ring and I was worried it would get ripped off), this effectively force me to stay in my small chaining (35) upfront. I could put power down up to a speed of about 25 mph before spinning out. I was a bit worried about this, but told myself it would be enough gears (either way, it’s what I would have to work with).
First light was around 5:45am after ~260 miles and nearly 16 hours in the saddle. The sun was a welcome sight and brought new life to everyone. At the same time you could sense that everyone was now thinking about the finish and how the rest of the day would play out. With five in the groups I knew everyone was thinking, “I’ve got a podium place, but which one?!” And with less than 100 miles to go it was a bit easier to grasp that we were going to finish and had a more manageable distance to complete before the finish.
The average speed for this 205 mile segment (which was mostly in the dark) was 17.6 mph, average HR of 123 and average power of 177 watts.
Part 3: The Race – Miles 265 – 350
After taking in the sunrise, our next gas station stop was going to be at mile 265 (only 85 miles to go after that with one more stop at mile 310). The five of us rolled into the gas station parking lot and were dismounting our bikes when out of the corner of my eye I saw The German turning around and launching a nuclear attack heading back out on course. Mat and Ernie didn’t hesitate to immediately remount their bikes and set-off in pursuit. I hesitated for a moment (as I really wanted to stop and refuel) and Chris had already dismounted his bike and was halfway through the front door of the store. I quickly decided that this was a critical moment and set off the catch-up with Mat and Ernie.
When I caught Mat and Ernie I took a turn on the front, but when I pulled off the pace immediately came out of the group and it was pretty clear that they were not interested in making a concerted effort to close the gap, which at this point had quickly grown to nearly a kilometer and it was clear The German was likely making his final move for the win.
Chris reconnected with us after about 15 minutes and he was quite frustrated that we had not stopped as a group (gave me the sense he was hurting pretty bad / needed to refuel). At this point, Ernie and Mat stopped taking pulls and Chris and I were sharing the entire workload.
I knew that Ernie was playing us all as he had previously closed some gaps and made some efforts that showed that he had some legs, but I wasn’t sure where Mat and Chris’ legs were, but I knew Mat was a very experienced ultra-endurance racer and had been conserving his energy so I figured he was preparing to attack or make his move at some point.
After Mat and Ernie not pulling for a good 30 minutes, it was clear the race was on and that our friendly ride had come to an end.
I was able to get Ernie on my wheel and put him on front after one of my turns. Mat was on the back of the group and as I drifted back, he opened the wheel to Chris indicating for me to take it while he continued to sit on the back. I stopped pedaling, didn’t take Chris’ wheel and signaled to Mat to take it if he wanted. The one-bike length gap quickly became 25 meters and it was clear that Mat and I were now playing a game of chicken. I told him I wanted him to beat the guys up the road and that I didn’t have the legs and was just riding for fun (hehe). The gap was now about 500 meters and we were trading very short, very soft pulls and the gap was continuing to go out. I was expecting Chris to jump me at any moment (as I figured he wasn’t content with 4/5th place).
Ernie and Chris were seemingly not attempting to capitalize on the gap and the gap was only due to Mat and I now going quite slow.
As Mat took a turn, I drifted a few meters off his wheel and loaded my wattage bazooka. Mat had frustrated me a good bit throughout the entire ride and it was time to make him pay.
BOOOM! I unloaded my sprint (only 550 watt peak power – lol!) and laid down a 400 watt effort for a minute. I glanced over my shoulder after the initial sprint as I settled into my aerobars and saw that Mat was in the saddle (i.e. not sprinting after me) and the gap had forced him into the wind. He hadn’t given up, but it was clear he did not have the snap in the legs to be able to respond to my effort.
I kept a high tempo focusing on being as aero and fast as possible as I closed the gap to Ernie and Chris. Note at this point on the course we were heading predominantly north with a headwind out of the south.
The gap back to Mat had continued to open as I approach Ernie and Chris. I kept the pace high as I rolled by them and told them to join me and said they could thank me later for dropping Mat ;)
By luck, just at this moment, I looked up the road and we were approaching several massive stair-step rollers. Chris took one or two turns with me, and Ernie assumed his prior role of not taking any pulls.
My legs felt great at this point and after quickly dropping Mat I thought I might have a chance to do the same to Ernie and / or Chris.
I set a high tempo up the climb and Chris quickly dropped back. Ernie, unsurprisingly, was still on my wheel.
I set the highest tempo I could without risking a redline / potentially cramping effort and put down 327 watts for 4.5 minutes up this climb. Halfway up Ernie lost the wheel and I squeezed the throttle a bit more and prepared to go as fast as possible down the backside of the climb to solidify the gap or at least keep Ernie in the wind for as long as possible. My position was ideal as all three guys behind me had gaps between them so they were all in the wind and not able to work together.
As I crested the top of the climb I saw a person standing on the left side of the road. IT WAS THE FREAKING GERMAN!!! I could barely believe my eyes as he’d been out of sight for the past 20 miles.
He said he was glad to see me because he was tired and I told him to get back on his bike and get on my wheel so that we could work together to solidify the gap (of course he had no idea I had just blasted up).
He quickly told me that he had blown himself up (apparently doing 400 watts for 30 minutes after he attacked us at the gas station) and that he was feeling low on energy. I was willing to work with him (as I really wanted to beat Mat and Ernie), and was happy to see how it played out between me and The German because he had ridden so strong all day.
We worked together, but the course was quite hilly at this section and while I would push ~250-300 watts on these climbs The German was unable to hold my wheel even at this pace. He even asked me to “keep it at 250” and I worked with him because I wanted to build a gap going into the last rest stop as I was down to 2 stinger waffles, a redbull in my pocket, and an unknown (but dwindling) amount of hydration mix in my hydration pack (didn’t know if I had one liter or one sip left), and with 50 plus miles to go I knew I still needed a good amount of energy to manage through the next ~3 hours.
We chatted strategy about the next gas station stop and reached a consensus not to stop as we didn’t know how big the gap was (although as best we could tell we were out of sight of any chaser(s), but didn’t know if that was a three minute gap or a 15 minute gap). The German didn’t want to risk it, but I knew I was playing with fire in terms of my energy stores if we weren’t going to stop and refuel.
After rolling past the final gas station with 40 miles to go I knew I was fully committed to making it with what I had one me (which didn’t feel like much and I wasn’t sure it would be enough).
I was doing most of the work at this point as I felt we were going too slowly when The German was on the front. On each rise the gap opened more and more and there was one very steep climb where The German had to dismount and walk. I wasn’t confident in my ability to go away alone for the remaining 30 miles (especially given my fuel situation), but amazingly the legs still felt good and the tailwind was helping me keep the speed high.
As we rolled along and the gap opened up yet again on one of the many climbs, I told myself that I couldn’t risk going any slower and didn’t want to take The German to the line. My instincts kicked in and I made the decision to GO FOR IT! I didn’t have to attack, but I made the decision to not ease up to let The German get back to my wheel and I just set off at the highest tempo I thought I could sustain for the final couple hours (which at this point was about 200 watts on the flats and 250-275 on the hills).This pretty quickly resulted in a meaningful gap and soon I was out of sight! I couldn’t believe I was off the front alone with 30 miles to go and was starting to think I had the win in the bag if I could just avoid getting a flat tire!
I got some great texts coming through on my Garmin head unit at this point. I knew my friends were tracking my spot tracker and the texts of encouragement really kept me going (thanks Keith, Ben, James, et. al.)!
The adrenaline was pumping and I used it to fuel me for the next hour or so. I chugged what remained of the redbull with about 45 minutes to go and at this point, I was 100% out of fuel and hydration.
I did start to get a little bonky with about 7 miles to go. It became increasingly hard to focus my eyes and I was having trouble picking a line. All I could see was the brown strip of road sandwiched between the two sides of green grass. I got very nervous with my navigation with less than 5 miles to go as I couldn’t see the town and I felt like the course was taking me in circles. Just then, actual course signage started to appear with arrows and I pulled off the gravel for the final time onto pavement. Looking behind me and seeing no one with only two miles to go I rolled through the final section of the course that takes you through the Emporia State University campus and knew at this point I was going to win the dang thing!
Just then the sky opened up and it began to rain. I turned down the final finishing shoot, sat up on my bike and put my hands in the air. Literally a surreal moment.
The average speed for the final 85 mile segment was 18.3 mph, average HR of 121 and average power of 197 watts.
Keep the dream alive my friends and ENJOY THE RIDE!!!
- William Harrison
Thank you to all of my friends, family, fans, and supporters, this would not have happened without all of the love, support and encouragement from all of you, in no particular order:
Charlotte Cycling Community (one of the best/strongest squads in the game!!!)
The Schweppe Group of Wells Fargo
Bicycle Sport Charlotte
Cameron, Eli, Kyle and Kelly NavarroMike Tam, Alan Starnes, Rally Killian, Andrew Muller, James Bishop, Ben Cooley, Josh Moore, Keith Mrochek, Mark Brown, Mat Aikins
Every person who was a training partner with me doing long, cold, dumb rides this past winter
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